The spleen and digestion in Chinese medicine.


Most people are aware of the importance of diet on our well being.

Bodybuilders use it to gain muscle, athletes use it to develop energy and capture greater performance. And some use it to “sweeten people up”.

So as Tina Turner might say: “what’s Spleen got to do with it?”

In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen/Stomach share an internal/external relationship, (organ relationship) so to say the Spleen is wholly responsible for digestion is more of a metaphorical one. You can ultimately see the Spleen as it is spoken about in Chinese Medicine theory as overall digestive efficiency.

Recently there was a discussion around how diet can have an effect on damp in the body.

In Chinese medicine, the spleen (which is closely related to the stomach) has the responsibility for effective and efficient digestion. It is also related to the emotion of worry/anxiety, or pensiveness. The spleen is related to the intellect and also “controls the muscles”. And when it is not functioning in a balanced way and not effectively transforming food into nutrients, it can lead to dampness.

In Chinese medicine, we commonly talk about flavours and natures of food. The sweet flavour is related to the spleen and it is also said that the spleen loves dryness. It is also important to know that it hates too much greasy food. You know, the beer battered variety.

If we think of digestion and the flavour of sweet we can start to talk about how they affect each other. On a very basic level, too much sweet is bad for the spleen, but a small amount of sweet is actually tonifying for the spleen. When we say tonifying, it’s almost as if it sharpens or hones the function.

So what happens when the diet has too much sweet and it start to affect the spleen? Well on a pathological level, it can lead to an accumulation of damp in the body.

When there’s dampness in the body it makes the limbs heavy and begins to block the Qi (Qi can be translated to mean function or oxygen but depends on context) dynamic. Some common damp signs are:

  • Foggy head
  • Bloating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Not feeling thirsty
  • Nauseousness
  • Limbs “feel” heavy

On an emotional level when the spleen becomes weaker it might affect the emotional aspect associated. And given that the spleen is related to intellect and has a correlation with worry, then someone with an unbalanced spleen might begin to manifest more worrying or overthinking. For example, someone with spleen disharmony may have problems falling asleep because they are worrying and overthinking at night before bed.

And in a similar mindset, anyone that has a tendency or habit to overthink or worry (slight relationship to anxiety) needs that time to relax and slow down the mind so as to protect the spleen Qi.

Damp accumulation is something that happens over a longer time frame, and when addressing diet to prevent damp accumulation one must think in longer time frames because the body needs time to adapt to a new dietary framework. For example, science has investigated microbiome changes in the gut and know that adaptation to different diets take time. The gut bacteria changes in accordance with whatever diet we have, whether it is sugar rich, protein-rich, or fat rich. Some people know about the positive effects of probiotics and how the gut can alter the mind and our well-being.

When the spleen is healthy, the mind and intellect is sharp and we have less to be concerned about. Further to that, if our digestion is operating efficiently, then the spleen and stomach provide an effective catalyst for the production of blood which nourishes the entire body.

Some common foods that have a more damp producing nature are:

  • Bananas
  • Peanut butter 
  • Too much cold and raw salads 

These foods are not only sweet, but also super rich and energy dense, which is what the body craves sometimes. Bananas are also super high in fructose, which is a sugar that tends to accumulate in the areas we don’t want it.

The Spleen loves a warm bland diet.

A bland diet with little sweet or grease, meals high in protein with slow burning carbs like vegetables, eventually lead to a more stable energy with a lower propensity to spike insulin levels, keeping a stable mood throughout the day and keeping the spleen balanced.

So, some of the ways to keep the spleen healthy and the digestive efficiency running optimally are some of following;

  • Relaxation (to slow down the mind)
  • Don’t overeat sweet
  • The spleen loves a boring, bland diet. 
  • When eating, try to be mindful of eating in a relaxed environment free from distraction. 
  • Eat slower, chew more
  • Avoid too much heavy, greasy, fatty food. 
  • Avoid too much cold and raw food

Remember, a small amount of sweet is OK (tonifying), however it seems that our taste buds can get so desensitised on an overly sweet diet, so much so that the true flavour of real whole food evaporates with the subtle sweetness that real food might have. Food which might normally seem bland.

Some people are scared of jumping into a bland diet because it’s boring and friends won’t flock to your house for a Sunday dinner. Bland food can provide the opportunity for more level headed and stable energy, not to mention re-invigorated taste buds that pick up more subtle flavours in whole food.

In considering all that, I still err on the side of caution with “diets”, because I feel like Chinese Medicine in general tends to look at things in a more balanced approach. You might not go “all in” on bland, however considering how food flavours and natures work on the body can help us navigate our meal preparation for more balanced options that help lead us to a more balanced mindset, keeping the nasty’s like dampness at bay.

Hopefully some of this helps

Chad Wuest: Acupuncturist | Chinese Medicine Practitioner

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