The Spleen in Traditional Chinese Medicine
The spleen in TCM is an interesting organ and its functions are very unlike that of the role of the spleen in western physiology. From the western point of view, the spleen is responsible for filtering old or damaged red blood cells and plays a role in immunity by producing white blood cells once it has detected pathogens. In TCM the functions of the spleen also include the functions of the pancreas (some practitioners believe that there was an error in translation from ancient texts in which the spleen was meant to be called the pancreas, or that they were believed to be the same organ). For instance, diabetes is usually connected with a spleen disharmony in the eyes of an acupuncturist. As in western physiology, the spleen also plays a role in immunity via it’s interaction with the lungs.
The primary function of the spleen is aiding the stomach in digestion (the spleen and stomach are yin-yang paired organs). It transports and transforms food and separates the usable and unusable parts of food. The spleen is the main organ that produces qi. Food and drink are ingested, move down to the spleen, then qi and blood are formed through transformation and interaction with the lungs (qi) and heart (blood). In order to improve digestion, it’s important to slow down when you eat. Try to avoid working or studying when you are eating. If possible, go home for lunch! A healthy diet is essential to keeping your spleen in good shape. Avoid excessive consumption of refined sugars, overly sweet foods, greasy foods, fried foods, and avoid icy or cold drinks. In TCM it’s not ideal to eat an excess of cold or raw foods (sushi, salads, etc.) since they contribute to accumulation of dampness and phlegm (below), so try to have as much cooked food as possible. Instead of raw veggies, try steaming them or cooking them in a small amount of a healthy oil. Add some fresh ginger to your morning green smoothie. If you insist on having a cold salad, follow it up with a hot ginger tea afterwards to aid in digestion. Some people don’t like ginger, so you can substitute it with cinnamon or spearmint tea (not peppermint, as peppermint is cooling but spearmint is warming). So often I hear complaints of bloating from patients who eat raw and cold foods and once they switch to having more cooked foods the results are immediate.
A very common syndrome in TCM known as blood deficiency is usually linked to a dysfunction of the spleen in its ability to make blood. This syndrome has many overlapping symptoms with iron deficiency anemia, so your practitioner should recommend that you see your family doctor for a blood test if you have symptoms of blood deficiency, which include: dull, pale complexion, dizziness, numbness or tingling, fatigue, poor memory, pale lips, dry skin, scanty periods or amenorrhea (absence of menstruation), anxiety, or depression.
The spleen is easily affected by dampness and phlegm. You know that feeling when it’s the middle of summer and everything is sticky and hot and you find that you’re feeling sluggish and heavy and it’s difficult to focus? That’s dampness. And it means that your spleen needs some acu-love. Dampness can be the result of external or internal conditions, but we’ll save that for another post.
The spleen controls the muscles and four limbs. If you’re not getting enough nutrients from your food, your muscles become weak and you feel tired. In severe cases the muscles may even become atrophied. The spleen is the most important organ to consider when evaluating someone’s state of energy since it is responsible for creating qi from food.
The spleen is responsible for clear thinking, studying, memorization, focus, and concentration. Spleen energy is so easily depleted in students and workaholics. If you are one of these people it’s important to make sure you are eating enough in order to supplement what’s being eaten up by your focus. In a similar vein, the spleen is easily affected by worry, overthinking, and obsessive thoughts. Because the spleen plays such a major role in digestion, it’s common to find a link between how much you’re thinking or the way you’re thinking and your digestion. It may not be obvious at first, but you will likely notice the connection once you pay attention to it.
The spleen is different than the other organs in that it doesn’t necessarily correspond to any season. Each of the main organs is tied to a season (liver dominates in spring, kidneys in winter, etc.). While the heart is the organ dominating in summer, the spleen corresponds to late summer specifically - that time of year when everything is sticky and hot and humid and generally unpleasant. However, the spleen energy also comes alive at the end of each season. Therefore it is always a good idea to get an acupuncture treatment to boost your spleen energy at the end of every season, especially if you notice that you tend to get sick at the beginning or end of each new season. This can be indicative of a deficiency in your spleen qi as well as the organ associated with the time of year that this occurs.
Spleen pathology in TCM covers many different patterns, but the basics of spleen dysfunction include:
tendency to easily gain weight
tendency to depression
abdominal pain, bloating
So, what can you do to help your spleen?
make sure you’re eating enough
take frequent breaks from studying or focusing for long periods of time
avoid overly greasy foods
avoid excessive consumption of sweet foods, candy, refined sugar, etc.
avoid excessive consumption of cold liquids or icy drinks - always opt for room temperature or warmer
take note of how your emotions and thoughts influence your digestion
light exercise 2-4 times per week (yoga, light running, weight-lifting, etc.)
Conditions commonly linked to spleen disharmony:
iron deficiency anemia
irritable bowel syndrome
Do you have any of the above symptoms or disorders? Book online at living.janeapp.com or call 604-535-3335 to book an appointment and let’s work on your spleen together!