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  • Ellen Brown L.Ac. DACM

Your spleen in TCM – foundation of our earthly existence

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

The Spleen represents the Earth element within each of us, generously providing the nourishment we need to live and thrive. Within the cycle of the five seasons, Earth is associated with the Late Summer, or harvest time. While each season has its unique purpose, the promise of harvest is the culmination of all that preceded it. What had once been a seed has finally come to fruition.

As the embodiment of the Earth element, the Spleen is related to the archetype of the Mother, our first source of nourishment. And the love we receive from her teaches us, in turn, how to care for (or “mother”) ourselves as well as others. If, however, we perceive as children that our mother was unloving, uncaring, or unable/unwilling to nurture us, we may go through life seeking to fill that void, searching for the absent mother. We never truly feel fed, nourished or understood. When a person struggles with an Earth-imbalance, they may appear to require excessive sympathy from others. Alternately, they may tend to smother others with emotion, over-mothering and attempting to “fix” everyone else while ignore their own needs and becoming an exhausted martyr. Additionally, they may feel isolated or insecure, lacking the motivation to move toward goals, feeling ungrounded, uncentered or uncomfortable in their own skin. While we all desire to be understood and nurtured, someone who is Earth-imbalanced will need it – or give it to others – beyond what is appropriate.

Functions of the Spleen

While western medicine views the anatomical Spleen as part of our immune system and responsible for the production of white blood cells, Chinese medicine has an entirely different – and far most robust – perspective on the Spleen. The Spleen is commonly mentioned with its Yang partner, the Stomach, as the main organs responsible for the digestion and assimilation. While TCM identifies the Kidneys as the origin of our pre-natal or “congenital” constitution, the Spleen is the source of post-natal or “acquired” constitution and the central organ related to the production of Qi.

The functions of the Spleen, according to TCM, are commonly identified as:

Governs transformation and transportation. The Spleen is responsible for the intake, processing and distribution of nutrients extracted from food and drink. As the Spleen transports refined food “essences” to various parts of the body, all our organs, limbs, bones, hair, and tendons are nourished. Therefore, the Spleen is considered to provide the material basis for the whole body. It functions as the root of Qi and Blood making; When we need to tonify Blood and Qi, we tonify the Spleen.

In addition, excess water produced during digestion is separated by the Spleen into usable and unusable fluids. The usable pure, "clear" part is raised upwards to the Lungs for distribution to the skin while the unusable "turbid" part goes down into the Intestines for further separation and eventual elimination.

If transformation and transportation are functioning properly, Qi is abundant, digestion is strong, appetite is robust and bowel movements are regular. When there is disharmony in the Spleen, Qi is weak, then appetite is poor, digestion is sluggish, and stools are loose and watery. When the transformation and transportation of fluids is impaired, fluids can accumulate to form Dampness and then Phlegm.

The transportation and transformative role of the Spleen depend greatly on the action of the Spleen Qi. A distinctive feature of Spleen Qi is that it mainly ascends, to relay nutrients to the Heart and Lungs where it passes into the circulatory system to the rest of the body. This ascending function of Spleen Qi also helps maintain the position of the organs in the body. On the other hand, the Stomach Qi mainly descends to facilitate the digestion process and excrete the undigested food out of the body. These ascending and descending actions complement each other within the digestion process. When either function is impaired, “counter flow” Qi may produce diarrhea or vomiting.

Controls the Blood. The Spleen is the root of Blood in the body and Spleen Qi is said to keep the Blood flowing in vessels. When Spleen Qi is healthy, Blood circulates normally and stays in the vessels. When Spleen Qi is weak, a person may bruise easily or have problems with excessive / uncontrolled bleeding. Blood may spill from its pathways, resulting in hemorrhages, vomiting of blood, blood in the urine or stool, subcutaneous bleeding (petechiae, purpura), heavy periods, abnormal uterine bleeding, and potential chronic bleeding.

Western research confirms that patients with Spleen dysfunction generally show an abnormal morphology of blood platelets, leading to a decrease in their ability to aggregate and release clotting factors. Thrombocytes in Spleen dysfunction patients have also been found to exhibit a shorter lifespan, resulting in a higher likelihood of hemorrhage. Spleen dysfunction patients were also found to have an increased capillary fragility, such that that they are more prone to capillary rupture and internal bruising.

Governs the Muscles and Four Limbs. In TCM, the movements of the muscles and the four limbs depend on the power of the Spleen to circulate Blood and Qi, as well as nutrients, to those tissues. When food Essences (nutrition) are properly transported by the Spleen throughout the body, muscle tone is good, and the limbs are strong. When the Spleen is deficient, muscles become thin or weak, limbs become slack, and there is low energy / strength.

Controls Upright Qi. Spleen Qi exhibits the tendency to ascend. Not only does it transport Grain Qi up to the Lungs, but it also raises and holds the Organs in their places. The Spleen is responsible for the body’s “holding” function, controlled by the Upright Qi, to counteract gravity and hold our organs in place. When the Spleen is weak, Spleen Qi “sinks” and we see prolapse of organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapse of the vagina, diarrhea and hemorrhoids (prolapse of the anus plus bleeding also attributed to the Spleen).

The Spleen is also said to raise clear Yang to the head. If the Spleen suffers from excessive Dampness, clear Yang will fail to ascend, leading to fuzzy thinking, poor concentration, and headaches.

Opens into the Mouth & Manifests on the Lips. The Spleen is directly connected to the mouth and lips since the process of transformation and transportation begins here. When the Spleen is strong, people have a good appetite and the mouth is able to distinguish the five flavors. On the other hand, when the Spleen is weak, there will be poor appetite, an inability to distinguish tastes and pale, dry lips.

Spleen-related conditions, especially those involving Spleen Blood, can often be identified by the lips' color and appearance. Red, moist lips indicate a healthy Spleen. When the lips are pale, however, Spleen Blood is likely deficient. The lips are often dry when Spleen Yin is deficient. Finally, if the Spleen suffers with excessive Heat, the lips are likely to be red, dry and cracked.

Houses the Intellect / Thought (Yi). According to TCM, every organ has its own unique Spirit. The Spirit of the Spleen is called the Yi – our capacity for thinking. Yi is translated as “thought” or “idea” and represents the intellectual function of the body. This includes absorbing and remembering information, focusing, studying, thinking, and organizing ideas. How well we manage our thoughts, display discernment, and form our intentions is dependent on the strength of the Spleen. When Spleen Qi is strong, we find it easy to study, think, and concentrate. If not, thinking may be fuzzy or dull, memory may be weak, and concentration is often poor.

Weakened by Anxiety and Worry. Both the Spleen and anxiety belong to the Earth, giving rise to a TCM maxim: “Anxiety impairs Spleen.” The Earth element is negatively impacted by an over-active mind, whether it be our work, study or our emotional life. More than any other organ, the Spleen is affected by worry, brooding, obsession, over-thinking, anxiety and rumination. Indulgence in or prolonged experience of any of these emotions can cause poor digestion, gas, nausea, bloating, ulcers, decreased appetite, and Qi stagnation. While excessive worry can damage Spleen Qi, it is also true that a deficient Spleen can also weaken the mind and our capacity to think clearly and focus, leaving us further susceptible to worry and anxiety.

Expanding Our Idea of Digestion

From a functional, or physical perspective, the Spleen (and its paired organ the Stomach) is the main organ of digestion within the body. Chinese medical theory expands on this, claiming the Spleen not only digests food, but all the other stimulus and information we take in through our sense organs. Due to onslaught of media, messages and images that bombard us every day, it’s fair to say that we live in a Spleen deficient culture. We are constantly taking in information, and that information has to be processed by the Spleen. We eat in front of the TV (taking in food and stimulus at the same time), we are constantly engaged with our mobile devices, and we are always multitasking. Rarely do we consciously decide to do just one thing at a time. As a result, our Spleen is chronically overloaded.

Importantly, Chinese medicine believes that the Spleen is responsible not only for digesting food and drink, but also for digesting our emotions and thoughts, keeping what nurtures our spirit and letting go of what doesn’t. The proper dispatching (and discarding) of emotional and intellectual nourishment to every corner of the mind is what gives us a sense of mental peace and safety.

When the Spleen is imbalanced or weak, the mind can lose its ability to focus, concentrate, remember, or study, as thoughts cannot be held in their proper place. The mind may race uncontrollably from one random thought to another. Alternately, it may become stuck and immobile, rigid and stubborn. Obsessive thinking, incessant worry, frustration, anxiety and depression are all expressions of stagnation just as surely as phlegm is in the physical body. Like the food and drink we consume, information is virtually useless if we cannot digest it, glean its wisdom, and put it to use.

Spleen Qi and Spleen Qi Deficiency

In TCM, Spleen Qi is often used to describe the functioning of the entire digestive system: energy generated from the Spleen is meant to ascend, moving upwards through the organ systems located above it (such as the Heart and Lungs). As the keeper of nutrients acquired by food, it shares these nutrients with the Heart and Lungs, which are responsible for generating Blood and Qi.

When the Spleen is functioning well, a person will feel energetic, their digestion will be smooth, their bowel movements will be regular and firm, and thoughts will be clear. When the Spleen is unhealthy, however, the Heart and Lungs won’t be able to receive the nutrients they need to fully function. And when they aren’t working optimally, they can’t produce healthy Blood and Qi, impacting the rest of the body and upsetting the balance of Yin and Yang.

Spleen Qi deficiency causes the Qi to leak downward instead of upwards, crossing into organ systems that are usually ruled by the Stomach. This downward oriented Spleen Qi can trigger digestive issues such as lack of appetite, flatulence, and diarrhea.

Dampness is a concept where the Spleen is incapable of transporting and transforming body fluids, leading to an accumulation of moisture within the body. The characteristics of dampness are that it is turbid, heavy, and hard to get rid of. It often starts at the legs and moves upwards to the abdomen. Depending on its location within the body, the pathogenic manifestations will be different. For example, if it is found in female genital area, there will be an increase in foul-smelling vaginal discharge; If dampness accumulates in the intestines, it results in loose stools. Other symptoms of dampness include: bloating, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, the feeling of heaviness in the limbs, and a thick, greasy tongue coating. TCM believes that the large and / or frequent intake of raw, cold foods including dairy damages the Spleen and results in damp accumulation.

Symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency

General weakness Fatigue and low energy

Poor appetite or food aversion Indigestion and bloating

Nausea and vomiting Gas and flatulence

Weak limbs Poor muscle tone

Frequent bruising Menstrual irregularities (light or heavy)

Diarrhea or loose stools Edema (water retention)

Tendency toward mucus Organ prolapse

Shortness of breath or shallow breathing Worrying

Difficulty concentrating Easy weight gain / difficulty losing weight

Low, soft voice Pale lips

Symptoms tend to be worse in the AM Craving sweets

Weak pulse

Strengthening Your Spleen

Strengthening the Spleen is one of the most important considerations in TCM treatments since it allows for the more effective absorption of foods as well as herbal medications that benefit our overall health. Here are some suggestions on how to strengthen your Spleen and return it to optimal health:

When you eat, only eat. While what you eat is important, how you eat is just as impactful. Meal time is an important time of the day, and eating should not be mixed with work, reading or watching television. This may inhibit the passage of food through the body and affect digestion.

Eat moderately. Overeating results in an overworked Spleen and food stagnation. Consuming too much food does not allow the Spleen sufficient time to empty the Stomach before your next meal, causing you to feel bloated and fatigued.

Chew your food well. Chewing your food thoroughly reduces the workload for your digestive system and allows the food to be absorbed more easily. It also allows a longer time for your meals, letting you realize the feeling of fullness and prevent overeating.

Eat soups. Since most of us have at least some Spleen deficiency, one of the best ways to be kind to your Spleen is to eat soups. They are warming and very easy to digest, which is why they are often prescribed when someone is sick – our body requires less energy to digest them, and can instead focus its energies on fighting pathogens and getting us well. Soups don’t take a lot of energy to digest, conserving Spleen’s energy.

Avoid cold foods and beverages. The Spleen hates cold and too much can damage the Organ. The Spleen is responsible for breaking down your food through the process of digestion, which is powered by heat. Eating and drinking cold foods such as icy drinks, ice cream, or even raw foods (which are considered “cold”) requires excess Spleen energy, as it has to heat up food to be able to do the work necessary for digestion.

Eat between 6 – 7. Eating your dinner by 6 or 7pm gives your Spleen a chance to rest along with all your other Organs. If you eat a lot or heavy foods at night, then you are making your Spleen work overtime when it should be resting.

Take a break. We live in a culture that is bombarded by stimulus. Since the Spleen must take in and process all that information, as well as the food we eat and liquids we drink, it is a very hard-working organ. Give your Spleen a break and go for a walk outside. Leave your phone at home. Sit somewhere quiet and meditate away from the TV. Doing this regularly will help you feel calmer more at peace, and less anxious.

Foods that Benefit the Spleen

  • Organic, lightly cooked vegetables, corn, celery, watercress, turnip, pumpkin, alfalfa sprouts, button mushrooms, radishes

  • Brown rice, barley, amaranth, rye, oats

  • Legumes, kidney beans, adzuki beans, lentils

  • A small amount of lean organic meat, lamb, poultry, fish, tuna

  • 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

  • Lobster, mussels, prawns, shrimp

  • Black pepper, cinnamon bark, clove, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, rosemary, sage, turmeric, thyme, horseradish, cayenne, nutmeg

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

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