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Spleen health and foods

When people with digestive problems approach me with their “simple” inquiries about how to adjust their food intake and express disharmony when eating a mixture of random foods, I cringe. It takes more than a “cocktail-minute” to respond to such complex questions – in how to actually support and strengthen our organ system – responsible for digestion.

Amongst the five elements it is the Spleen (earth element) that seems the most mystifying about all organs and the least understood by most people. The lack of respect between the spleen and pancreas harmony in Western medicine (with today’s research and understanding) is surprising. The spleen does not receive the same respect from Eastern doctors in comparison to well-documented traditional Chinese medicine. Lets look at spleen history:

In antiquity the spleen was understood as being responsible for “bad expressions”, emotional angry outbursts or the opposite; the strength to conquer fear. That might be a result of Chinese medicinal wisdom being poorly translated. When the discovery of antibiotics “solved” all human problems; the last bit of “spleen-(dis)respect” vanished… 

Not until the 1950s when medical specialists in California started with a comprehensive research to understand the spleen and its basic function. Until then, a spleen, was about as medically unimportant as your tonsils, wisdom teeth or appendix; they were removed with no concern. However, this research confirmed that our spleen is responsible for filtering blood and trigger the antibody response needed when bacterial invasions could cause infections. People without a spleen are susceptible to develop meningitis, pneumonia or blood poisoning (sepsis).

Furthermore, your spleen can actually “reproduce” itself. A traumatic  spleen injury can cause this organ to “spill cells”, cells that attach itself to blood vessels and regrow into  tiny spleens. The process is called splenosis, and about 20% of all people (especially impact sports participants) grow these. Today, instead of a splenectomy doctors will implant little pieces of healthy spleen tissue to regenerate this important organ.

Our livers, with their impressive regenerative capability, can’t live up to that spleen-power.

Today, in modern medicine, the spleen is has been confirmed as part of the immune system and its responsibility for the production of white blood cells (lymphocytes) and the removal of old red blood cells. One-quarter of our lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) are stored in the spleen at any given time. The spleen in Chinese medicine is paired with the stomach and pancreas, 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 is a psychological stimulus – respecting the effects on our self-esteem of all that comes into the body through our sense organs as well.

From a TCM perspective the Earth element is responsible for self-esteem or the lack thereof.  We live in a spleen-deficient culture. Traditional medicine pin-points the origin of a dilemma: In the above scenario the spleen function is not sufficient enough to process the volume of  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 – junk-media and junk-food consumers; with cell phones at the dining table – time-devils, eating on the go – nervously hurried… Never doing just one thing at a time. Unhealthy, consuming poor choices of love-lacking inputs.

We do not chew food (or information) well enough. Chewing helps the breakdown of the foods before they enter the stomach, making digestion allot easier and we could sustain on less! And to aid absorption we must concentrate on what we shovel into our mouth and gulp down. 

I’m inserting a TCM banter: Since the brain is clearly impacted by our overall organ health, could it be the spleen/pancreas connection is the most forceful influence?

In classical TCM the earth element is imbalanced there will be symptoms of digestive upset reflecting in loose stools, poor appetite, low energy, edema (water retention), nausea, vomiting, weakness in the four limbs, pale lips, organ prolapsed, bruising, a feeling of cold, tiredness and a lack of motivation. A spleen imbalance causes a weak Qi (lassitude and lethargy) and food will taste dull.

Foods that are 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, and bananas.

Back to the cocktail-minute advice: Stop trying to fix this with a “healthy” juice-blend on ice that you suck through a plastic straw while stuck in rush hour traffic on the cellphone…!

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. A spleen-healthy person 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. (However: combinations and time consumed will effect the spleen as well).

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 total intake, adapt, and change as needed! …and when you’ve balanced you’re spleen; sit back and enjoy your cocktail!

TCMchef raphael


spleen nourish foods

spleen cocktail
Earth element represents spleen & pancreas

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