What is Spleen Qi Deficiency?

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

The spleen is my favourite organ in the body. As an acupuncturist, I am not really supposed to play favourites, saying you love one organ more than the others is like a parent declaring that they love one of their children more, but I feel like I have a special connection with the spleen. I talk about it a lot and I seem to write about it even more. It is a hard-working and often under-appreciated little organ, so it is my duty, and my privilege to give it some much-needed love and attention.

The spleen is an organ that doesn’t really get discussed very much in relation to the other organs of the body. I think its role in Western medicine is perhaps seen as less ‘vital’ than the other organs, but the role of the spleen in Western medicine is very different than its role in Chinese medicine.

The Spleen In Western Medicine

In Western medicine, the spleen is part of the immune system and the largest organ in the lymphatic system. It is where red blood cells are recycled and where white blood cells, called lymphocytes, are stored. It is possible to live without a spleen. You can lacerate or rupture your spleen in a car accident or playing contact sports (or via any severe physical trauma) and the spleen may have to be repaired or removed completely (called a splenectomy). Although it is possible to live without a spleen because other organs overcompensate and take over many of its important functions, it makes a person more susceptible to infections and ultimately compromises their immune system.

The Spleen In Chinese Medicine

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This lovely image from http://thespicedoc.com/content/glossary and designed by Patricia Callison

The spleen has a fundamental role in Chinese medicine. It, paired with the stomach, are the main organs of digestion and are responsible for digestion and distribution of food and nutrients throughout the body. The spleen extracts qi from the food we eat that is used by the body to build immunity (wei qi), keep things moving freely (stagnation leads to disease), the proper functioning of the other organs and helps to regulate mental functions and emotions.

Why Our Culture Is Hard On The Spleen

It is very common in our culture to have a deficiency of the spleen. Because the spleen is the main organ of not only digestion but processing, it is responsible for processing the food and drink that we consume, as well as all of the stimuli that comes in through our sense organs. We are a culture that values doing many things at once. The more productive we can be, the more we are praised at our jobs and in life. This philosophy is contrary to the health of the spleen. In Chinese medicine, to keep the spleen healthy, it is important to do one thing at a time, and as mindfully as possible. The idea is that the spleen is then able to use all of its energies to process one thing, rather than having to process many things at once, which wipes out its energy stores, or spleen qi. Examples of doing many things at once are eating (taking in food/drink) while watching TV (taking in stimulus). Or eating while sitting at your computer working. These are commonplace in a culture where everyone has too much to do and is always short on time. This is one of the biggest reasons that so many people suffer from a deficiency of their spleen qi. So, do one thing at a time. If you are going to eat, just eat. Really concentrate and be mindful about what you are doing. Enjoy and savour your food, this will not only help your spleen but lead you to be more relaxed and help you digest more efficiently too.

The Spleen in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living

A Strong And Balanced Spleen

People with strong and balanced spleen energy have the following characteristics:

  • responsible
  • practical
  • hardworking
  • strong
  • like to nurture themselves and others
  • active
  • stable
  • excellent endurance
  • good appetites
  • good, healthy digestions
  • strong limbs
  • are orderly and careful
  • often very creative
  • have fertile imaginations

 

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A Spleen Imbalance

People with an imbalance of their spleen often display the following characteristics:

  • chronically tired
  • a feeling of being “stuck” in their lives
  • physical and/or mental stagnation
  • weak digestion (lots of digestive issues)
  • poor appetite
  • a diminished sense of taste
  • loose stools
  • abdominal bloating and tenderness
  • masses in the abdomen
  • weight problems (either overweight without overeating or underweight without the ability to gain)

Spleen Qi Deficiency

A deficiency of spleen qi can be caused by many things. Eating a poor diet of mostly refined, highly processed foods where the body is not receiving enough nourishment is certainly common, especially in industrialized nations where foods tend to be overly processed and many people make poor food choices. Another cause is simply our hectic lifestyles. As I mentioned above, we are a culture of multitasking, and this is particularly hard on the tiny organ that is responsible for doing all the processing. If it is constantly overloaded, then it will become exhausted, leading to spleen qi deficiency. Another cause and this is also extremely common, is the emotional aspect of the spleen. In Chinese medicine, every organ is associated with an emotion. An excess of that emotion can damage the related organ, and likewise, when the organ is out of balance, it can have a strong effect on the corresponding emotion. The emotion of the spleen in worry/overthinking. If there is one emotion that I see more than any other in clinic, it is WORRY. An excess of worry and overthinking, as well as having a hard time just shutting off your brain, is damaging to the spleen. And we do that so much in our society. The pressures on us are enormous, and people are simply overworked and overstressed. So, poor nutrition, multitasking and a propensity to worry are all part of our culture, and all are affecting our poor, overworked spleens. It's no wonder spleen qi deficiency is so common.

Here are some symptoms of spleen qi deficiency so you know what to look for:

  • weakness of the whole body
  • fatigue
  • loose stools with undigested food
  • a pale tongue with a thin white coat and teeth marks on the sides
  • a weak pulse
  • weakness of the arms and legs
  • weak muscles
  • prolapse of organs (such as haemorrhoids, uterus, bladder, intestines)

The symptoms above all point to a spleen imbalance. There is good news though. There is wonderful nutritional therapy for deficient spleen qi, and as many Chinese doctors have known for centuries, food is the best medicine.

The Thermal Nature Of Foods In Chinese Medicine

When we talk about nutritional therapy in Chinese medicine, which is an important modality, we talk about the thermal nature of foods. This can be a bit of a difficult concept to understand at first, but once it's explained, it actually starts to make a lot of sense. Thermal nature is not just how physically cold or hot a food is as a result of cooking. In Chinese medicine, all foods are seen to have a fundamentally thermal nature, either warming, cooling or neutral, and these are important to know as they have a direct effect on the body. In the context of Chinese medicine, it is also important to know the thermal nature of your body, which is measured by the relative yin and yang energies it encompasses. For example, if a person comes to you with a red face, bloodshot eyes, outbursts of anger and is shouting, it is pretty safe to determine that that person has an excess of yang energy and thus, should eat cooling foods and stay away from warming ones until the balance of yin and yang is reestablished. Every organ also has a temperature that it prefers, so it is good to know all these things when thinking about food therapy in terms of health and disease.

Foods for Spleen : Chinese Medicine LivingBeautiful Foods

Food Therapy For Spleen Qi Deficiency

With foods thermal nature in mind, the spleen likes to be warm and dry. So if you have spleen qi deficiency, you want to eat foods that are warming, or at least neutral to help build the spleens energy. Cold foods should be avoided as they weaken digestion. Also, foods that are cold in temperature take more energy for the spleen to digest and are seen to extinguish the digestive fire. The flavour associated with the spleen is sweet, so as a rule, sweet foods are prescribed to correct a deficiency.

One of the best foods to build spleen qi is cooked white rice, often eaten in the form of congee or jook. Congee is essentially a porridge made of overcooked rice and water. You may add other ingredients depending on your condition and taste. For spleen qi deficiency or any weakness of the spleen, warming ingredients would be appropriate. See the list below.

Beneficial Spleen Foods

Vegetables

  • pumpkin
  • yam
  • black beans
  • garbanzo beans
  • carrot
  • parsnip
  • squash
  • peas
  • sweet potato
  • onion
  • leek

Spices

  • black pepper
  • ginger
  • nutmeg
  • cinnamon
  • fennel
  • garlic

Sweeteners (in small amounts)

  • barley malt
  • rice syrup
  • molasses
  • cherries
  • dates

Animal Products (if the deficiency is severe)

  • mackerel
  • tuna
  • halibut
  • anchovy
  • beef
  • beef liver or kidney
  • turkey
  • chicken
  • lamb
  • butter

Chewing foods well is also important when spleen energy is weak. This helps to break down foods before they get to the spleen and means the spleen has less work to do and conserve its energy. Eating things like soups are beneficial because they are cooked until soft and are less work for the spleen to digest. And finally, the preparation of food is also a factor in helping to build up spleen qi. Eating on the run and eating out mean that you are not taking the time and intention to mindfully prepare the foods that you are eating. To prepare foods with care infuses them with healing energies that the whole body, and especially the spleen, needs. So take the time to prepare the foods that you are eating with love, your spleen will appreciate it. :)

Spleen in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living

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What is Spleen Qi Deficiency? : Chinese Medicine Living

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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. :)

 

Featured image photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash



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