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 http://thespicedoc.com/content/glossary 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 info@chinesemedicineliving.com.

Download Our Sheets - The Spleen in Chinese Medicine

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Loving Your Spleen in Chinese Medicine

Taking Care of Your Spleen Will Do Way More Than Improve Your Digestion

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 their medical history, it usually comes up. The sad thing is that most people live with digestive problems when in Chinese Medicine they are relatively easy to fix with a little treatment, nutritional counselling and some tips on how to help support and strengthen our digestions.

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 removal of old red blood cells. It is not the same as it is in Chinese Medicine. 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 Chinese Medicine 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. Because 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.

Be Mindful.

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.

Eat Soups.

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 Chinese Medicine

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.

muscles

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 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.

The Spleen manifests on the lips

The Spleen Opens Into The Mouth & Manifests In 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 are dependent on the strength of the Spleen.

Young Woman Biting Her Finger Nail

Worry - The Emotion of the Spleen

All organs in Chinese Medicine also are associated with an emotion, and the emotion of the Spleen is worry and overthinking. 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.

Colour food circle

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
  • A small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna
  • A small number of whole fruits (as opposed to just the juice), 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

preparing food

Foods That Hurt The Spleen

  • Dairy
  • Wheat
  • Cold drinks
  • Fruit juice
  • Processed foods
  • Refined flour, pastry, pasta, bread
  • 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, oedema (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 of this important organ. Your Spleen will love you for it. :)

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If you suspect you are having problems with your spleen and would like an expert opinion, Emma offers skype consultations. Please email emma@chinesemedicineliving.com for more information or to set up an appointment.

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Download Our Sheets - The Spleen in Chinese Medicine

Are You A Practitioner?

Please visit the Chinese Medicine Professionals Shop to get PRO sheets for your clinic that you can share with patients. Yay!

 

Loving Your Spleen in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living