Nurturing The Spleen - Making Digestion Better
I’m just surprised how much of the time our solutions to many chronic health problems involve improving the functions of the Spleen. I will have to clarify that the Spleen in Chinese medicine and the spleen in western physiology are not the same thing. Moreover, the Chinese defined the organs of function and their interrelationship long before anyone ever cut into the body. The reality of the workings of the human body was decided by how it “must be.” They observed and documented the logic of the human body and amassed empirical data. The real misnomer happened when western medicine chose its own nomenclature to define the workings of Chinese medicine.
Western Spleen vs. Eastern Spleen
In western medicine, we would see an organ according to its immediate function only. The spleen in western medicine is an organ on the outside of the pancreas. It is similar in function to the cells of the liver. The Spleen has more to do with the destruction of old blood cells and the production of certain types of white blood cells. In western physiology, mostly we only speak of organs in terms of function and location.
In Chinese medicine, we would look at the Spleen as part of the whole function of the body. More importantly, we see it in the context of the body-mind. When we define the functions of the Spleen, they encompass some of the pancreas the duodenum and the large intestine. It is the very crossroads of the functions of the human body. It is the digestive ability of the body and the deciding force as to whether we are to have continued energy and vivacity. This is the very center where we either have optimum absorption of nutrients from food or not.
The Optimum Spleen and The Damp One
In Chinese medicine, the spleen is seen as a pot that converts food to a nutritious steam that ascends to the heart and lung. When it converts this to energy, it is sent down to the remaining parts of the body. As long as this is an active process the pot is dry and warm. This allows it to convert the essence of this nutrition to a rising steam.
The enemy of the Spleen is, therefore, the cold and the damp. When the forces of the Spleen become damp the pot does not convert this energy to a fine mist. Instead, the energy descends much like a swampy soup. As this continues the body will generally become damper and more laden.
Signs of Dampness
Dampness is shown by a certain lack of thirst because a Spleen deficient person is overly damp, and sluggish. Due to this extra water, the body might become rounder rather than angular and more defined (see: The Swamp Inside Us). In the winter, so full of water, the person will generally be colder and even less prone to drinking. So often patients assume that to stop the dampness, they must also stop drinking. This, of course, is wrong. However, when appropriate, the person should drink their water hotter or at least warm. In fact, if a person is prone to this problem at all, they should pretty much do this year round.
What Causes a Damp Spleen?
One of the biggest problems with causing dampness is too many sweets. The body sees sweets as if it was a mineral and adds the appropriate amount of dampness to enact its usage. Australian aborigines would always carry a special pebble with them in case they ran out of water. This is so that the body would be allowed to foment this storage of water against the threat of dehydration.
Western Pancreas Eastern Spleen
The pancreas is the main organ that breaks down and makes food absorbable for digestion. It becomes over-used in the processing of sugar. Here it has to pull out the big guns for digestion, the insulin, and needs time to build up for the next big meal. It also has to search for fat cells or space in the liver to store it.
If we eat sugar, when it comes time for the balanced meal, there is no appetite and the food that we do eat. Food becomes stagnant in the stomach and eventually can cause constipation or diarrhea because it is not adequately broken down. In North America, our health is more threatened by too much food than too little. We are coming to know that in this society over-consumption of rich food is associated with happiness and “good times.” This is probably overdone. Another wrinkle is that if undigested food is caught in the small and large intestines, the body can create allergies to it. It could form pockets in the large intestine which could later cause diverticulosis. Our parents were wise to admonish us not to eat sweets before a meal as it would destroy our healthy appetites.
Another problem is just the frequency or irregularity of eating. I have seen many movies about the happy chef who is popping food in his or her mouth while preparing a dinner. If you really try this, your digestive juices will be used up by dinner time, and you will be watching your guests eat while sickishly peck at your food.
Hunger Is The Best Palliative
Along with this, most of us eat when we can, usually a victim of our work lives. Many of my patients tell me that their lives are full and demanding. They may never have time for breakfast and because of their dedication to their jobs often have to skip lunch. Half of North America comes home from a day given to the job. They sit down feeling tired and look to the food on their plate to assuage their tiredness. They eat quickly and consequently overeat. Then they proceed to enjoy the evening free time that they’ve earned and don’t get to bed early enough. Because they are up later, they may become tired again and instead of going to bed, they eat something. After that, they will either go to bed or fall asleep on the couch in front of the television. This causes them to sleep poorly, so they get up in the morning, leaving just enough time to get to work.
They aren’t hungry for breakfast because they still have undigested food in their stomachs. They skip breakfast and still are sleepily tired, for which they will substitute food, usually sweets or coffee. This could be to compensate for the rest they cannot afford to catch up on. So the cycle continues as does the misshapen digestion, the obesity, and the resultant Spleen Qi (pronounced chi) deficiency. In considering a healthy spleen, we should stop eating at least three hours before bed. Ideally, we should have a twelve-hour gap or “fast” between dinner and break the fast (breakfast) with hunger on the first meal of the day.
Diagnosing Spleen Qi Deficiency
Needless to say, Spleen Qi Deficiency is one of my more common diagnosis. As I said before, it is at the very center of the Chinese medical paradigm. If you are not able to dynamically convert food to blood and usable tissues you will suffer sickness. In the same respect, reversing many chronic issues means rectifying the function of the Spleen and its energy or Qi.
What Spleen Qi Deficiency Leads To
Some of the more common western diagnosis related to this deficiency are chronic diarrhea, chronic constipation, irritable bowel disease, hypothyroid dysfunction, anemia, chronic fatigue, sleep disorders and of course diabetes. As these inefficiencies continue the dampness can cause related disorders such as lung and kidney problems. In the lung, this much dampness laying around will eventually be the wellsprings of excess phlegm buildup and can lead to congestion or edema in the lung tissues. This can, of course, lead to forms of pneumonia or even pleurisy. This same dampness can fall down to overload the kidneys. This may become a place of growth for kidney and bladder dysfunctions. It can also exacerbate the inability of the kidneys to process this much water, leading to edema of the legs and feet.
The Spleen and The Stomach
There is one more important reflection on the interrelationship of the Spleen. Like its associated organ the stomach, both suffer from and cause worry and over thinking. When our digestive system does not function, we do not think well. Our thinking is foggy and laden and we are more prone to worry and obsess. If the weather is also damp, our very ability to stay awake for concentration is almost impossible. We just want to curl up and go to sleep.
Further to this, we find that Spleen deficiency is directly behind most cases of anxiety and panic as one worry builds on another. Then our rational sense of handling our problems becomes near impossible to control. The root of reversing this most often begins with correcting our lives to make our spleens stronger.
Most of us are trained to think of our sickness as something extra in our lives. We think of doing battle with external forces and look outward from our selves to assess where our troubles may be coming from. Truly, most of the time we have to go out and deal with the problem at hand, as this is the diseased branch.
As a practitioner, I rarely get a chance to get back to fully rectifying the spleen. Because of the demand for quick results, I cannot afford to take the time and start with the spleen as I might like to. But this is too bad, as this is the center of our lives and the true way to permanent and long-lasting health.