Seats and sitting are not usually associated with health. In London, in the 1950s, it was discovered that bus drivers died of heart disease, whereas bus conductors, on the same buses, did not. Their age and weight was the same, as was their diet. The only difference was that bus conductors spent all their working day on their feet, while bus drivers sat down. Yet in traditional Chinese medicine there is an organ in the body that is described as the ‘seat of health’ because of its importance for health, longevity, energy, memory, thoughts and mental health. That organ is the kidneys.
Some people of a scientist bent are not going to be convinced by the wisdom of ancient traditions. They need hard facts and here are the hard facts. Every twenty-five minutes an Australian dies from a kidney related disease. Every single year the rate of kidney disease is growing by seven percent. Over the past decade there has been a 130 percent rise in end stage kidney disease. Currently, one in ten Australians have blood markers indicating kidney disease, even though they remain unaware of this silent killer. And it is a silent killer: fully fifty percent of dialysis patients have never had any prior indication that there was a problem with their kidneys. All of this is costing $4.1 billion per year in direct healthcare costs.
Perhaps you’re still not convinced. After all, the kidneys are not a fashionable field like brain surgery or heart disease. Well, one in three Australians are now expected to get stage three chronic kidney disease. This is just one stage away from dialysis. Weak kidneys are strongly linked to cardiovascular disease, to heart attacks, to high blood pressure, dementia, and diabetes. In other words, there is a strong link between the health of the kidneys, other organs, and other serious diseases. The kidneys really are the seat of health.
Yet many of you sitting here today do not have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. You might be carrying a few extra kilos. You might not be as fit or young as you once were. But there’s no sign of actual illness. Weak kidneys are something other people have — when they get older. So, let’s see if you recognize some of the symptoms from traditional Chinese Medicine.
Walk into the reception area of any skilled traditional Chinese doctor and your consultation begins as soon as you walk through the door — whether you are aware of this or not. The doctor will be looking at how you walk, your posture, how you sit, and whether you slouch. They’ll be looking at your eyes and skin, while listening to how fast or slow you talk. They’ll also be looking at how much you are on your cell phone and how much you are messaging. If you ask such a doctor why they are watching your thumbs frantically respond to another message they will tell you that it impairs kidney function. At first this seems to be a strange explanation. Only when more detail is offered does the explanation start to make sense.
In Chinese medicine the essence of our energy is found in the kidneys. Kidney energy has many benefits. When it is depleted it leads to low willpower, an inability to keep one’s mouth shut, a poor memory or concentration, and deep fatigue. A wired, overstimulated twenty-first century lifestyle wears down kidney energy, which wears down the kidneys, then has a profound effect upon our health. The daily stimuli we are exposed to creates a lack of willpower, which then makes a person seek more easily available addictive stimuli, whether through their phone, computer, television, though food, or even through work and adrenaline infused activities. As more stimuli are sought and experienced, yet more energy is drained from the kidneys, further reducing willpower, and so the vicious circle continues, until a person gets ill, gets worn down, or gets burnt out, and is forced to get off this treadmill. In short, many of the distractions of the age we live in harm our kidneys. Many of you will recognize these symptoms, even if you don’t yet recognize the more conventional signs of weak kidneys, such as impending cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes.
In traditional Chinese medicine it has always been known that there is a relationship between the brain, thought, and the kidneys. Weak willpower, addictions, obsessive thoughts, fatigue and fecklessness stem from weak kidneys. Despite recognizing many of these symptoms perhaps you need more convincing of the link between the mind and the kidneys.
We know that kidney disease is directly associated with dementia. This isn’t just due to poor vascular function in both the brain and the kidneys. People with weak kidneys see a rise in creatinine. This is a waste product filtered by the kidneys. As creatinine rises so does the risk of dementia. Even moderate kidney weakness leads to cognitive impairment. One large meta-analysis of over 54,000 patients found that people with impaired kidney function have a significantly increased risk of poor cognition. There is another measurement of kidney health called GFR. This measures how well your kidneys filter waste products. People with a lowered filtration rate have weaker kidneys. When the kidneys don’t filter waste products as they should it leads to a thinning of the outer layer of two important regions in the brain. This thinning is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease. A poor GFR score is also strongly associated with brain infarcts and white matter lesions. In layman’s terms, these are areas of the brain that are dead, never to be regenerated. In the distinguished journal ‘Neurology’ a study showed that poor kidney function was linked directly to poor cognition. There was damage to episodic memory, which retrieves memories of time, place, associated emotions and other contextual knowledge. This is also often the earliest sign of Alzheimer's disease. There is a direct link between kidney health, the brain, and cognition.
Traditional Chinese medicine splits the day into segments when different organs need special care or might benefit from specific exercises. Between 5.00 pm to 7.00 pm is the time when the kidneys need to rest and replenish. Unfortunately, for many, this is the very time when we are assaulted by noise, pollution, and stress during the commute home from work. The assault is worsened by heightened awareness, stress, or information overload from either a car radio, the news, or swiping and tapping on a phone during the commute, as yet more messages assail us. There is no time for relaxation at this crucial time of the day when the kidneys need restorative help. Even just sitting quietly on a bus or train, or walking home would be more beneficial. Those concerned about their memory and thoughts, their willpower and behavior, or their kidney health should avoid mental and physical stressors during this time of the day. Walking in nature helps, as does sharing a meal with the family, or just sitting quietly reading a book.
This belief in the effect of certain times of the day upon the body should not be dismissed nor underestimated.
Francis Levi is a Professor of Oncology at the National Scientific Research Centre in Paris. In the 1990s he read about this Chinese belief in chronology affecting organs and disease. With an open mind, he began to explore the possibility of the time of day affecting cancers, tumors, and chemotherapy. He found that tumors keep their own schedule and that chemotherapy at certain times of the day is five times more effective than at other times. Attacking the tumor at its most vulnerable leads to its destruction. Chemotherapy is not the only drug that works better at certain times. There is an emerging discipline called chrono-medicine that is exploring the possibility of all medicines having a time stamp. Drugs, ranging from blood thinners to painkillers, work better or worse at different times of the day.
The heart also keeps her own schedule. There are internal clocks within heart muscle tissues that help the heart to beat. These internal clocks determine the amount of damage a heart attack will cause. For example, a heart attack upon waking will cause three times more damage than a heart attack at other times of the day. The clots that cause heart attacks follow a schedule whereby they are more active between 8.00 am and 9.00 am. For some reason, a heart attack is more likely on a Monday. One wonders if following the Sunnah of fasting on a Monday would lead to less heart attacks, as less food means less inflammation, less clotting, and less insulin production. Skipping breakfast might help.
The brain prefers the morning time. Between 10.00 am and the start of Salat al-Dhur the human brain is at its best for logical reasoning and critical thinking. During this time, and earlier in the morning, the memory is at its sharpest, as a lower body temperature ensures that memories are not erased. This explains the intuitive Damascene habit of memorizing the Koran at the earliest time in the morning, when the body temperature is at its very lowest, and memories are more likely to be retained. All-nighters are a modern, illegitimate practice not steeped in traditional wisdom, nor supported by science. As our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, indicated, his ummah is an ummah of the early morning. This is where the divine blessings lie.
There is another living organism that also keeps its own schedule. This is the microbiome that has its own chronobiology. The microbiome resides in our gut. It weighs about two kilograms, is made up of 100 trillion bacteria, containing over three million genes. This mass of different living organisms residing within us follows its own schedule and rhythms during the day and during the seasons. This is why it’s not helpful to eat the same foods throughout the year as it diminishes the varieties of good bacteria in our gut.
The microbiome plays a huge role in even very serious diseases. Just last month a team of German scientists looked at twins where one twin had the autoimmune disease multiple sclerosis and the other did not. These were identical twins, which ruled out any genetic cause of the disease. They found their microbiomes were different, and when they transferred gut bacteria from the ill twin to mice those mice soon developed autoimmune disease. But this essay is about the strength of our kidneys and we know that the microbiome influences kidney health, and both the microbiome and the kidneys acting in tandem influence our feeling of well-being, mood, energy levels, thoughts, and memory.
The progression of kidney weakness or disease has been linked to the health, variety, and species of bacteria in our gut. Bad gut bacteria, caused by poor diet, especially a junk food diet, increases urea in the blood, which weakens the kidneys. Those people with actual kidney disease have one hundred times higher levels of the pro-inflammatory enterococci species of bacteria. These bacteria further contribute to other diseases associated with poorly functioning kidneys, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This interaction between the gut bacteria and the kidneys is not unidirectional. Both influence the other. Therefore, if the Chinese are right, and they often are, then thought patterns and information overload affects the kidneys, which affects the microbiome, which in turn affects the kidneys and thought patterns. A circle is born.
A huge part of this problem is diet. A particular problem within the modern Australian diet is a substance called advanced glycation end-products. These occur when a sugar bonds to a protein or fat. This happens when food is cooked at too high a temperature, such as frying; when it is cooked for too long, such as over-roasting meat; when it is charred, such as on the barbecue; or when refined sugars are cooked with the food, such as coated chicken. This worsened when the diet is already high in refined sugars. In short, a modern, industrialized, junk food diet, with lots of eating out, is high in these advanced glycation end-products. And it’s a huge problem.
Over the last thirty years, in Australia, advanced glycation end-products have dramatically increased. This has had a number of health effects. For one thing they influence immune response, leading to a rise in autoimmune disease. At Melbourne University, they found that reducing advanced glycation end-products led to a reduction in type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Across Australia there has been a striking correlation between the rise in advanced glycation end-products and the dramatic rise in food allergies. This is because advanced glycation end-products trigger a false alarm, meaning that the body recognizes certain foods as a foreign invader that must be stopped. The body then reacts against food. There has been a threefold rise in death from food allergy in Australia over the last fifteen years.
The kidneys are especially targeted by advanced glycation end-products. These products target and affect all the structures in the kidneys. This stress on the kidneys causes chronic kidney disease, which leads to low energy, fatigue, and, in some cases, a transplant or death. Advanced glycation end-products also target the vasculature and blood flow to and in the kidneys. With poor blood flow, or inflamed vasculature, the kidneys function poorly. The mind is also affected. People with higher advanced glycation end-products levels have poorer brain function as they age. Such people are not able to think clearly or remember well; they become less sharp. In some cases, this build up will manifest as Alzheimer’s disease. It can also show as Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and other neurodegenerative diseases.
There is then a profound interrelationship between kidney health, the brain, mood, thoughts, behavior, memory, energy, autoimmunity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and the bacteria in our gut. There are three ways to improve this relationship such that the overall health of our body, mind, and spirit improve, and we avoid the ravages of an old age.
The first is exercise. We know that moderate aerobic exercise helps the kidneys. This is exercise that is done while being able to breathe through the nose. For some people, it might just be a walk, then, as capacity increases, the walk becomes brisker, or even a machine at a gym or in the home will do. In contrast, hard cardio exercise, such as marathon running damages the kidneys. But we really want to concentrate on strength training, because it is an emerging field in kidney health. As muscle strength and size increases the kidneys start to function better. Again, the trick is not to go crazy, trying for maximum lifts every session. Lifting at about seventy to eighty percent of one’s capacity most of the time builds effective strength. This is how Olympic lifters train. As strength increases so does the filtration rate, the GFR, of the kidneys. This increase in GFR improves cognition, while reducing inflammation. What is really beneficial is the increase in a protein called Nrf2 when strength training. This protein protects against oxidative stress. It is one of the major antioxidant defense systems of the body protecting against inflammation and diseases ranging from autoimmune disease to liver disease to kidney disease to cardiovascular disease. It protects against age-related physical and mental decline. It can be had by lifting weights two or three times a week. We encourage all of you, men and women, to lift weights and to get strong.
The second is diet and the avoidance of advanced glycation end-products. Cook foods in traditional ways by stewing, cooking in a pot, or in a casserole dish, or even steaming. Avoid frying and charred, overcooked meats. Limit eating out of the house of special occasions or when travelling.
One of the benefits of a low-carb or Paleo diet is that it eliminates junk food. Done properly, such a diet can increase antioxidant protection if lots of vegetables are eaten. However, for many people, a low-carb diet rapidly becomes a meat feast. The problem with this is that proteins from meat are the highest source of advanced glycation end-products. If a high amount of overcooked meat is paired with insufficient antioxidant protection from plants, then, over time, advanced glycation end-products will build up, damaging the kidneys, brain, and heart.
At the opposite end of the dietary spectrum, one of the benefits of a vegan diet is that it virtually eliminates advanced glycation end-products, while simultaneously ramping up antioxidant protection from a wide variety of plant foods. However, it should be noted that it’s very possible to eat a processed, junk food vegan diet, high in unhealthy refined carbohydrates and sugars. For some people with health complaints, a temporary, short-term natural vegan diet can act as a type of medicine. People do report improved health and energy on such a diet. Junk food is eliminated, as are advanced glycation end-products, and there is a great deal of antioxidants from plant foods. Long or medium term, a vegan diet does not suit many people. It leads to early death.
Dairy products are an interesting case. They are an animal protein food that is low in advanced glycation end-products. Consider this: fried chicken has a rating of 7,000 and takes you over your daily recommended amount. Whereas whole milk has a rating of just twelve.
Therefore, a diet low in advanced glycation end-products seems to be somewhere between a Paleo diet and a vegan diet. It contains meat, but not too much. It contains lots of fish and dairy, but not huge slabs of unlimited cooked cheese. And, it contains lots of vegetables and some fruits. Plant foods rich in polyphenols and flavonoids have been shown to be especially beneficial in reducing the harmful effects of advanced glycation end-products. These foods include berries and oats. Grains, whether gluten containing or not, rice and starches, should be had according to one’s ancestral heritage. Some people simply cannot tolerate starches, again due to either ancestral heritage or genetic variations. People with autoimmune diseases often, but not always, have a tough time with gluten.
Eating in such a way will enrich the bacteria of the gut, which will further protect the kidneys and the brain.
Finally, there has to be a time when the brain is switched off from the phone, messages, emails, work, the news, and general information overload, especially during the evening time.
Following these three steps helps us to regain the seat of our health, protecting us against disease and illness, while giving us the strength to worship and support our families.