How To Have A Healthy, Happy Spleen With Chinese Medicine
By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP
One of the most common things I see in my practice is problems with digestion. Interestingly, this isn’t usually the reason that people come to see me, but when I am going through the medical history, it usually comes up. The sad thing is that most people live with digestive problems when in TCM they are relatively easy to fix with a little treatment, nutritional counselling and some tips on how to help support and strengthen our digestive systems.
Now, a lot of people think of the spleen as in the western medicine spleen, part of the immune system and responsible for the production of white blood cells (lymphocytes) and the removal of old red blood cells. It is not the same as it is in TCM. The spleen in Chinese medicine is paired with the Stomach, and both are the main organs of digestion for the body. The difference is that they not only digest food, but also stimulus and information – everything that comes into the body through our sense organs.
What you learn your first year in Acupuncture school when learning TCM theory, is that we live in a Spleen deficient culture. We are constantly taking in information, and that information has to be processed by, you guessed it, the Spleen. We eat in front of the TV (taking in food, and stimulus at the same time), we are constantly looking at our mobile devices on the road and wherever we go, and we are always multitasking. Never doing just one thing at a time. And thus, we are overloading our poor Spleens.
So, what can we do? There are lots of things that, once you are aware of them, can help take the burden off your Spleen.
Don’t Put Ice In Your Drinks.
Avoid Cold Foods.
The Spleen hates cold, so one easy way to help your Spleen is to avoid ice in your drinks. The Spleen is responsible for breaking down your food through the process of digestion, and this is powered by heat. Eating and drinking cold foods such as icy drinks, eating ice cream (a TCM nono!), or eating a lot of frozen or very cold foods (many foods in raw form are considered “cold”) taxes the Spleens energy, as it has to heat up again to be able to do the work necessary for digestion.
This is not just good advice for helping your Spleen, but a good life philosophy. One of the best things you can do for your Spleen is to do one thing at a time and be absolutely mindful when you do it. This means when you are eating, JUST EAT. Don’t sit in front of the TV, read, study or catch up on work. In such a fast paced world where everyone is short on time, it is understandable that people are always doing many things at once, but this small thing will not only help your Spleen, it will relax your mind and body as well.
Chew Your Food.
We can all help our Spleens by making sure that we really chew our food well. We tend to all be in such a hurry that we do not chew our food nearly as well as we should. Chewing will help the breakdown of the foods before they get to the stomach, making the Spleens job a little easier.
Since most of us have at least some Spleen deficiency, one of the best things you can do to be kind to your Spleen is to eat soups. These are warming (the longer and slower they are cooked, the more warming they become) and they are very easy to digest which is why they are prescribed to you when you are sick – your body requires less energy to digest them, focussing its energies to fighting pathogens and getting you well. Soups do not take a lot of energy to digest, saving the Spleens energy for other things. There are many foods that are beneficial to the Spleen which I will list later in the article. I will also list foods that the Spleen is not so fond of so you can at least be aware of what they are and avoid them when you can.
Take A Break.
Because we live in a culture that is so bombarded by stimulus, most people have deficient Spleens. The Spleen must take in and process ALL that information, including the food we eat and liquids we drink, so you can imagine, it is a very hard working organ. Something that you can do to give your Spleen a break, is to literally, take a break. Go for a walk outside. Leave your phone at home. Sit somewhere quiet and meditate away from the TV, the phone, and try to avoid interruptions. Doing this even once a day for a few minutes will really help the Spleen and you will notice a big difference in how you feel. You will notice that you are calmer, more aware and feel more at peace. And your Spleen will love you.
The Spleens Functions in TCM
The Spleen is responsible for many functions, so that if you have symptoms in any of these areas, they point to a disharmony of the Spleen.
The Spleen 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.
The Spleen Controls The Muscles
And The Four Limbs
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.
The Spleen Is 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 is 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.
The Spleen Opens Into The Mouth
& 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 hemorrhoids (prolapse of the anus, PLUS bleeding also attributed to the Spleen).
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.
Worry – The Emotion of the Spleen
All organs in TCM also are associated with an emotion, and the emotion of the Spleen is worry. This works in two ways. Excessive worry will damage the Spleen Qi, and a deficient Spleen can weaken the mind and our capacity to think clearly and focus, leaving us susceptible to worry.
Foods Beneficial For The Spleen
- Organic lightly cooked vegetables, corn, celery, watercress, turnip, pumpkin, alfalfa sprouts, button mushrooms, radish, caper
- Brown rice, barley, amaranth, rye, oats
- Legumes, kidney beans, adzuki beans, lentils
- Small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna
- Small amount of whole fruits, lemon
- Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
- Seaweed, kelp
- Green tea, jasmine tea, raspberry leaf tea, chai tea
- Raspberry, peach, strawberry, cherry
- Walnut, chestnuts, pine nuts, pistachios
- Lamb, venison
- Lobster, mussels, prawns, shrimp, trout
- Black pepper, cinnamon bark, clove, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, rosemary, sage, turmeric, thyme, horseradish, cayenne, nutmeg
Foods That Hurt The Spleen
- Cold drinks
- Fruit juice
- Processed foods
- Refined flour, pastry, pasta, breads
- Cold raw foods
- Refined sugar and sugar substitutes
- Coffee, alcohol
- Deep fried foods
- Peanuts and peanut butter
- Bananas, avocado
When the Spleen is functioning well a person will feel energetic, their digestion will be smooth, their bowel movements will be regular and firm (not soft), thoughts will be clear and one will be able to concentrate.
When the Spleen is imbalanced there will be symptoms of digestive upset, loose stools, poor appetite, low energy, edema (water retention), nausea, vomiting, weakness in the four limbs, pale lips, organ prolapse, bruising and a feeling of cold.
Because most of us have some level of Spleen deficiency, we can all help our Spleens by being aware of simple things we can all do to take some of the pressure off this important organ. Your Spleen will love you for it.
The Spleen in Chinese Medicine – A Handy Chart
Below is a fancy chart that will help you learn more about the spleen and all it’s associations in Chinese medicine.
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