What is the one ingredient that is found in absolutely every part of traditional Chinese herbal medicine? It’s water, of course. Water is essential to life, but the ancient understanding of water can inform our own lives.
Water as an “Element”
Water is one of the five “elements” in Traditional Chinese Medici ne, along with wood, fire, earth, and metal. Water is the winter element that feeds the new growth, the “wood,” of spring. Not surprisingly, it is associated with the kidneys.
However, the “kidney’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine is not just a physical organ. It is a set of energies that become emotions that in turn become physical objects, all associated with human reproduction and development. The kidneys are the governing organ of the sex organs. Their energies create vaginal fluids and semen, as well as, of course, urine. But they are also the governing organ of “development,” including bones and hair, and the govern the body’s ability to make and detect sound.
Surely this quaint ancient theory does not have any bearing on the modern understanding of health, does it? We invite you to judge for yourself.
Keeping adequately hydrated by drinking enough water with electrolytes is essential to life, but it is also essential to some unexpected aspects of healthy living. Here are just a few reasons we need water in ways that are predicted by Traditional Chinese Medicine.
- The hair on your head and the skin on your scalp are regenerated by stem cells. Some of these stem cells differentiate into melanocytes, the cells that make the natural color in your hair. Some of these cells differentiate into hair follicles, which generate the hair itself. The two groups of stem cells communicate by hormones and chemical messengers that they send through the tiny capillaries and intercellular fluid in the scalp. If the color-making cells can’t communicate to the hair-making cells, guess what happens? Gray hair. Regular hydration is important to maintain your natural hair colour.
- The voice In older adults, in particular, tends to shimmer and jitter when the body is dehydrated. Dehydrated people cannot hold a sound so that it blends into other syllables. Their voices have a reduced resonance and a higher frequency (but not in a good way). Drinking water helps to restore the voice. Steam inhalation is useful, too. Voice problems may be prevented by using a nebulizer that provides pure water in tiny droplets.
- The human body ordinarily keeps almost all of its calcium in the bones and just a tiny amount of calcium in the bloodstream to power muscles and nerves. Dehydration can be a cause of hypercalcemia, too much calcium in the bloodstream.
- In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the “kidney” (which is a concept more than a physical organ) also governs the knees. You won’t find dehydration listed as a trigger for attacks of knee arthritis (or gout in the ankles and toes), but that is the experience of many people who have to manage these diseases.
How Much Water Is Enough?
Some health-minded people are so intent on staying hydrated that they walk around making sloshing sounds. The best amount of water isn’t more, more, more. Healthy hydration keeps water consumption in balance with the amount of water that the body uses, no more and no less.
Infants and disabled people are especially susceptible to dehydration because they can’t get their own fluids to drink. Older children are especially susceptible to dehydration because their bodies keep less water in the interstitial fluid around their tissues. The most common precipitating event that leads to death from dehydration is diarrhea. If you get diarrhea, keep hydrated!
It takes as little as 1.2 liters (5 cups) of water a day to keep hydrated. Drinking 3 or more liters of water a day is actually associated with poorer health outcomes, not better. (If you happen to live in the Australian Outback or some other desert, of course, you may actually need more water—but you probably won’t have a longer lifespan as a result of drinking it).
The key is what else is in the water. Water that contains just a little sodium, the ion found in table salt, can keep your body hydrated up to twice as long as water that does not. Almost any natural beverage contains at least a little sodium, even orange juice, whole (full-fat) milk, and tea. Caffeinated and carbonated beverages are not dehydrating. Tea, in particular, including tea with milk, does not dehydrate.
Hydration Isn’t All About What You Drink
Traditional Chinese Medicine tells us that mastering the “water” element, however, is not just about drinking water and other beverages. The kidney is a yin vessel that stores a property called jing, or essence. This is the set of instructions that the body follows to make its densest structures, such as bone.
The “energy kidney” also consolidates the mysterious energy called chi that governs over our lives from birth to death. It is specifically related to our ability to pro-create, physical growth through childhood, and transition in to old age. Someone with a compromised water element will not have the vitality and endurance necessary throughout our lives to endure, especially during stressful times of change.
You can’t tackle life’s challenges if you aren’t physically hydrated. But you become “spiritually hydrated” by conquering fear, anxiety, and specific phobias. When we master the fluid challenges of our daily lives, we overcome fear. And when we overcome fear, we master the energies of water, unleashing vital energy to make us healthier from head to toe.
Drinking water, tea, and other healthy beverages won’t automatically result in mastery of the watery aspects of human vitality. A great deal of healthy hydration really stems from emotional health, not just diet. But getting at least those 5 cups, 1.2 liters, of water every day is a healthy start to hydration. If you drink water, you have some of the physical sustenance you need to master your life energies. And if you master your life energies, you will keep your water intake and use in healthy balance.
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The information and reference materials contained here are intended solely for the general information of the reader. It is not to be used for treatment purposes, but rather for discussion with the patient’s own physician. The information presented here is not intended to diagnose health problems or to take the place of professional medical care.
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