What is the ‘Kidney’ in Traditional Chinese medicine? A Modern Interpretation

In both traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and western medicine, the kidneys have many functions. 


  1. The Kidney is the root of Qi and the foundation of Yin and Yang [1,2]


In TCM, all the bodily systems rely on the Kidney for Qi, for the energy to function. It also maintains a balance between the Yin and Yang energies in the body, and within each organ system. For example, if the Kidney has become deficient in Yin energy, this will affect the Yin aspect of other organs. In this case, some organ systems may seem unable to ‘switch off’ or find the balance between functioning and being overactive. Similarly, if the Kidney is deficient in Yang energy, this will affect the Yang aspect of other organs. Some organ systems will then seem sluggish, unable to find the energy to function properly. The Kidney is typically the root of many imbalances. 


In western medicine, the adrenal glands are known to sit on top of the kidneys and secrete stress hormones; cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline).[3] The body has a natural daily rhythm of cortisol secretion, a peak in the morning gives the body energy to wake, dropping to its lowest during the night.[4] When under stress, epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted, causing a surge of energy; increased heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose metabolism – the ‘fight or flight’ response.[3] The kidneys control the homeostasis of the body by determining our response to stress, detecting and adjusting blood pressure, balancing the levels of water in the body, and maintaining the normal pH of the blood.[3]


The kidneys continuously calibrate and regulate our bodies to adapt to our internal and external environments. This could be likened to the Yin and Yang balance described in the traditional texts. The ability of the kidneys to provide us with the energy to remain alert, and provide us with a boost of energy when we need it, could be what the authors of the traditional texts observed and the reason they labelled the Kidney as the root of Qi.



2. The Kidney stores Essence ‘Jing’  

3. The Kidney dominates water metabolism 

4. The Kidney receives Qi from the air ‘Kong Qi’ 

5. The Kidney produces marrow to nourish the Brain 

6. The Kidney governs Bones 

7. The Kidney manufactures Blood

8. The Kidney manifests in the head hair

9. The Kidney opens into the ear

10. The Kidney houses the will-power ‘Zhi’

11. The Kidney controls fluids


  1. Ni M. The yellow emperor’s classic of medicine: a new translation of the neijing suwen with commentary. Shambhala Publications; 1995. 
  2. Maciocia G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine E-Book: A Comprehensive Text. Elsevier Health Sciences; 2015. 155-157 p
  3. John Hopkins Medicine [Internet]. The Johns Hopkins University, The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and Johns Hopkins Health System; 2020. Adrenal Glands [Date cited 07/04/2020]. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/adrenal-glands
  4. You and your hormones [Internet]. Society of endocrinology. Cortisol; Jan 2019 [Date cited 07/04/2020]. Available from: https://www.yourhormones.info/ormones/cortisol/