The Spleen - The Earth Element

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

I don't want to play favourites, but the Spleen is a pretty awesome organ. The Spleen and I have gotten pretty cosy over the years, as I talk about it a lot and treat it probably more than any other organ. In Chinese medicine, the Spleen, along with its Yang partner the Stomach, are the main organs of digestion. The Spleen has an important job in the body and psyche, processing not only all the food and drink we consume but all the stimulus as well. If you think about how we live you will realize that the nature of our lifestyles - which is to constantly be doing many things at once - puts a lot of pressure on the Spleen, and I would say that most people in the West have some level of Spleen deficiency as a result.

People new to Chinese medicine might think it strange that the Spleen is seen as an organ of digestion, as they probably know it as an important part of the immune system which is how it is viewed in the West. In Western medicine, the spleen is a part of the immune system and is where old red blood cells are recycled and platelets and white blood cells are stored. It is on the left side under the rib cage and sits next to the stomach. You can live without a spleen (called a splenectomy), but this makes you much more susceptible to infections. The spleen is sometimes removed in emergency situations like car accidents or serious traumas, but you definitely want to keep your spleen, as it serves many vital functions both physiologically and psychologically.

5 Element Chart - Spleen

This lovely 5 element chart designed by Angel B Lee in New York, NY

The Spleen

In Chinese medicine, the Spleen has a list of responsibilities. Every organ has a unique list of things they are responsible for in the body, and from an emotional point of view. Here are the things the Spleen is responsible for.

Controls Blood

The Spleen is responsible for manufacturing the Blood and the Spleen Qi keeps it in the vessels. If Spleen-Qi is weak, a person will bruise easily, and/or will have problems with bleeding.

Controls The Muscles And The Four Limbs

the spleen controls the muscles

The Spleen is responsible for circulating nutrients to the muscles and tissues. If the Spleen is weak, then the muscles and limbs are not nourished and become weak and tired.

Responsible For
Transformation & Transportation

The Spleen is responsible for the intake, processing, and distribution of nutrients extracted from food and drink. The Spleen takes these nutrients and creates Qi and Blood, both vital substances for all the body’s functions and maintaining proper health. If transformation and transportation are functioning properly, the Qi is strong, digestion is smooth and the body is kept moist. When malfunctioning, the Qi is weak (lassitude and lethargy), the appetite is poor, digestion is sluggish and the stools are loose and watery.

Opens Into The Mouth &
Manifests On The Lips

The Spleen manifests on the lips

Chewing is necessary for the functioning of the Spleen and if the Spleen is deficient, the sense of taste may be dulled. Red, moist and vibrant lips indicate a healthy Spleen. If the Spleen is deficient, however, the lips will be pale from lack of nourishment.

Controls The Upright Qi

The Spleen is responsible for the body’s “holding” function. This is called the upright Qi. It is specifically the force that counteracts gravity when it comes to holding things, specifically the organs, in place. This is very important! Without healthy upright Qi, all of our organs would be at the bottom of our abdomen! When the Spleen is weak, we see prolapse of organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapse of the vagina as well as things like haemorrhoids (prolapse of the anus, PLUS bleeding also attributed to the Spleen).

Houses Thought

Every organ in TCM is seen to have its own unique Spirit, and the Spirit of the Spleen is called the Yi. The Spleen is directly related to our capacity for thinking. How well we manage our thoughts, concentrate, exercise discernment and form intentions is dependent on the strength of the Spleen.

The Spleen in 5 Element Theory

In 5 element theory, the Spleen is attributed to the earth element, the centre, and the colour yellow. The season is late summer, but more specifically, it is the late stage of each of the seasons. The taste is sweet and the emotion is worry / overthinking.

Spleen and the 5 Elements

This lovely image from and designed by Patricia Callison

Late Summer and the Spleen

In the summer, we reach a maximum of Yang energy, so when we move into late summer that energy shifts and begins to turn to more Yin in preparation for fall. It is also the beginning of the harvest with fruits and vegetables at their peak of growth, so it is the perfect time to pick foods right off the vine and benefit from good Qi that they have been soaking up from the surrounding environment all summer. The earth element represents being grounded and having solid roots connected to the earth. Late summer is also a time to prepare for the coming year's work, so it is a time to go from the outward expressions of summer to a more inward expression to prepare for the year ahead.

"The Earth Element, represented by the Spleen-Pancreas, regulates the "centre," that which is constant, from where it harmonizes the effects of the four seasons."
~ Inner Classic

The flavour of the Spleen is sweet, and just as foods with a sweet flavour are stimulating and healing to the Spleen, too much can be damaging and decrease your energy level so balance is the key.  The Spleen likes to be warm and dry so avoid cold foods like putting ice in your drinks and ice cream if you have digestive troubles. Chewing your food very well is another simple way to support the Spleen.

Beneficial Spleen Foods

  • Millet
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Cabbage
  • Garbanzo Beans
  • Soybeans
  • Squash
  • Potatoes
  • String Beans
  • Yams
  • Tofu
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Sweet Rice
  • Rice
  • Amaranth
  • Peas
  • Chestnuts
  • Filberts
  • Apricots
  • Cantaloupe

Foods in late summer should be prepared simply with minimal seasoning to support the Spleen. Because the Spleen is constantly overloaded by the things we eat as well as the stimulus we are taking in, it is a good idea to prepare simple meals with few ingredients as well as longer cooking times (which further breaks down foods, requiring less of the Spleen's energy to digest them) and using water and cooking oils.

Healthy Spleen

Those with a very balanced Spleen will be hardworking, responsible and practical. They like to nurture themselves and others and are very aware of other people's needs. They are strong and stable and live to be active. They have good appetites and strong digestive systems. They will have strong muscles and be very grounded. Those with balanced spleens are orderly and careful and generally are creative and have very fertile imaginations.

Spleen Out of Balance

Those with an imbalance in their Spleen can manifest symptoms of both mental and physical fatigue, loose stools, a feeling of being "stuck" which feels like you are being prevented from moving forward. Weak digestion which is often accompanied by nausea, poor appetite, diminished sense of taste and abdominal bloating are common when Spleen energy is weak. Struggles with excess weight, even if there is no overeating, or being underweight without the ability to gain weight are symptoms of a Spleen imbalance as well. Those with weak Spleen's can tend to have a messy appearance, live in chaos and accumulate many possessions that do not serve them.

As you can see, the Spleen is an organ that gets a lot of attention in clinic. It is out of balance in many people, but there are simple things that we can do to bring this important organ back into balance. Living in a mindful way and being aware of what it needs are the first steps to having a healthy, happy Spleen.

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Suspect you might have a Spleen imbalance? Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP offers consults via skype. For more info, write to

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Aging and Illness

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Aging is a bit of a touchy subject, at least it is for us here in the West. In our culture, aging is often seen as something unpleasant, something to be “fought”, and generally old age is a place none of us want to be headed. Our view of aging is largely a product of the culture in which we live. In many cultures around the globe, aging is seen as a joyful process, ultimately leading to wisdom that can only come from having had many years under your belt. In many cultures elders are revered and respected for all of the life experience that they have, and all of the knowledge they have acquired. But for us, aging seems to mean one thing - getting sick.

In the West so many things are seen through the lens of disease. Natural processes are treated like illnesses to be conquered and not life processes that are natural and healthy. Aging itself is seen by many as a disease that should be fought and conquered, with the goal of living as long as possible instead of as WELL as possible.

I have treated a lot of senior citizens in clinic, and I have seen over and over again that many accept the aches, pains and discomforts they have because they think they are a natural part of the aging process. In my experience, if you live in a healthy, conscious way, you do not have to resign yourself to feeling crummy, your body hurting, and various diseases taking up residence in a body that instead of being seen to be the beautiful temple that it could be, is seen as a vessel in a slow process of decay.

When you get a cut, does it not heal? Why can we not imagine that the body has this healing capability on every level if we only give it what it needs to accomplish that healing? So much of this is a state of mind, and one that is hugely cultural here in the West. How many times do we hear the doctor say - "well, you have arthritis, that is just part of getting old." And "yes, you have cancer, which, if you live long enough, is inevitable." You do not need to be resigned to ill health because it is what our culture expects. We need to take responsibility for our health, and we cannot do that if we accept sickness because we are getting older.

It is difficult to stay healthy with the same bad habits that brought you to a sick place. If you have eaten badly and not exercised your entire life, of course, something has to change for your body to get well. This is even more important as we age, as our bodies are not as resilient as they were when we were younger.  In Chinese medicine, the yin and yang energies of the body are seen to gradually decline as we age. We may have to work a little harder to keep healthy and maintain that balance, but we are absolutely capable of remaining healthy and active until the end of our lives. You may be wondering, if you lived a hard life, partying, drinking, working long hours and abusing your body how good your chances are of being a healthy senior citizen… well, you might have a little more work to do than someone who lived a more balanced lifestyle as a younger person. But isn’t it worth it to live as well as possible with the life you have left?

seniors and medications

Medications are a wonderful invention and help in many situations, but I find that in our culture and in this time, they are insanely overused. Medications tend to treat symptoms, meaning that they will need to be taken forever and will never resolve the problem. This is not a solution, it is a band aid. Chinese medicine always endeavors to find the root of the problem so that it can be corrected. All modalities are tools used to reach this goal. Once the root is discovered and corrected using acupuncture, Chinese herbs, moxibustion, nutritional therapy, etc.. then the symptoms disappear and health is restored.

Getting Back to Health

So how do we get back to health? Of course, we all want to be healthy, happy beings. But there are things we must do to make that happen. It is entirely our responsibility to keep healthy, and we should know that we have that power. Everyone at every age has this ability, but I think that a lot of people believe that as we get older, we will all get sick, it is just a matter of time. Prescribing medications for every symptom is certainly not going to help, but you have to know that you are in charge of your health. It is up to you, you don’t have to be sick.

So what can we do as we get older to make sure we are staying as healthy as we can? They are the same things we do when we are younger. As we age though, the body is not as resilient as it once was. This means that it is all the more important that we take good care of ourselves. Here are some suggestions…

eat clean food

Eat Clean Food

Eating clean, natural foods is important at any age, but sometimes becomes harder as we get older as we sometimes have less energy to shop and cook - but once you start eating fresh, natural foods that are grown in season, you will see how amazing and full of energy you feel!

sleep for health


Sleep is the time the body uses to repair itself. Even though as we get older sleep can sometimes become more difficult, getting enough rest is an important way for the body to repair itself and build the reserves it needs to get through the day.


Drink Clean Water

The body is more than 70% water, and that water needs to be supplemented constantly as it is very important for all of the body’s processes. Staying hydrated will give you energy, help you to think clearly and keep toxins moving out of the body.

health and aging

Move Your Body

One thing I often hear my senior patients say is that moving has become more difficult because of aches and pains. This is a common complaint, so I tell them acupuncture is an excellent way to relieve pain, and pain is seen as stagnation in the body, a blockage of the flow. Acupuncture is very moving, and able to unblock these stagnations, but moving the body does this as well, things like walking, yoga, qi gong and tai chi are all wonderful ways to move energy and help keep things flowing to keep pain at a minimum.

positive thinking for health

Positive Thinking

A positive attitude has been proven to be a very important part of a persons overall health. Getting older can be fraught with difficulties, especially if you are not feeling well and depression and grief are common in seniors. But making a conscious effort to be positive and in an attitude of gratitude and thankfulness will do wonders for your health and wellbeing, and make you feel better from the inside out.

Although it is difficult to undo unhealthy behaviours from the past - staying up late, working long hours, drinking too much, copious drug use (prescription and otherwise), do you not want to enjoy the life that you have left? I believe, and the Chinese medical model suggests, that you are at the helm of the ship that is your health. If you eat well, drink clean water, sleep, exercise, express your emotions, and have a happy inner life then you can be a healthy, happy individual, at any age.

health and aging in Chinese medicine

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You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.

~ Buddha

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How My Curse Became My Gift.

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

I was a sensitive child. I felt things deeply. But when you are little you don’t understand this about yourself.

I always found it hard to be in a room with a lot of people. I could FEEL what everyone in the room was feeling. It was overwhelming. Because of this, I spent a lot of time by myself. This wasn’t the only reason. I grew up an only child, and we moved a lot. I was good at being by myself. I could spend hours playing by myself, I lived in my imagination. The external world was intense and overwhelming for me, sounds always seemed too loud, smells too strong. When it came time for me to go to school, the experience was terrifying. I was painfully shy and had a hard time in crowded classrooms full of excited children. I begged my parents to let me stay home, but alas, I could not. I had to go to school. These reactions prompted some concern for my parents. I think this is why my father took it upon himself to try to “toughen me up”, which for most children would have been fine, enjoyable bonding perhaps, but for me bordered on brutality. They were worried about me and how I was going to survive in the cruel, harsh world.


It was at this point that I started to realize that perhaps something was wrong with me, or that I was different in some negative way. I started to notice my parents reaction to my sensitivity to things even though I didn’t know it as sensitivity then. Whenever animals got hurt, I would cry. I still can’t watch humane society commercials. I worried about the environment. I worried about my parents dying and where they were going when they did. I worried a LOT.

But, there were many things that were my solace from the worries of the world. I felt deeply connected to animals, especially my pets. I could feel what they were feeling and always knew what they needed. I loved being outside in nature and the gentle hum that came from the plants and the environment was comforting to me. I spent hours outside playing, building, walking. I was a daydreamer. I still am. I thought up entire worlds, people and complex scenarios where I would spend time in my imagination. This is what made me happy as a child, I had a rich inner life, but the real world and all its darkness, violence and death worried me deeply.

The importance of imagination

I think that my parents were really worried about how I was going to make it. Of course, they loved me and thought I was wonderful, but I suspect they wondered how I would deal with the harsh realities of life. I had heard them tell people what a “sensitive” child they had, and this was always accompanied by an expression of concern and received with a knowing look of sympathy. Being a sensitive kid was tough. My best friend's mother died suddenly in her sleep one night when we were 11 and I cried for a week because I was so sad for her and terrified my parents were next. When my pets died I was beside myself and couldn’t function. When I saw injustice or cruelty, I became angry and depressed that people couldn’t be more kind to each other. I worried about the state of the planet and the people on it. I still do.

Making it through high school was a miracle. As a shy, awkward teenager, high school is a special kind of hell. Thankfully, I went to an art high school and found a lovely group of people just like me, and we all got through it together.

Much later when I had a little more life experience and some more tools at my disposal I figured out a way to explain the way I was and why I was so easily overwhelmed by certain situations and felt everything so deeply. I realized that the bandwidth in which I take in stimulus is waaaaaaaay bigger than it is for a normal person - so, for most people parties with lots of people are fun and a place to relax and enjoy themselves, but for me, they are overwhelming, over stimulating and exhausting. For some people seeing an animal being hurt is sad but manageable, but for me, it is devastating and will haunt me for years.

Years later when I was in school learning Chinese medicine something amazing happened. In those years, you are learning to heal by first healing yourself, and it is an intense process that can take you to unexpected places. In second year we began our clinical hours in the student clinic treating patients.  I began to realize that I was easily able to tell why someone wasn’t feeling well and what they needed. I could organize my questions around what I felt from them instead of following a protocol or instructions. Instead of feeling three levels of the pulse, I could feel eleven. I could tell within a few minutes when someone in the clinic was sad, or depressed or afraid and that this was the reason they weren’t well, often without ever speaking to them. I knew when holding a patient’s hand would do more than sticking them with needles. I knew when listening was far more important to someone's recovery than herbs or dietary therapy. I knew the problem and the reasons for it, even if the person's words were telling us something completely different. It was incredible, I knew what people needed without even trying.

It was while I was in school that I changed the way I felt about myself. Instead of being someone who had a weakness that needed to be overcome, I became someone with a gift. I just hadn’t ever known how to use it before. This thing I had, it turned out, made me very capable of helping people feel better. Figuring out why they weren’t feeling well and what to do about it. This sensitivity allowed me to feel on many deep levels and ascertain the root of the problem and how to correct it.

Now, after being in practice for many years, I have been able to hone my sensitivity which allows me to get to the root of a patient’s problem quickly and efficiently. I use what I “feel” from them as much as listening to the words they are telling me to diagnose and treat them. Because of this, I am able to resolve their problems because I know what caused them and how to best approach their treatment. What I love about Chinese medicine is that it is about the person you are treating, not the disease. The way they feel is just as important as what is happening inside their bodies, and being sensitive is the best tool I have to be able to help people rebalance and get well.

I am so grateful that I was able to find a profession that allowed me to realize that this thing that had always made life more difficult, actually made me a better healer. Accepting that being sensitive was not in fact a curse, but something incredibly valuable was very healing on many levels. The whole experience made me realize something else… that there are no such thing as curses, there are only gifts.

The gift of sensitivity

I urge you to find yours, and go out and use it to change the world.

words of wisdom

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How my curse became my gift | Chinese Medicine Living