In terms of Western medicine, the spleen is seen as an organ that is useful but not all that necessary. The spleen is known to help fight germs and infections, to help repair damaged blood cells, to cleanse the blood of waste and to recycle iron from hemoglobin. Yet, when the spleen is damaged or removed, there appears to be little change in the person to whom this has happened. In fact, other than being at greater risk of infections, there seem to be nearly no other side effects.
These facts have led Western medical experts to discount the spleen as being a necessary organ in modern humans. In terms of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), however, nothing could be further from the truth. In TCM, the spleen is held in high regard and is seen as one of the most vital organ systems. Having no spleen, or one that is deficient in its job, is considered a basic cause of many health-related problems.
The ‘Chinese’ Spleen
As it is understood in TCM, the “spleen” represents more than just the single organ that Western medicine calls the spleen. It actually represents a system or network within the body, especially related to the digestive system and formation of blood. To understand this better, let’s look at some of the basic tenets of TCM as they relate to the spleen.
In TCM, the spleen and stomach are paired or seen to work in unison, and the spleen is associated with the pancreas. As such, TCM maintains that the spleen not only repairs blood and fights infections, but helps pull nutrients from the food in the stomach (its paired organ) as an energy source (qi) to be used in the formation of blood and bodily nutrition. A healthy spleen system is also viewed as aiding the transformation and transportation of fluids within the body, as well as preventing organs from prolapsing and keeping blood in their vessels. When a patient complains to a practitioner of TCM of bloating, edema or easy bruising, the remedy of acupuncture or herbs focuses on the “spleen.”
Signs And Symptoms Of Spleen Qi Deficiency
When an organ like the spleen is not working at capacity, it is said to be “qi deficient” or lacking in the energy required to work effectively and efficiently. As examples, think of constipation (impaired intestinal qi), asthma (impaired lung qi), or abdominal bloating (impaired stomach qi). Such impaired states of qi are manifest as stagnations, excesses and deficiencies.
Spleen qi deficiency is a reflection of low intrinsic energy or qi of the spleen, which then affects various parts of the body causing a slew of negative signs and symptoms. These include: abdominal distension, anxiety, bloating, chronic bleeding, chronic headache, coldness, dampness, diabetes, difficulty waking in the morning, digestive issues, dizziness, dull muscle pain, dull stomach pain, easy bruising, easy sweating without exertion, exertion headache, fatigue, foggy thinking, hemorrhoids, hypoglycemia, little desire to speak, low soft voice, obesity, poor appetite, prolapsed organs, sallow complexion, shallow breathing, sweet tooth, tired eyes, uterine bleeding, varicose veins, weak limbs and weight gain.
If we relate some of the diseases of Western medicine to the Chinese concept of spleen qi deficiency, we can find a correlation with anemia, gastric ulcer, duodenal ulcer, hepatitis and dyspepsia.
Causes Of Spleen Qi Deficiency
Because the spleen is associated with many functions and is part of an overall system within the body related to blood, digestion and so forth, there are several key things that adversely affect the spleen, causing its qi to become deficient. The causes are rooted in lifestyle choices and include: improper diet, excessive worry, too much work with insufficient rest for repair, lack of physical exercise and overexposure to damp environments (weather and living spaces).
Because spleen qi deficiency is directly related to food choices, the first line of defense is to avoid the foods that cause or lead to the imbalance and to eat more of the foods that help restore spleen function.
Foods To Avoid
Foods that are bad for the spleen are the same as those that tax digestion overall. These include cold and raw foods that are hard to break down and digest, beverages that make the stomach cold and slow digestion, and milk products that cause interior dampness and make elimination and assimilation of nutrients sluggish.
The following should be avoided when spleen qi deficiency is presenting (moderation is OK when the spleen qi is back to its proper levels, as indicated by its function and lack of signs and symptoms): milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, ice cream, pork, wheat, gluten, yeast, millet, salt, tofu, sugar, saturated fats, citrus fruits, oily or fried foods, bananas, cold salads, undercooked grains, cold beverages, raw foods and white potatoes.
Foods To Consume
Foods that warm the body, boost blood and aid in digestion are said to be “yang tonics” and help support qi or energy in the body. These foods can help restore spleen function: cooked foods in general, root vegetables, raspberries, carrots, shrimp, beef, mushrooms, soups (not cream-based), radishes, ginger, cumin, black pepper, cloves, dill, fennel seed, garlic, pistachios, nutmeg, cooked greens, onions, peppermint tea, jasmine tea, legumes, beans and seeds.
Again, keeping in mind that the spleen is seen in a different context in TCM than in Western medicine and that it is paired with the stomach and connected with the pancreas, it is easy to see how and why it is so important to health. Health issues like diabetes, malabsorption syndrome and obesity can be avoided by strengthening the spleen as it is seen in TCM. Chronic muscle aches, abdominal bloating and cramping, and foggy headedness can also be reduced or prevented by addressing spleen qi deficiency.
Most of the causes and solutions for this “syndrome of imbalance” as viewed in traditional Chinese medicine are linked to behaviors and choices within one’s daily life. If you have the signs and symptoms of spleen qi deficiency and have tried other solutions with little effect, then embrace the dietary changes recommended in this article and see how you feel after two or three weeks. Better yet, find a TCM practitioner and see if he agrees that this is the issue impairing your health and let him guide your way back to wellness.