I recently read an article in my local newspaper about manual laborers in Nicaragua who are suffering from an epidemic of kidney failure that has been killing thousands. (Worked to Death? Minneapolis Star Tribune, Sunday February 19, 2012) Doctors and scientists are struggling to find the cause of this chronic kidney disease that is affecting workers throughout Central America.
One theory is that these workers are being exposed to toxic substances in the course of their work. However, those who are getting sick come from all over Central America, so exposure to a single toxin is unlikely. Instead, scientists are putting forth another theory; overwork and dehydration.
Most of the victims of this epidemic are construction workers, miners, and farm laborers who work long hours with few breaks and inadequate water. Many of these workers have been on the job in the hot sun hour after hour, year after year, for decades. Some doctors and scientists are suggesting that chronic dehydration is the cause of this mysterious disease.
What does this have to do with Chinese medicine? Well, when I read this article, I immediately thought of the concept that acupuncturists call overwork. The Chinese believe that working too hard can be an underlying cause of serious disease, and unfortunately, these workers in Central America are proving that point.
Overwork has a lot to do with something called Kidney Essence, one of the most important substances in your body. It’s the foundation of all the other substances—Qi, Blood, Yin, Yang, and fluids–that need to be abundant for you to be healthy. Essence is your essential life force, and is behind many of the functions of growth, development, your overall health, and how you age—essentially your body constitution. In Chinese medicine, this Essence is stored in your kidney. When you work too hard, eat poorly, or become too stressed, your Essence becomes depleted. When your Essence is completely used up, according to Chinese theory, you die; which seems to be what is happening to these poor overworked laborers in Central America.
The Chinese kidney also governs the metabolism of water. Both the scientists studying this epidemic and practitioners of Chinese medicine agree; becoming seriously dehydrated day after day is extremely damaging to the kidney.
The most striking point of the article is the mechanism by which these workers are dying. Chronic kidney failure is killing them—not their heart, lungs, exhaustion, or broken bones. They are depleting their life force—their Kidney Essence—through overwork and dehydration; and they’re dying—some of them at a relatively young age.
So yes, it’s possible to work yourself to death—it’s happening all over Central America, and sadly in factories, sweatshops, mines, and fields all over the world.