The Spleen: According to Chinese Medicine

The Spleen, according to Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), is quite a different beast than that described in Western medicine.  The Western description of the Spleen says that it has one main function: to filter blood.  That’s it.  In TCM, which deals with a set of energetic functions as opposed to literal physical functions, refers to it as the main organ of digestion.  So in order to understand the Spleen from a Chinese perspective, it is best to forget about its literal purpose, and think of it as a concept: the chief representative, or the front man of the digestive system.

The TCM description of the Spleen says that its main function is to support the function of the Stomach, by transforming and transporting food.  That means that it is responsible for breaking down food into usable parts and then delivering said parts to the appropriate organs and tissues for use.  It is also the central organ in the production of Qi.  Since the Spleen is the first recipient of food and drink, it takes these materials in their initial form and extracts as much Qi from them as possible and makes it available to the body systems that need it.

(Qi, pronounced chee, is energy.  It is our life force, material force, vital power.  Qi is at the basis for all phenomenon in the universe, and it is through Qi that acupuncture works.)

Since the Spleen is the primary organ for ensuring proper nourishment, producing Qi, building strong muscles, and is the center for building vitality, it is important to take care of it and make sure it is a “happy” organ.

Every organ/energetic system in TCM has a set of characteristics.  It is as if they all have their own personalities complete with likes and dislikes.  The things that they like make them stronger, while dislikes weaken them.  With this in mind, living in a way that is harmonious with the Spleen will ensure healthy digestion, a good level of energy, and vitality.

The Spleen is in charge of so much, so it likes when its jobs are simple.  Like when it receives food that is easy to digest.  What foods fit into this category can vary widely from person to person, however there are some general guidelines that everyone can apply

First of all, the Spleen likes it when it receives food that is easy to digest and is eaten in a calm environment.  That means eating when not distracted by television, reading, studying, driving, or heaven forbid, arguing.  All of these activities direct attention away from the activity of receiving and assimilating food, which also distracts awareness from how full we feel or if a food is agreeing with us.  This in turn can keep our food from being digested properly because we have put our bodies into sympathetic mode (fight or flight) rather than parasympathetic mode (rest and digest).  So the first step to healthy digestion is to eat in a relaxed environment with limited distractions, and preferably with people who make us happy and feel loved.

Cooked foods and warm beverages are easier to digest than raw foods and cold beverages.  Even though raw foods often do have a higher nutrient content, these nutrients tend to be difficult for your body to access.  Think of the old saying “digestive fire.”  That’s actually quite a literal statement.  It means that your body needs to warm what has been eaten as the first step of the digestive process, and a healthy digestion has a healthy “fire.”  So when you eat cold, raw foods, or drink iced beverages, your body must first warm them before it can begin to digest them.  Not only do cold food and beverages weaken the “digestive fire,” but this process takes excess energy and can eventually weaken the whole system leading to difficulty in accessing nutrients.  You might even see evidence of this in undigested food in your stools.

Excessive consumption of dairy products, greasy, and sweet foods can “dampen” the digestive process.  These types of foods notoriously over tax the digestive system, causing it to be sluggish, slowing it down to almost a halt, and causing your body to feel heavy, tired, and phlegmy.  Limiting your intake of dairy, greasy, and sweet foods will keep your Spleen happy.

Avoid processed foods.  If you can’t determine what the ingredients of a food is by looking at it, or if the ingredient list is shockingly long or contains words that you can’t pronounce, then that food is too processed.  There are two problems with processed foods.  First of all, by the time they reach your lips, most of the nutrients have been lost, from lengthy storage time, chemical treatment, or they didn’t contain much nutrition to begin with.  Second, processed foods tend to be altered from its original form so much that your body has difficulty identifying what it is.  When that happens, your body spends an excessive amount of time trying to determine what to do with it, and all too frequently will leave it up to your liver (physical, Western definition of liver, not TCM energetic definition) to filter out.  When the liver gets congested with these unidentifiable ingredients, it tends to put them away for storage in the form of fat cells, often resulting in obesity, or visceral fat, the bad type of fat that surrounds the internal organs.

When you eat organic, whole foods, your body knows just what to do with them.  The nutrients are processed quickly and are sent to the appropriate tissue.

And the last general key to healthy digestion is to stop eating at least 2 hours before going to bed.  This gives your body time to process its contents.  When you sleep, your whole body needs to use that time to rest and recover.  If you still have food in your stomach, your digestive system will be working after hours.  Just like you probably don’t like to work into the night, neither does your digestive system.  This will weaken the digestive system quickly.  Conversely, going to bed without food in your stomach gives it time to rest and restore itself after a long day.

A healthy diet can vary greatly from person to person.  Some foods that are appropriate for one person, may be detrimental to the next, however, these basic concepts can apply to everyone and yield a healthier, happier Spleen, and therefore more abundant Qi, and vitality.

Written By: Jamie Szybala, L.Ac.