THE SPLEEN & EASTERN MEDICINE
By Jennifer Ward – LAc, CAP & FMHC
The Spleen and Stomach in Eastern Medicine are the main organs that support your digestion. They are paired organs in Eastern Medicine, one yin and one yang. As with most things in Eastern Medicine, they key is finding balance. This is especially true of your Spleen where you can use food and lifestyle changes to support not only your digestion, but your health overall.
The spleen is a principal organ for the production of qi and blood in the body and serves a vital function in this capacity. In simple terms, the Spleen helps to transform food into food energy, “gu qi.” It turns food into usable energy and blood. It supports the digestion of food and extraction of nutrients. The spleen also supports water metabolism, controls the blood and nourishes the muscles.
When the spleen is functioning well a person has a good appetite, strong digestion, and vibrant energy. When the function is weak there may be bloating, gas, fatigue, diarrhea, poor appetite, poor focus, muscle weakness, anemia and menstrual concerns. Practitioners may also commonly see a pathology due to Spleen imbalance called, “dampness.” You can learn more about dampness here.
The Spleen controls digestion, keeps blood inside the vessels (“controls the blood”), aids in mental focus, lifts and holds internal organs and more. Overall the spleen plays an important role in various physiological functions, including digestion and absorption of nutrients, regulation of water retention and excretion, facilitation of blood to skeletal muscle and contributes to functioning of the immune system.
Fatigue is often a pathology due to deficiency in spleen “qi.” If the spleen is imbalanced there may be loss of appetite, abdominal fullness especially after meals, loose stools, breathlessness, inadequate nourishment for the organs, sluggishness or issues with food digestion and absorption.
What is Dampness?
When the Spleen is too weak or overwhelmed by poor diet and lifestyle, it generates Dampness. Dampness is a pathology where the spleen is incapable of transporting and transforming body fluids, leading to an accumulation of moisture in the body. The characteristics of dampness are heavy and it is difficult to get rid of. Signs of dampness may be loose stools, bloating, vomiting, nausea, heavy feeling, and yeast infections. If the spleen gets damaged by diet, dampness can appear and accumulate. Dairy products, alcohol, sugars, sweeteners and fried foods are said to exacerbate dampness.
The Spleen Likes it Warm
The spleen is powered by heat. You can think of spleen and stomach organ system as a collective “digestive fire,” a warm burner waiting to turn food into nutrients. Raw foods therefore are too cool for the body. The cold will put the fire right out. It takes more energy for the body to use these nutrients. Therefore, in TCM, a food rule is no iced drinks and replace with room temperature drinks, warm drinks or hot drinks. The Spleen can easily be burdened by colder foods, which weigh down the digestion process promoting dampness. A popular meal today is a smoothie but an Acupuncturist would suggest rather “smoothie soup” or drink ginger tea before and after consuming. It’s also important to chew your smoothies. Learn how to say no to smoothies and why here.
It’s easier to break down and separate food when the temp is closer to our body internal temperature. Clients who love their ice cream report they feel bloated or maybe sleepy after consuming this type of food. The body is working on warming up the cold rather than digesting the ice cream. Slightly cooking your veggies can make a huge difference for how we digest them. This starts the breakdown process before it even hits your mouth, less work for your body to digest. This is where soups come in, they are incredible fuel for the spleen.
Chew, Rest and Digest
Digestion starts in the mouth. Chewing is the essential first step of digestion. Chewing helps the transformation function of the spleen. This is Digestion 101. Chewing your food sends messages to the gastrointestinal system that food is on its way. Chewing your food thoroughly reduces the workload for your digestive system and food gets absorbed more easily. This also allows a longer time for your meals, letting you realize the feeling of fullness and prevent overeating.
It’s important to also consider your food environment. This means making time to rest and eat. Focus on eating. For clients who say they have no choice than to eat at their desk, consider looking at a picture of nature for grounding and stepping away. In fact, here are 5 ways to improve your mindful eating experience.
Eat in moderate amounts: Overeating results in an overworked spleen and food stagnation. The spleen does not have sufficient time to empty your stomach before your next meal, causing you to feel bloated and fatigued.
Note the time of day 9-11am is dedicated to the spleen. By 9am the spleen can work to transmute breakfast to usable energy and use increased mental energy to work instead of digestion. Your good breakfast can provide energy to focus on hard things during this time. Learn more about how the body clock can help you at all hours of the day.
Foods For a Healthy Spleen
Changing diet and lifestyle are major steps to recovery of a spleen pathology or prevention of pathology. Foods to limit or eliminate completely from the diet include: dairy products, gluten, sugar, refined vegetable oils, fried and processed foods.
Squash, pumpkins, yams are all fantastic for the earth organ of the spleen, spleen and are naturally sweet. Warm veggies such as mustard greens or chives are great additions. Lighter proteins are also a better choice or consider yellow lentils. Have you ever tried breakfast congee or savory fish congee? Congee is a traditional warm, whole, soothing, healing meal and delivers needed nutrients to help support compromised digestion and can heal and repair the spleen.
Warm teas are fantastic such as ginger tea, cinnamon tea or cumin, coriander, fennel tea which can be consumed daily.
Consider this simple soup recipe: A cumin, coriander, fennel crusted chicken soup. Saute grated ginger, garlic, turmeric, add turkey broth (or any other broth), then add chopped mustard greens towards the end of cooking. While the broth is simmering you can add the cumin, coriander, fennel spice rub to the chicken breast. Cook in cast iron. Add the cooked chicken to the soup and top with fresh chopped daikon.
Start small, feed your spleen and it will love you!