Food as Medicine
TIME OF THE KIDNEY
Noni and the Kidney Qi
By Sudha Hamilton
Published in WellBeing Magazine
In our western health culture the kidneys are perhaps one of the most invisible and possibly neglected bodily organs. These two vaguely bean shaped organs are located near our spine at the small of the back, just below the liver and spleen. Responsible, in the main, for the removal of urea, mineral salts, toxins and other waste products from the blood, they are seemingly behind us and out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps their association with excreting waste has led to a lack of polite conversation about them over the years. The kidney is not, at this juncture in time, the somewhat sexy organ that the liver has been of late, with its infamous association with drugs, alcohol and partying. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) however prescribes far greater influence for the kidneys upon our physical health and indeed our lives.
Western medicine focuses very much on the diseases that affect the kidney and the field is called nephrology, from the Greek “nephros” for kidney. Renal failure and dialysis are possibly terms and conditions that you have heard of and refer to in the first instance – “renal” Latin for kidney and their failure through disease to remove wastes from the blood; dialysis involves filtering the blood outside of the body assisted by a machine and is used as a means of keeping those with renal failure alive before and if a donor for a kidney transplant can be found. Kidney diseases can be congenital, meaning from birth, or acquired and although most of us are born with two kidneys we can function with one working kidney.
The fully functioning kidney is made up of more than a million nephrons, which are the units that actually filter the blood. Consisting of a renal corpuscle and a renal tubule, which are an intertwined blood vessel and urine collecting tube, a chemical exchange takes place between them as waste materials and water leave the blood and enter the urinary system. Your kidneys are also measuring out the minerals and chemicals like sodium, potassium and phosphorus and releasing them back into the blood as needed. They are the prime regulating organs for these vital substances, where too much or too little can be harmful and indeed fatal. In addition to this the kidneys are directly involved in the release of three important hormones: erythropoietin (EPO) which stimulates bone marrow to produce red blood cells; renin which regulates blood pressure; and calcitriol the active form of vitamin D that maintains calcium for bones and for chemical balance within the body.
The greater proportions of kidney diseases damage the nephrons and cause them to lose their filtering capacity. Diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure and high blood pressure is a major factor in diabetics developing kidney problems. Indeed high blood pressure in non-diabetics also ranks as a leading cause of kidney disease, as it damages the small blood vessels in the kidneys. That damage reduces the filtering capacity of the kidneys. If wastes are not being removed and proteins are not being returned back into the blood then you are moving toward renal failure and a variety of health issues before death ensues without medical intervention.
So that is a very basic understanding of kidney function within the western medical framework. The TCM outlook is a far more comprehensive and holistic view and involves more than just the organ itself. A brief definition of TCM being that it is a system of health care that encompasses acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, anmo tuina (remedial massage), qi gong (exercise and breathing), and diet and lifestyle.
TCM assigns the kidney the foundation position among the other organs, as the home of the ‘ancestral chi’ and the root of the yin and yang for the entire body. The kidney stores the vital life essence, and this is produced by the Qi, as it digests food and drink in the stomach and small intestine. According to Chinese Medicine we have a post-haven Qi and a pre-haven Qi, with the former being derived from the food we eat and the air we breathe, and the latter from our parents, perhaps similar to our understanding of our hereditary genes. The kidney in TCM is much more than just renal function, it encompasses the influence of the adrenal glands as well. Kidney energy is divided into kidney yin and kidney yang. Kidney yin refers to the nutritive function of the kidney, body fluids and essential Qi. Kidney yang governs the physiological processes like warming and transforming fluids like hormones. Yin is like the earth or substance that is the body and yang is the life energy that courses through it.
I think that this is a particularly salient example of the difference between the two medical frameworks, with the western medical view only seeing the body & its functioning, but unlike TCM never seeing the life force that runs through the body because it can never measure it or define it under its current scientific rules of evidence. According to the western model early stage kidney disease is very hard to spot with few obvious symptoms and this is perhaps why most information about nephrology focuses on worst case scenarios, leading to dialysis and kidney transplant. The Chinese model allows for earlier detection and indeed kidney tonics form the greater part of TCM herbal remedies. A deficiency of kidney yin means that the body is being run down and not able to maintain its health with too much yang energy showing itself through a flushed complexion, overheating, hypertension, inflammation and the like. Whereas coldness, pale complexion, tiredness, low libido and oedema are indications of a lack of kidney yang.
Ageing in general is seen to be due to declining kidney energy in TCM and will manifest itself as low kidney yang in most cases. The slowing of our metabolism as we age contributes to many of the symptoms like coldness, fatigue, emotional withdrawal, mild depression, frequent urination, loose bowels, memory loss, weak back and legs. Kidney tonics to stimulate yang energy by increasing our metabolic rates and tightening up organ function can delay the onset of many of these conditions. Kidney yang in essence can be seen in the energy lifting secretions of the adrenal medulla, some androgenic hormones secreted by the adrenal cortex, thyroid hormone and growth hormone from the anterior pituitary gland. It is also affected by the release of EPO by cells in the kidneys and to a lesser extent the liver, which stimulates the bone marrow to make erythrocytes. Further symptoms of a kidney yang deficiency are: sensitivity to cold, lack of libido, impotence, sterility, clear urine, dribbling urine, nocturnal emissions, premature ejaculation, oedema of the lower limbs, weak pulse, whitish moist tongue fur.
Morinda officinalis or Noni has a long history of use within TCM and is commonly used as a kidney yang tonic. The roots have been traditionally been employed and Morinda is known as “Bajitian.” Traditionally recognised for its adaptogenic, aphrodisiac, urogenital astringent, analgesic, hypotensive, digestive stimulant and diuretic properties. It provides a tonifying action on the reproductive (sexual), urinary, muscoskeletal and central nervous system functions.
The Morinda plant is a genus of around eighty species and they mainly come from tropical regions. There are seven species found in Australia. Plants can grow from three metre shrubs up to twelve metre trees. It has oval shaped leaves and white flowers that occur in the summer and autumn. These are followed by the fruit, which are edible and have a pungent aroma. The juice of the fruit is considered to have a wide range of medicinal qualities. In recent times, since 1997, Noni juice has become popular in western nations as a health supplement. Studies into the healing benefits of Morinda are now being undertaken by herbal research centres, like Lismore’s Southern Cross University.
The Morinda plant is made up of polysaccharides, which include glucoronic acid, galactose, arabinose and rhamnose, coumarin, medium chain fatty acids, flavone glycosides, sterols ( betta-sistosterol), terpenoids, essential oils, amino acids, vitamin C and potassium. Plus Morindone (yellow dye), alizarin (red dye), rubiadin and a large range of anthraquinones in the roots, bark and leaves. The terpenoids help the body detoxify through their anti-bacterial qualities. The many anti-oxidants within the noni plant like the glycosides provide a defence against free radicals. Scopoletin or coumarin has anti-inflammatory properties. Limonene and anthraquinones have anti-septic value within the body.
Morinda citrifolia (a close relative of Morinda officalis), has been used for centuries by Polynesian healers to treat the respiratory, digestive and immune systems. Likewise it has a strong healing history in India, SE Asia and in our own Northern Australia. Published information on its use by indigenous Australian’s indicate that various groups regarded Morinda citrifolia as “an excellent food and a strong medicine.”
In studies conducted recently at the Southern Cross University, the antioxidant activity of noni juice was assessed to be in a similar range to green tea (with an oxygen radical absorbance capacity ORAC result in the 747 to 1517 level). Professor Wang from the Department of Pathology, UIC College of Medicine, Rockford, Illinois 61107, USA reported on studies conducted on Tahitian noni juice which showed the superoxide anion radicals scavenging activity of Tahitian noni juice to be 2.8 times that of vitamin C, 1.4 times that of Pycnogenol and 1.1 times that of grape seed powder. Also the initial results of cholesterol synthesis inhibition of noni juice are particularly promising. Results reveal that noni juice shows a positive dose response and inhibits cholesterol synthesis. Associate Professor Dr David Leach (Southern Cross University) say’s “The in vitro findings are encouraging, and it is work we would like to repeat”.“In noni’s anti-inflammatory activity scopoletin, quercetin, and ursolic acid were identified as major anti-inflammatory constituents. Since ursolic acid was known to have anti-inflammatory activity, we characterized the mode of action of scopoletin and quercetin.” H. YU, S. Li, M.-T. Huang, and C.-T. Ho. Dept. of Food Science, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey . An antidepressant like effect was also observed in a study conducted by Zhang ZQ, Yuan L, Yang M, Luo ZP, Zhao YM. Division of Psychopharmacology, Beijing Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology. The study observed the antidepressant-like action of the medicinal plant Morinda officinalis in a behavioral swimming test conducted on rats.
There are numerous positive anecdotal reports of noni’s effectiveness in improving vitality, libido, skin condition, hair condition and many of the symptoms related to low kidney yang levels. It is particularly useful for people who have a highly sensitive intestinal tract and who suffer easily from constipation and pain. People who exhibit sluggish metabolism associated with a hypo-thyroid condition also seem to benefit from using noni.
Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza sp.) is another kidney yang tonic ingredient, noted for having cortisone-like action. Glycyrrhizin, a derivative of glycyrrhetinic acid, is chemically very similar to certain adrenalcortical hormones. It is not uncommon for plants to contain hormone-like substances similar to those found in humans. Licorice too has anti-inflammatory properties and these were discovered quite by accident in 1946. When a Dutch physician, F. E. Revers, saw a small-town pharmacist prepare a licorice based remedy for the treatment of gastric ulcers and upon trying it on several of his own patients he found that it worked just fine. In at least half the patients he tested this paste on, the ulcers were nearly gone within a month. Licorice like cortisone, though not as strong, can relieve symptoms of peptic ulcers by inhibiting the inflammatory reactions. Also like cortisone, the regular and excessive use of licorice will produce the oedemic, moon face appearance of Cushing’s syndrome, a condition which can be described as `deficient kidney yang.’ As with corticoid
therapy, licorice in regular and high dosage can cause, elevated potassium levels, resulting in oedema and hypertension. It is, therefore, not recommended for those past the age of sixty five who have a tendency towards renal hypertension.
Rehmannia root, or sheng di huang and/or shu di huang in Chinese, is another very effective ingredient in many kidney tonics. A member of the foxglove family, the root can be used in its raw state as a detoxifying herb that cools the blood in the treatment of wasting fevers. As shu di huang it is cured by soaking and drying the compressed root many times in rice wine, thus warming its influence as a kidney tonic. Like many TCM herbs it can be used in different preparations as both a yin and yang tonic. Rehnammia is said to be the “kidney’s own leading herb.” Promoting kidney function, cooling the blood and bring moisture to dryness. With kidney yin deficiency said to be very common in our modern societies because of the hectic lifestyles. Rehmannia root, taken under the supervision of a trained TCM practitioner, can be of great help in relieving many of the symptoms – like dryness in the scalp, skin, night sweats, frequent urination and dark rings under the eyes.
Siberian Ginseng is a warming TCM kidney yang tonic. The major chemical components of Siberian ginseng are eleuthrosides A-G (phenylpropanoid, sterol,
lignans, isofraxin, carotenoids and coumarins). There is evidence of cortisol like anti-inflammatory activity.
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Appeared in WellBeing Magazine