Spleen Health & Foods – the element representing self-esteem 

When people with digestive problems approach me with their “simple” inquiries about adjusting their food intake and expressing 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 – the spleen, pancreas, and liver – responsible for digestion.

a cocktail minute about the spleen with TCMchef Raphael GamonAmong the five elements, the Spleen (Earth Element) 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.

Let us 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 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 themselves 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 it is responsible 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.

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 pinpoints the origin of a dilemma: In the above scenario, the spleen function is insufficient to process the volume of psychological inputs. We are constantly overloaded with information, which needs to be processed through the stomach channel. With the 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… We rarely do one thing at a time. We hurry, unhealthy, consuming poor choices of “love-lacking” foods.

We do not chew food (or information) well enough. Chewing helps break down the foods before they enter the stomach, making digestion a lot 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 our overall organ health clearly impacts the brain, could the spleen/pancreas connection be the most forceful influence?

spleen health blog by TCM chef RaphaelIn classical TCM, the earth element – Spleen Pancreas – 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 not ideal in these conditions are dairy, wheat, cold drinks, fruit juice, processed foods, refined flour, pastry, pasta, bread, uncooked raw foods, refined sugar and sugar substitutes, coffee, alcohol, deep-fried foods, peanut products, and bananas.

spleen foods are often yellow in TCMBack 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 are 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 the 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, a small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna, a small number 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 affect 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 organs (uterus, bladder, stomach), prolapse of the vagina, and 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

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