Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday 26 April 2012

The organs in Traditional Chinese Medicine: The Spleen

This is the third post on the series on TCM organs. I have covered the Liver – the enabler of all flow in the body, and the Kidneys – the root of life. This week I am focusing on the Spleen, the chief organ of digestion and energy making. As in the rest of the series, I will be covering the organ’s functions, possible symptoms arising from its lack of balance, and how to look after it.

The Spleen (Pi)

Earth - the element of the Spleen
 The TCM Spleen is perhaps the organ that most differs from its Western counterpart. While the Western spleen is a gland that plays an important role in immunity, the TCM Spleen encompasses the whole functioning of the digestive system and the formation of Qi and Blood. Although proper functioning of the Spleen does have an impact on our immunity, this is not its main purpose in TCM.

The Spleen and the Stomach (Wei) – its paired organ - are the organs of the Earth element, and the main organs of digestion. The Stomach – also called the sea of grain and water- is the container where the food and fluids that we consume are transformed by the energy of the Spleen into substances that can be used by the body. This is the fuel for our everyday activity or Post-natal Essence, which equates to the regular income that we need in order to survive from day to day. For more on Essence read my post about the Kidneys.

According to TCM, the Spleen performs the following functions: 

 1. Governs transformation and transportation: Through a complex mechanism that involves all the organs in the body particularly those associated with the digestive system, the Spleen Qi enables the extraction of nutrients from the food and fluids that we consume and their transformation into usable substances (Qi and Blood) that are then transported to be further refined and finally used as fuel by different organs.

2. Controls the Blood: Apart from actively contributing to the making of the Blood from our food, the Spleen also keeps the blood within the Blood vessels thus preventing it from seeping out and producing bleeding. This is done through the natural tendency of Spleen Qi to rise and keep everything in the body from falling due to gravity.

3. Rules the muscles and four limbs: The Spleen does this first by providing us with energy which in turn gives us strength and stamina so we are able to walk further and work harder; secondly  by transporting nourishment directly to the limbs and muscles so that there is healthy muscle bulk.

 4. Opens into the mouth and manifests in the lips: The Spleen is the organ that enables the mouth to taste all flavours and its health is shown in the moisture and colouring of the lips.

5. Houses the Intellect (Yi): The Intellect (Yi) is the spirit of the Spleen. The Intellect here relates to the analysis of possibilities that lies behind every decision to do or to create something and it directly manifests in our creative power. Just as the Spleen oversees the digestion of food, through the Intellect it also powers our ability to digest and assimilate information and ideas, and our enjoyment of this process. 

Symptoms of Spleen imbalance:

As the main organ of digestion, the Spleen is directly affected by our diet. Both poor nutrition and excessive eating can have an impact on the functioning of the Spleen and therefore in the subsequent production of Qi and Blood which will have a knock-on effect on the health of every organ and function of the body. 

Because of its close relationship with the limbs and muscles, the health of the Spleen can also impact the strength and tone of the whole body. On a mental level, Spleen imbalances can affect our ability to process and retain information.  

Common symptoms resulting from Spleen imbalance are listed below:

Spleen Function
Possible symptoms of imbalance
Governs transportation and transformation
 Poor appetite, indigestion, bloating, loose stools
Food cravings
Poor absorption, malnutrition
Low energy, lethargy
Controls the Blood
Bruising easily
Bleeding disorders
Varicose veins
Rules the muscles and four limbs
Muscle wasting and/or atrophy
Weakness and/or tiredness of the limbs
Opens into the mouth and manifests in the lips
Inability to taste food
Irregular taste in the mouth
Pale, dry or cracked lips
Houses the Intellect (Yi)
Lack of motivation
Difficulty concentrating
Muddled thinking and inability to process information

How to look after your Spleen energy

Being the organ of the Earth element, the Spleen is closely related to Mother Earth as a giving, nourishing and sustaining force. A healthy Spleen therefore depends on more than the act of putting food into our mouths. It needs to be fed with the same caring and loving intention with which a mother nourishes her child. This applies not only to the physical nutrition obtained from food but to mental and emotional nourishment. Below are some ideas as to how to nourish the Spleen:
-  Food and diet: I have covered the main ideas of what constitutes a healthy diet in Chinese Medicine in my posts on diet and nutrition where you can find a detailed explanation of the digestive process and the TCM views on how to nourish ourselves, and on my post exploring our concept of food. These are some ways in which we can feed our Spleen:
  • In general, we need to focus our dietary efforts primarily on our ability to extract goodness from our food. If you think that you have a fantastic diet because it only contains foods that are considered healthy, but feel exhausted and demotivated, then you need to re-consider your views about nutrition. The Spleen needs to be nourished in a way in which it can gain more energy than it uses during the digestive process. This may mean avoiding large amounts of cold and raw foods which despite their vitamin content will make the Spleen work harder, and favouring a varied diet consisting of well-cooked warming foods.
  • The Spleen also needs regularity and can be badly affected by eating at different times every day. In order to enjoy sustained energy we need not only regular meals but also to eat food in quantities that we are able to process and which will provide enough fuel to our body. The intake of too much or too little food on a regular basis will result in an imbalance of the Spleen.
  • Enjoying our food is also an important factor that will contribute to how physically and emotionally nourished we feel. However, we may tend to enjoy foods for which we have an unhealthy craving such as sugar, chocolate, and bread; or foods containing additives and preservatives that can be addictive in nature. True enjoyment of food is rooted in the deep pleasure of nourishing ourselves and protecting our life and health rather than the ephemeral pleasure produced by something that can be harmful to us.

- Exercise: In TCM, it is said that sitting for long periods can be detrimental to the energy of the Spleen. Conversely, stretching is considered the best way to encourage the muscular tone that the Spleen provides, and to facilitate the digestive process. Gentle Yoga and Pilates can be of great benefit to the Spleen and to the Qi of the whole body.

- Ground yourself: After we are born, the contact with our mother through feeding and touch is the main source of our sense of security. From this point onwards, it is the role of the Spleen to foster our sense of belonging and of being home.

Touch gives us a sense of grounding and security
 Feeling uprooted and that we do not belong, or feeling an inner discomfort that makes us move from one place to another can be manifestations of Spleen imbalance. We may need to develop a sense of “being home” within us so that our creative power can develop and flourish. Any form of contact with the Earth that helps us feel part of nature such as regularly walking through parks and woods, or performing gardening tasks will help us feel more grounded and allow us to “settle” into ourselves.

The health of the Spleen is also supported by physical contact with others. Just as being cuddled by our parents during childhood gives us happiness and comfort, as adults touch provides us with a sense of physical and emotional well-being, as well as a sense of being grounded. This is particularly relevant in the context of the British culture where touch is often considered invasive and physical demonstrations of affection are kept to a minimum. In the absence of affectionate touch, massage and other types of body work may provide similar benefits.

- Stop worrying: Excessive worrying may result in Spleen imbalance, and vice-versa. The Spleen feeds our caring side, and provides us with the strength to be empathetic and helpful to others. When out of balance, this empathy may turn into fruitless worrying about ourselves or others. 

Allowing the mind to take over and bombard us with thoughts of disaster and possible problems that the future may bring both consumes our energy and it may make us sick. Meditation is the best way to learn to control our mind, and regular practice will help us not only preserve our energy but it will give us a powerful tool to prevent stress-related problems. Often writing down our fleeting worrying thoughts can help us look at them more objectively and perhaps realise their pointlessness.  

Chinese Medicine treatment for Spleen imbalances

Spleen imbalances are extremely common as a result of inadequate diet and life-style, and are often exacerbated by sustained stress. 

Acupuncture treatment can be very effective at increasing energy levels and improving the general functioning of the Spleen and of the whole digestive system. This is often done by treating points on the Stomach channel with Acupuncture and moxibustion (the burning of the herb mugwort to produce warming effects).  Specific points may be used in order to deal with symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, loose stools, and oedema.

As the Spleen is in charge of providing every organ and tissue of the body with sufficient energy for proper functioning, long-term Spleen imbalance may affect us at a systemic level. When this is the case, Chinese Herbal remedies may be combined with Acupuncture to deal with blockages and symptoms resulting from malfunctioning of other organs, while boosting the Spleen energy in order to prevent symptoms from worsening and provide support for the body to regain health.

When dealing with Spleen imbalance, your Chinese Medicine practitioner should offer you dietary and life-style advice that will support your treatment. If this is not done, treatment may still provide relief to your symptoms but this may not be enough to enable you to maintain balance after treatment has been discontinued.  

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