The Spleen in Chinese medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the Spleen is the collective name for the digestive system.
In Western medicine the digestive system incorporates the stomach, the intestines, the pancreas, the liver, and the gallbladder. In Chinese medicine the liver, the gall bladder, the small intestine and the large intestine belong to other organ partnerships and other elements. Thus “the spleen” in Chinese medicine incorporates the remaining stomach and pancreas. Yet it is important to always include the intestines when we think about the Spleen as they participate together with the pancreas in the digestion (the pancreas secretes digestive enzymes into the small intestine where the absorption of the nutrients takes place). The liver and the gallbladder also participate in the digestion (the liver produces bile while the gall bladder stores the bile and secretes it into the small intestine to emulsify and digest fat). Therefore the liver and gallbladder also have an overall relation to the Spleen. Thus it is most helpful whenever it is related to the Spleen in Chinese medicine to think of all organs that collectively participate in the digestion whether or not these organs belong to other organ partnerships.
The major role of the Spleen is to transform food and drink into blood and energy, and distribute them to other organs and tissues. This enormously difficult task takes a lot of energy on its own to take place. Therefore if one is overworked and/or malnourished (which is something common for the contemporary person) the Spleen will become deficient and unable to “manufacture” sufficient amount of blood and energy. If this becomes continuous and chronic one may become not only energy deficient but also blood deficient. Thus in traditional Chinese medicine blood deficiency is often treated by tonifying the Spleen.
Since the Spleen needs a lot of energy for its transformation and transportation functions it likes warm temperature and sweet taste as they both give energy. Therefore it is always beneficial to warm our food before we consume it and to make it a rule to never consume food or drink colder than room temperature. Raw fruits and vegetables also have “cold nature” therefore people with weak digestion and poor energy should cook any type of raw food before consuming it.
Although the Spleen likes sweet taste as it gives energy, too much sweet taste will have the opposite effect on the spleen and take energy away. Therefore sweet foods should be consumed moderately and white sugar and its products should generally be avoided as they generate "dampness", which itself slows the digestion down.
Apart from transporting the various food essences to the other parts of the body, the Spleen also controls the transformation and transportation of fluids by separating the clear fluids from the dirty fluids. The clear fluids are sent to the Lung (which further distribute them to the skin) and the dirty fluids are sent down to the intestines for further separation and distribution. If the Spleen is weak and the transportation of fluids is impaired there will be fluid retention called “dampness” in traditional Chinese medicine. One of the main symptoms of dampness is edema but other symptoms also include tiredness, lack of energy, and loose stools as the nature of dampness is to slow processes down and to make things sluggish (1) Therefore besides that the Spleen likes warm temperature and sweet taste because they give energy, the Spleen also likes dryness.
As the Spleen transports blood and energy to the tissues of the whole body a weak Spleen will lead to weak muscles, particularly in the limbs. Internal dampness – a chronically weak Spleen - manifests in sensation of solidity and heaviness of the limbs.
The Spleen opens to the mouth and manifests in the lips. The mouth is part of the digestive system as through the mouth the food enters our body and is chewed down to prepare for digestion. A healthy Spleen will give a clear distinctive taste in the mouth while a deficient Spleen will manifest in a sticky taste if there is dampness, and a sweet taste if there is heat in the Spleen. (1)
On a mental level the Spleen governs the thought. Thus any mental processes such as thinking, concentrating, studying, and focusing are governed by the Spleen. People with healthy spleens are generally active, practical, and responsible, they study well and memorize efficiently. People with unhealthy spleens tend to have a “busy mind”, over think and manifest “stuck behavior”. When there is accumulated dampness in the Spleen the thoughts take the quality of the dampness and become sticky and oppressive.
If you feel that your Spleen (your digestive system) is in disharmony review the following materials to determine what pathology corresponds to your condition and learn some of traditional Chinese medicine's healing approaches with foods and acupressure.
(1) Maciocia, Giovanni (1989). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. Nanjing: Harcourt Publishers Limited
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