What is the Role of the Spleen in TCM?
What is an Organ System (Zang Fu)?
In TCM there are five organ systems. These systems control the healthy functioning of the entire human body. While they don’t represent every single organ, they are the organs in charge of the most vital materials. Each system is linked with one of the elemental phases and is comprised of two main organs. The Chinese term, zang fu, represents the two halves of these partnerships. Zang organs are said to be relatively solid in composition and have yin qi, or energy. Fu organs are typically hollow and have yang energy.
But what is qi (pronounced ‘chee’), yin, and yang? For those unfamiliar, it’s essentially the innate energy or life force that exists in all things, living and nonliving. Trees, people, animals, your cellphone, everything has qi. This energy is what contains our spirit, essence, or driving purpose of existence. In TCM, it’s believed that we all have both light and darkness within us, and within qi.
This contrast of dark and light is represented by the phrase yin and yang. These are opposite, yet equal strength energies and their balance is what keeps our bodies, and the rest of the world, working in harmony. In Chinese medicine different entities are described as being yin or yang. For example yin is described as feminine, shady, passive, intuitive, right-brain, slow, night, winter, and cold. Yang is described in contrast as masculine, sunny, active, left-brain, warm, day, light, and summer. Everyone has both yin and yang energies.
Qi and organs can also be described with yin and yang, and you’ll hear these descriptors used often in TCM. The five organ systems include; Spleen-Stomach (earth), Lung-Large intestine (metal), Kidney-Bladder (water), Liver-Gallbladder (wood), and Heart-Small intestine (fire). The five organ systems must work in harmony to maintain yin and yang and keep the body healthy. When an imbalance between the working order occurs, an illness or condition is triggered.
The Role of the Spleen System in TCM
In the case of the Spleen, it’s considered a yin organ. It is linked as a partner to the Stomach, which is considered it’s yang counterpart in TCM. Together they make the Spleen system which is connected to the Earth phase of transformation. While the traditional roles of the Spleen are important, there are also a few additional responsibilities required of it. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the Spleen is considered the root source of both qi and blood.
As the most important organs in the digestive system, the Spleen and Stomach work together to act as agents of transformation and transportation of nutrients. The yin organ, so in this case the Spleen, transforms the nutrients into healthy blood and qi. Then the yang organ, in this case the Stomach, is responsible for transporting them through the other systems in the body. They work together to keep everything running smoothly.
In this organ system, the Spleen covers the upper half of the body while the Stomach is in charge of the lower half. The Stomach qi is spread through the intestines and other organs located in your mid-section. The Spleen qi moves up through the chest. It’s vital to a healthy functioning of the Heart and Lungs.
What is Spleen Qi?
In TCM, Spleen qi is often used to describe the functioning of the entire digestive system. It works like this: energy generated from the Spleen is meant to ascend, or move upwards through the organ systems located above it (like 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.
So without a healthy Spleen, the Heart and Lungs won’t be able to receive the nutrients they need to work at full function. And when they aren’t working at full function, they can’t produce good blood and qi, thus impacting the rest of the body and skewing the balance of yin and yang.
It is believed that when there is an imbalance or issue influencing the Spleen qi, it can cause that qi to flow in the wrong direction. So rather than ascending up to the Heart and lungs, the Spleen qi flows down into the Stomach and intestines. Imagine it as if a hole appeared in the bottom of your glass of milk. Though you’re trying to suck the milk up through a straw, it’s quickly leaking out through the bottom faster than you can drink. That would cause a bit of a mess wouldn’t it? That’s essentially what happens in your body when Spleen qi is unbalanced and the qi ends up in the wrong place.
Spleen Qi Deficiency
Unbalanced Spleen qi means there’s what TCM practitioners refer to as a Spleen qi deficiency. Spleen qi deficiency will cause 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 like lack of appetite, flatulence, or diarrhea. People can also experience fatigue or a strange sense of giddiness.
But what actions spark Spleen qi deficiency? Long periods of eating badly, too much time spent in damp areas, ingesting too many cold foods and drinks, overworking the digestive system, or genetic predispositions can cause deficiency. If you think you might have Spleen qi deficiency, check out some of the symptoms commonly noted to be associated with this issue.
Symptoms of Spleen qi deficiency:
General weakness and low energy
Frequent sweating without much movement
Low, soft voice
Poor appetite or food aversion
Avoidance of cold greasy foods
Symptoms that tend to be more intense in the morning
Dull pain in the low belly
Other Important Functions of the Heart System
Because the Spleen is an active player with two of the bodies’ most basic needs, blood and qi, it is viewed as being linked to several other functions that you might not expect. In TCM, the Spleen system is often connected with mental processing and thought, muscles, exhaustion, and the Kidneys.
The Kidney and the Spleen
While the Spleen plays a role in nourishing the other organ systems in the body, it has a particularly special connection with the Kidney. The Kidney in TCM is seen as the home of a person’s innate essence. It acts as the controller of many areas, including the genitals and urinary tract, sex glands, hormones, some immune system functions, the nervous system, and the Heart.
While the Kidney relies on nutrients from the Spleen, the Spleen also relies on the Kidney. It’s believed that the warming nature of the Kidney, the yang of the organ, is actually what propels the Spleen and Stomach to begin the transformation and transportation process. While the nourishing qualities of the Spleen are acquired, the Kidney has those properties innately. If there is an issue with the Kidney and it fails to spark the Spleen’s transformation process, those negative digestive symptoms mentioned above (most commonly diarrhea) will likely present themselves.
The Mind and the Spleen
Have you ever had a long day of work, with back-to-back appointments? Maybe you didn’t have a lot of time to sit down and each during the day. It’s likely on this marathon of a day you felt a little loopy or off by the end of it. Maybe you even got a headache by the end of it. In TCM, this instance might signify that your Spleen has been undernourished.
The healthy processing and activity in the brain require a normal and consistent balance of nutrients, blood, qi, yin, and yang. In the same way you need to eat well and nourish your body after an afternoon at the gym, your brain also needs sustenance after working out all day. Since the Spleen is responsible for transforming and transporting those needed nutrients and qi, its healthy functioning is directly related to your brain power. If you find you’re experiencing mental fatigue, unusual thoughts, or confusion, you might want to talk with your TCM practitioner about the health of your Spleen system.
The Muscles and the Spleen
Ever heard of bulking season? When people are trying to build significant amounts of muscle, they often ‘bulk’, or increase their daily calorie intake (in addition to maintaining an exercise routine). This is in part because of the extra nutrients and energy they get from the additional servings of food. As we’ve learned, those nutrients are key to helping the body run properly.
The Spleen’s job to ensure all organs are getting what they need also extends to the muscles. In TCM, patients who have atrophied muscles, are slow to heal from wounds, have generally weak limbs, or bedsores are often thought to have issues with their Spleen. On the contrary, people with strong and thriving muscles are said to have a very healthy and active Spleen system. Many TCM practitioners suggest that patients avoid sitting or laying down for long periods throughout the day as it can damage the Spleen.
Exhaustion and the Spleen
The body needs energy to function. And that energy is created from the nutrients in the food we eat. The Spleen is connected to our abundance or lack of energy due to its role as the transporter and transformer (no, not like the movie).
If the Spleen has taken a negative hit and isn’t able to transform and transport those nutrients to the other organs properly, they won’t be able to perform as usual. It also won’t be able to transform any dampness that’s accumulated. So when the organs aren’t getting their nutrients, they can’t produce energy, and you feel tired. This is why TCM practitioners view the Spleen as a key link to those feelings of exhaustion and sluggishness.
How to Keep Your Spleen Healthy
Now that you know how important the Spleen system is, it’s time to keep yours healthy and balanced so it can do its job well. The holistic approach of Traditional Chinese Medicine means that every action you take can trickle down to your health and wellness; what you eat, how you move (or don’t move) your body, sleep duration…you get the picture.
If you feel as though your Spleen could use some TLC from a TCM perspective, consider trying some of the following adjustments to your diet and lifestyle.
The time in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner is when the Spleen and other digestive organs are working their hardest. After all, they have to process and make space in there before your next meal time! When you take care to stop eating when you’re full, you’ll help ensure that your system runs smoothly. You’ll also avoid feeling bloated, constipated, or drained.
Watch What You Eat and Drink
It’s believed that food and beverages that are too chilled or cold can hurt the Spleen. According to TCM, the body must exert more effort to warm up the cold food or beverage before it can return to the normal process of digestion. If you’re looking to maintain the health and functionality of your Spleen system, try sticking to warm foods that are easy to digest like soups, broths, oats, and rice-based meals.
Watch How You Eat
While what you eat is important, how you eat can be just as impactful. The Spleen is part of the digestive system, and it has a big job to do. If you’re not thoroughly chewing up your meals, you may be adding some extra stress on your body. Chewing food well also makes it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients more quickly.
Stay Away From Damp Places
This sounds weirdly specific, we know. But as mentioned above, dampness is a key trigger of Spleen qi deficiency. If you live in a naturally damp environment, do your best to keep your home, clothing, and other possessions dry. If the Spleen gets unbalanced and can’t process the dampness that seeps in, it’ll have a hard time functioning properly.
Stop Multitasking During Meals
It’s believed that dividing your attention between eating and other tasks can spark issues with the Spleen and Stomach. Turn off the TV, put your work away, and turn off your phone. Minimize distractions to help your Spleen stay healthy. As a bonus, you’ll get some good quality time with your family, or an opportunity to practice mindfulness.
Herbs to Strengthen the Spleen
If herbal treatments are up your alley, there are a few that TCM associates with Spleen health. These herbs include:
- Astragalus (黄芪)
- Ginseng (人参)
- Codonopsis (丹参)
- Chinese Yam (Huai Shan)
- White Atractylodes ( 白术)
- Licorice (甘草)
While you can sip on one of these herbal teas at home for preventative and general wellness, you’ll want to see a TCM practitioner for any serious concerns or to start a full treatment plan. Herbal treatments usually contain a mix of several different herbs to accurately treat your condition. They can be taken in pill supplement form, as teas, tinctures, syrups, or sometimes taken in food.
Acupuncture to Strengthen the Spleen
While you’re visiting your TCM practitioner, they may suggest acupuncture treatments to assist with the rebalancing or general health of the Spleen system. Getting acupuncture for the Spleen is said to help restore balance to your qi, release any blockages, and help reboot the cycle of the Spleen system. One of the most common acupuncture points that you might hear your TCM practitioner mention is Spleen 6. It’s located four finger-widths above the inner ankle and is considered the center point between the Spleen, Liver, and Kidney meridian channels.