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Five Elements Nutrition

by Penny Crowther(more info)

listed in nutrition, originally published in issue 132 - February 2007

In my last two columns I discussed how the ancient Chinese theory of the Five Elements can give the nutrition practitioner extra insight into their case. Each element corresponds to a pair of organs, a pattern
of emotional, physical and mental symptoms and a particular time of year.

Winter is the season for the Water Element and the associated organs, the kidneys and bladder. In Western medicine, the kidneys are known for their filtering and detoxifying functions. Each kidney contains many thousands of tiny blood capillaries and tubules, which provide a huge surface area for the excretion of waste products and the re-absorption of beneficial nutrients. The unwanted substances eventually form urine which collects in the kidney and travels down to the bladder.

A Wider Concept of the Kidneys

In Chinese Medicine the kidneys are seen as containing jing which is a vital force or energy. The quality and amount of jing is predetermined from birth and will decide our constitution. However, we can nurture our jing by looking after our kidneys and ensuring enough rest and relaxation. Our adrenal glands lie on top of the kidneys, and work closely with these organs to maintain sugar, water and mineral balance. The adrenals set off a chain of chemical reactions in response to stress to help the body adapt.

Some stress can be positive in that it provides a boost of energy and drive. But prolonged stress will over-stimulate the adrenal glands and kidneys leading to wear and tear, a bit like when pressing the accelerator of a car often leads to the wearing out of mechanical parts.

Fear is the emotion linked to the Water element; it has a weakening effect on the kidneys and adrenal glands. Fear blocks the flow of energy and this affects physical vitality.

Winter is the perfect time for conserving and nurturing our internal energy stores within the kidneys, in preparation for the months ahead, like a hibernating animal! Gentle kidney cleansing and support is particularly important if any of the following symptoms are present:
•    Exhaustion and fatigue;
•    Urinary infections;
•    Backache;
•    Weak bladder or bed wetting;
•    Swelling and puffiness especially under the eyes or in legs and ankles;
•    Dark blue/black circles under eyes;
•    Weak legs or knees, tightness in backs of legs or along spine;
•    Poor circulation; cold sensitivity;
•    Hearing problems; ringing in the ears;
•    Excess thirst;
•    Dry eyes;
•    Excess or a lack of perspiration;
•    Blood pressure problems;
•    Nosebleeds;
•    Brittle bones;
•    Brittle, dry or thinning hair;
•    Asthma (a factor in this condition is the inability of the kidneys to anchor energy sent from the lungs. Instead, the energy rises upwards in the body contributing to breathing difficulties.);
•    Anxiety; feeling overwhelmed by life;
•    Phobias, panic;
•    Fertility problems.

Many of the above symptoms are to do with problems with fluid, for example, dryness or excess wetness. Bloating or swelling can be seen as blockages to the flow. The Water Element is all about going with the flow physically and emotionally.

Supportive Foods for the Kidneys

•    Celery, asparagus and dandelion (tea) are natural diuretics which help to flush out toxins from the kidneys. Juniper is a strong kidney cleanser;
•    Beetroot is a good kidney cleanser. Drink the juice or eat raw beetroot grated onto salads or buy the cooked variety which has not been soaked in vinegar;
•    Cranberries have a cleansing action on the kidneys and bladder. They help urinary infections by preventing bacteria from sticking to the bladder wall. Look for a no-added sugar drink or use a concentrated herbal fluid extract;
•    Kidney beans have a special link with the kidneys due to their shape.
•    Aduki beans;
•    Seaweed is a supportive food for the water element because of its connections with the sea. Seaweed, also known as sea vegetable, is high in natural sodium which does not tax kidney function. Dried seaweed makes a nutritious condiment for sprinkling onto food. Try dried nori or wakame crumbled into soups, casseroles or salads or over rice dishes;
•    Wholegrains, such as brown rice or buckwheat, assist the kidneys by helping detoxification and water balance. They do this by holding large amounts of fluid and providing bulk to absorb toxins. They are also rich in B vitamins which are used up during the stress response;
•    Warm foods support the kidney and bladder. Casseroles and soups are particularly recommended;
•    Jasmine and green tea are thought to reduce damp in the body which weakens the kidneys. Drinking plain hot water can also be effective for this;
•    Magnesium rich foods are particularly important for the kidneys and adrenal glands. For example, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, chick peas, soya beans, millet, oats and bananas;
•    Red peppers and green leafy vegetables are rich in vitamin C which the adrenal glands thrive on;
•    Cold pressed oils, such as flax, olive, walnut and sesame, provide anti-stress essential fatty acids. Use these oils liberally but do not heat them or add to hot foods.

Regular meals containing a little protein protect the adrenal glands from being over-stimulated by blood sugar drops. Regular breaks during the working day are important for conserving kidney energy and avoiding depletion and weakness.

Foods that Weaken the Kidneys and Bladder

•    Excess sweet foods burden the kidneys, as these organs can only cope with processing a limited amount of sugar. According to Chinese medicine, sweet foods promote damp conditions in the body which are detrimental to the kidneys. Excess sugar and salt stimulate the stress response. Salt is particularly damaging to the kidneys and adrenal glands;
•    Excess raw foods, such as salads and fruits, create dampness and cool the body temperature. Such foods should be limited in the cold winter months. Vegetables should be lightly boiled in minimum water, or steamed or roasted in olive oil, or stir-fried or slow cooked in casseroles and soups;
•    Caffeine over-stimulates the adrenal glands and the kidneys. To avoid unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, reduce sugar and stimulants gradually rather than all at once.

Further Reading

Traditional Acupuncture. The Law of the Five Elements. Traditional Acupuncture Inst. Dianne M Connelly PhD. 1994.
Nine Ways to Body Wisdom. Harper Collins. Jennifer Harper. 2000.


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About Penny Crowther

Penny Crowther BANT CNHC qualified as a nutritional therapist in 1997 and has been in clinical practice ever since. She has seen several thousand clients over the years, at her practice in London and online. Penny now specializes in nutrition for women in their 40s and beyond, particularly around peri and post menopause. Mid Life for women can be a time when fluctuating hormones play havoc with your wellbeing. In the midst of all the publicity around HRT, it's easy to forget just how powerful diet and lifestyle changes can be when it comes to navigating the menopausal years.

Penny will guide and support you through specific changes to your diet, targeted to you specifically, in midlife. She provides practical, easy to follow menu plans with easy and delicious recipes. The food you eat affects every cell and system in your body. It optimizes how you look and feel, both mentally and physically.

To book an appointment view consultation options here >>

As well as being a regular columnist for Positive Health, Penny has written for Holland and Barrett, and contributed to articles for the Daily TelegraphThe Times Literary supplement, Pregnancy & Birth and Marie Claire. She has been featured in the Daily Express, Daily Mirror and on local radio.

Penny is a registered nutritional therapist with standards of training endorsed by BANT (British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy) and CNHC. This includes completing 30 hours of continuing professional development, annually.

Penny’s approach to health is holistic, and takes into account emotional, mental and environmental factors as well as nutrition. She has trained in coaching and studied many complementary therapies before qualifying as a nutritionist, which provides a broad foundation of knowledge in her nutrition practice. Penny may be contacted on Tel: 07761 768 754;

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