May is Mental Health Awareness month and couldn’t come at a better time since the Vital Substance I am talking about today is closely associated with our mental vitality. Earlier this week, I introduced the concept of Qi (energy) as one of the four Vital Substances in our bodies (read about it here). The next Vital Substance, Essence, also known as “Jing” in Chinese Medicine, is essential to life and one of the foundations of mental health.
Essence in Chinese is “Jing” (精). The Chinese character defines it as “something derived (or extracted) from a process of refinement of a larger crude substance.” For example, the essence of a perfume is extracted from raw materials such as flowers, grass, spices, fruit, or wood. Hence, Essence is a concentrated and precious substance. It is associated with our genetic potential and the aging process. The quantity of Essence we have dictates our lifespan and vitality.
1) Prenatal Essence or Original Jing – At conception, the combination of the mother and father’s refined Essence forms Prenatal Essence. This blended Essence develops an energy that is the basis of new human life. Before birth, the fetus relies on the mother to protect and nourish its Prenatal Essence. After birth, Prenatal Essence becomes active and helps in transformation of food to energy. A small amount of Prenatal Essence is constantly released which is used by our bodies to maintain function. Prenatal Essence determines our constitutional make-up, how long we live, and our individual vitality. This largely depends on the age and health of the parents at conception, and especially the age and health of the mother. This is also what makes each of us unique. Original Jing is fixed in quantity and quality, meaning once it’s used up, it cannot be replenished and we die.
2) Postnatal Essence or Postnatal Jing – Formed after birth, this Essence is extracted and refined by the Stomach and Spleen (the digestive system) from food and fluids. When Postnatal Essence is maintained at sufficient levels, our Prenatal Essence is used more slowly, which in turn slows the aging process. This is why people take Jing tonic herbs, to maintain Postnatal Jing levels.
3) The Essence (Jing) – This Essence, used for the entire body, is stored in our Kidneys and derived from both Prenatal and Postnatal Essence. It is also a hereditary energy that determines our constitutional make-up, but can be replenished through interaction with Postnatal Essence. It is the root of our vitality and a very concentrated energy. Strong Jing energy will lead to a long and healthful life, whereas loss of Jing will cause physical and mental deterioration, leading to a shortened life.
The difference between Essence and Qi:
– Essence comes from our parents, while Qi is formed after birth
– Essence is fluid-like, Qi is energy-like
– Essence is stored in the kidneys, Qi is everywhere
– Essence is difficult to replenish, while Qi can be restored daily
– Essence changes slowly and gradually, whereas Qi moves quickly
So is Essence more yin or yang relative to Qi?? If you’ve been following, the answer is easy. =)
- determines growth and development – Essence controls growth of bones, teeth, hair, brain development, sexual maturation, reproductive function and fertility, which are all part of the Kidney’s function in Chinese medicine. Deficiency results in stunted growth, poor bone growth, infertility, frequent miscarriages, mental retardation in children, loose teeth, and premature graying hair.
- forms the foundation for Kidney Qi (Kidney energy) – Deficiency of Kidney Qi results in poor sexual function, impotence, weak knees, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and deafness.
- produces Marrow – This Marrow is not the same as the bone marrow recognized in Western Medicine but a broader term. Marrow not only produces bone marrow but also constitutes the brain and spinal cord, nourishing these areas. This means that Kidney Essence plays a crucial role in brain function and mental health. Weak Kidney Essence may lead to lack of concentration, poor memory, dizziness, and more serious mental problems if severely depleted.
- determines constitutional strength and our resistance to exterior or external pathogenic factors. Our Defensive Qi draws from Kidney Essence. Weak Kidney Essence results in frequent colds, influenza, susceptibility to exterior pathogenic factors, chronic rhinitis, and allergies.
Factors that Deplete Essence (Jing)
- chronic and acute stress, chronic pain and illness
- excessive behavior such as overwork, excessive emotions (especially fear, anxiety and shock, emotions which weaken the Kidney), substance abuse, sexual excess (especially in men and old age)
- excessive menstrual patterns (heavy periods) and too many pregnancies (more than one’s constitution can adequately support, which is different for everyone)
Foods that Nourish Jing
In general, foods that nourish the Kidney will also nourish Jing. However, choosing the appropriate foods and herbs to use as Jing tonics largely depend on each individual’s constitution and condition.
– chlorella, spirulina, black beans, seaweed, wheat grass, blue-green microalgae, almonds, and bone marrow soup
– royal jelly, bee pollen, milk, clarified butter, placenta, dear antler, walnuts, animal products (chicken, liver, beef or lamb kidney) and warming seafood (especially mussels; also trout, salmon, anchovy)
For children with severe Jing deficiency, there will be stunted growth, learning disabilities, mental retardation, skeletal weakness and deformities, and failure of the fontanel (skull bones) to close. Deer antler is specifically used for these conditions as well as tortoise shell in failure of fontanel closure.
Note: Did you notice that walnuts and salmon are included in this list? They are both high in Omega-3 fatty acids making them good for the brain which also means it strengthens Essence. See how everything is coming together?
The Three Treasures
A final note on Essence and mental health. Essence and Qi form the foundation of the Mind also known as Shen (神), which is the most immaterial substance in our bodies. Together they form the “Three Treasures” which are the three fundamental physical and psychic substances of human beings. The Chinese word “Jing Shen” 精神 collectively means spirit. The strength of our spirit and mental health ultimately depend on the strength of our Essence (Jing). Coming soon, I will discuss some major Jing tonics that help strengthen and stabilize our mind and spirits keeping us mentally sharp and strong!
In health and wellness,
The Foundations of Chinese Medicine by Giovanni Maciocia
The Ancient Wisdom of the Chinese Tonic Herbs by Ron Teeguarden
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
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