In TCM essence is called “Jin” and is a combination of the character glyphs for “rice” and “green.” Essence is a fluid-like vital substance, the most basic and important of the vital substances to the body. Transformation of all other vital substances relies on essence.
By broad definition, essence is a compilation of all vital substances in the human body, including the narrow definition of blood and qi and body fluids. By narrow definition, essence is a fluid-like vital substance such as sperm or an egg. For the purposes of this discussion, we will use the narrow definition.
Types of Essence
Both types of essence outlined below are stored in the Kidneys, even though the Spleen is the root (or source) of Post-Heaven Essence.
Congenital, Prenatal, or Pre-Heaven Essence
This is your starter pack, courtesy of your parents. Think of it like a trust fund that doesn’t gain interest. Once you blow through it, it’s gone. Spend wisely! Prenatal essence is stronger if your parents were in good health and in a good state of mind when you were conceived. Even if you are born with excellent pre-heaven essence you can “overspend” it by over-working (which includes your job as well as your party-animal habits) and be worn out in mid to late life. We talked all about this in the Kidney pages.
Acquired, Postnatal, or Post-Heaven Essence
This is Essence you generate yourself. You start acquiring from the first breath you inhale at your birth and continue to acquire it from your food, water, air, and Qi or Prana building exercises, such as yoga or qigong.
Don’t think that acquired essence replenishes your prenatal essence! It does not. But building your acquired essence reduces the amount you ‘spend’ from your prenatal essence, which is why it is wise to take care of yourself: eat well, de-stress regularly through self-care, take yoga or Qigong classes, etc. This is kind of like having a trust fund, but working for a salary anyway so that you don’t spend the trust fund.
Functions of Essence
This too might look familiar from lesson on Kidney and Bladder because Essence is a subject very closely linked to Kidney.
Kidney Essence is the raw stuff that converts to Qi and Yin. Kidney essence converts to Primary or Yuan Qi and then to Kidney Qi. Essence also can transform into Kidney yin while the Kidney qi can transform into Kidney yang. Primary qi or Yuan Qi can be transformed into any kind of organ Qi.
It’s a little easier to visualize this cycle in a visual way. Notice that Essence can convert to Kidney Yin, to Yuan Qi and so forth, but nothing really seems to replenish Essence except bone soup (a little) and Qigong (a lot). Best to start doing Qigong early in life to keep it as healthy as possible instead of waiting until the end when you’re almost out.
These are the functions of essence:
Growth, reproduction, and development
Without good Essence there are usually childhood development issues. If you see congenital issues in clinic suspect poor Kidney Essence.
Essence is the basis of Kidney Qi
This is reflected in the diagram above. Kidney Qi is derived from Yuan Qi, which is derived from Essence.
Essence produces marrow
This includes the brain, bone marrow, and spinal marrow. The brain is actually called the Sea of Marrow. If you have good essence, you have good marrow, strong bones, and good brain function. Alzheimer’s, senility, and dementia are all examples of depletion of the Kidney essence which in turn leads to depletion of marrow and brain function. Eat that bone soup! It nourishes both marrow and essence.
Actually, the Chinese traditional way to supplement what you lack is to eat whatever it is that’s weak. Weakness in the Kidneys? Eat some kidneys. Bad eyes? Eat liver since liver controls the eyes. (This is no longer recommended because of antibiotics and the generally toxic environment in which most food animals live, so if you’re going to do it eat local and organic fed animal products.)
In this same manner, if you need to tonify Qi and Blood, critter bits (animal based herbs) are always more effective than plants, which is a bummer for your vegetarian patients. Some herbal professors will tell you to just keep it a secret from them and add the ingredients into the formula anyway, that’s probably a bad plan. Not only is it disrespectful to your patient’s beliefs, but your reputation will crater if they find out. All of this stuff is searchable online now, so the likelihood you’ll get busted is high. Patients need to be informed and they need to know that the vegetarian option will work, but will work more slowly. Let them decide, don’t do it for them.
Essence is the basis of constitutional strength.
This is true for children who are born with poor essence and for adults who have depleted their pool of Essence.