Amongst the five elements it is the Spleen (earth element) that seems the most mystifying of all organs and the least understood. It also is the one element that in Western medicine (with today’s research and understanding) does not completely line up when comparing the respected understanding and teachings of TCM.
Most people with digestive problems approach me with their “simple” inquiries about how to adjust their food intake, I cringe a little: It takes more than a “cocktail-minute” to respond to such complex questions - on how to help support and strengthen our digestive systems.
Today, in modern medicine, the spleen is understood as part of the immune system and responsible for the production of white blood cells (lymphocytes) and the removal of old red blood cells. This was not the same priority in TCM. The spleen in Chinese medicine is paired with the Stomach, and both are the main organs of digestion for the body. The fundamental difference to Western understanding was the wisdom that the spleen not only digest food, but also stimulus and information – including all that comes into the body through our sense organs as well.
From the TCM perspective we live in a Spleen deficient culture. (In TCM we treat the origin of a dilemma, in this scenario the spleen function is not sufficient enough to process the volume of physiological and psychological inputs). We are constantly over-loaded with information, which needs to be processed through the stomach channel. With urban competition we have become multitasking media and food consumers; cell phones on the dining table, eating on the go, nervous multitasking... Never doing just one thing at a time.
We do not chew our food well. Chewing will help the breakdown of the foods before they enter the stomach, making digestion allot easier.
When the earth element is imbalanced there will be symptoms of digestive upset, loose stools, poor appetite, low energy, edema (water retention), nausea, vomiting, weakness in the four limbs, pale lips, organ prolapsed, bruising and a feeling of cold, tired and a lack of motivation. A spleen imbalance causes a weak Qi (lassitude and lethargy), the appetite is poor, digestion is sluggish and the stools are loose and watery. You will be lethargic, show pale lips, dragging around unmotivated and food will taste dull.
Foods not ideal in these conditions are: dairy, wheat, cold drinks, fruit juice, processed foods, refined flour, pastry, pasta, breads, uncooked raw foods, refined sugar and sugar substitutes, coffee, alcohol, deep fried foods, peanut products, bananas, avocado. Back to the cocktail-minute advice: Stop trying to fix this with a “healthy” juice-blend!
When the earth element is balanced a person will feel energetic, their digestion will be smooth, their bowel movements will be regular and firm. Your thoughts are clear and you can concentrate at will. If transformation and transportation is adequate, the Qi is strong, digestion is smooth and the body is kept moist. The spleen is responsible for the intake, processing and distribution of nutrients extracted from food and drink and converting these nutrients into uplifting Qi and blood tonic, both vital substances for all the body’s functions and maintaining proper health. You will have red, moist lips and a “go-get-her” attitude.
Spleen balancing foods (depending on condition to achieve):
Organic lightly steamed vegetables, corn, celery, watercress, turnip, pumpkin, alfalfa sprouts, button mushrooms, radish, caper, brown rice, barley, amaranth, rye, oats, legumes, kidney beans, adzuki beans, lentils, small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna, small amount of whole fruits, lemon, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, seaweed, kelp, green tea, jasmine tea, raspberry leaf tea, Chai tea, raspberry, peach, strawberry, cherry, walnut, chestnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, lamb, venison, lobster, mussels, prawns, shrimp, trout, black pepper, cinnamon bark, clove, dill, fennel, garlic, ginger, peppermint, rosemary, sage, turmeric.
The Spleen is responsible for the body’s “holding” function. This is called the upright Qi, the force that counteracts gravity when it comes to holding things. Without boosting Qi, all of our organs would be at the bottom of our abdomen! When the Spleen is weak, we see prolapsed of organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapsed of the vagina as well as bleeding hemorrhoids i.e. prolapsed of the anus.
I will leave you with this last mental image: Watch your intake, adapt, and change!
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TCM chef Raphael