In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) the Stomach and Spleen are paired together and act as the main digestive organs. Anyone with any knowledge of biology might find this strange, since from a western perspective, the spleen is involved in immunity rather than digestion. However, in TCM, the Spleen system includes the function of the pancreas too.
The Stomach and Spleen are closely related in terms of function, and together they provide nourishment for our entire bodies. They are associated with the earth element, the season of late summer and the harvest, a time of year when nature provides us with a bounty of ripe fruit and grains.
The emotions associated with the Stomach and Spleen include sympathy and worry. These emotions are somewhat linked to the digestive functions of these organs. Just as the Stomach processes food to break it down into a soupy liquid, it is also seen as processing thoughts and ideas. Sometimes, it can get stuck on a particular idea which gets turned over and over, looking for a solution. In some cases, this can lead to obsessive thoughts or anxiety.
As well as the digestion of both food and ideas, the Stomach and Spleen have several other important roles within the body. Let’s take a look at how these two organs function both in health and disease.
The Functions of the Stomach in Chinese Medicine
The Stomach is the first organ in the digestive system. It has the role of ‘rotting and ripening’ food, preparing it for the following stages of digestion.
- Controls Rotting and Ripening
The Stomach kicks off the digestive process by first ‘rotting’ food, that is, breaking it down from its solid form into a liquid called chyme. Once this has happened, the food is ‘ripened,’ meaning that it is now ready to have its nutrients extracted by the rest of the digestive organs.
- Controls the Transportation of Food Essences
Along with the Spleen, the Stomach is responsible for transporting the nutrients from food around the body. The useful parts are taken to where they are needed, while waste products are excreted by the bladder and intestines.
- Controls the Descending of Qi
It seems obvious that the Stomach would encourage qi to move downward, through the digestive tract to the intestines. If this function of the Stomach is weak, food can remain in the Stomach too long, causing indigestion, discomfort, and nausea. In severe cases, Stomach qi can begin to flow upwards, resulting in acid reflux, heartburn, belching, or vomiting.
- Acts as the Origin of Fluids
The Stomach needs moisture to function as it should, and it extracts this from food and drink. In this sense, the Stomach has a close relationship to the Kidneys, which also play a vital role in fluid balance.
Stomach Symptoms in Chinese Medicine
When the Stomach is imbalanced, this can result in a number of physical and emotional symptoms:
- Upper abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bad breath
- Mouth ulcers
- Bleeding gums
- Manic behavior
The Functions of the Spleen in Chinese Medicine
Unlike the western understanding of the spleen, in TCM, this organ is an essential part of the digestive process. This can be compared to the functions of the pancreas and the upper part of the small intestine, the duodenum, both of which are physically close to the spleen.
- Governs Transformation and Transportation
The primary function of the Spleen is to convert food into a usable form by breaking it down into its smallest components. From a western point of view, carbohydrates are broken down into sugars, proteins into amino acids, and fats into lipids. From a TCM perspective, the Spleen extracts the qi form food. This is known as grain qi, or gu qi in Chinese.
Once the gu qi is extracted from food, it can be transported to where it is needed. It travels to the Lungs to combine with qi from the air, and to the Heart to create blood. Waste products are transported to the intestines to be expelled. The Spleen also governs the transportation of fluids around the body.
When the Spleen is healthy, digestion will be normal with regular, well-formed bowel movements. When the Spleen becomes imbalanced, all kinds of digestive issues can occur including pain, bloating, and loose stools. Due to its role in fluid transportation, an unhealthy Spleen can also cause symptoms such as edema.
- Controls Blood
The Spleen plays a vital role in blood formation as it extracts the necessary nutrients from food. It also helps to keep the blood inside the vessels and circulating around the body as it should.
- Controls the Muscles and Limbs
Since it has the role of extracting qi from food, the Spleen is responsible for nourishing every tissue in the body. When the Spleen is healthy, the muscles will be strong and well-toned. When it is imbalanced, they can become weak, wasted, and easily fatigued.
- Opens into the Mouth
The connection between the Spleen and mouth is an obvious one as the mouth is the very first part of the digestive system. Here, digestion is kick-started by chewing and releasing saliva.
The Spleen is responsible for the sense of taste, and the tongue is also related to the digestive organs. Tongue diagnosis is a common tool used by TCM practitioners, and the appearance of a person’s tongue can say a lot about the state of their Stomach and Spleen.
- Controls the Raising of Qi
The Spleen has an upward energy as it needs to raise qi to the Heart and the Lungs. It also raises the other organs and keeps them in place, preventing prolapses of the bladder, bowels, and womb.
- Influences Thought and Ideas
In TCM, the Spleen is said to house the yi, the aspect of our minds responsible for studying, learning, memorizing facts, and concentration. It processes information much like it processes food, which is one reason why TCM practitioners advise against studying or working whilst you eat.
Spleen Symptoms in Chinese Medicine
Because of the key role that the Spleen plays in qi and blood formation, a weak Spleen can lead to symptoms almost anywhere in the body. However, some of the most common symptoms associated with an unhealthy Spleen include:
- Abdominal pain
- Loose stools or chronic diarrhea
- IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, or Crohn’s disease
- Poor appetite
- General fatigue
- Weak or heavy limbs
- Muscle aches and pains
- Confusion or ‘brain fog’
Keeping Your Stomach and Spleen Healthy
With their main functions being food related, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Stomach and Spleen are best cared for through good eating habits.
As well as eating a healthy balanced diet, it is important to eat in a way that maximizes your digestive organs ability to process food. This means taking your time to eat and chewing each mouthful properly, avoiding distractions at meal times, and not eating too much in one sitting.
According to TCM, the Stomach and Spleen are most active in the morning, so it is a good idea to eat a substantial breakfast and have smaller meals later in the day. Eating late at night is especially damaging to these organs as they need a chance to rest overnight, just like the rest of your body.
Cold and raw foods are seen as difficult to digest and should be kept to a minimum, or avoided completely if you have digestive issues. Soups and stews are almost pre-digested in their texture and make the ideal foods for nourishing a sluggish Stomach and Spleen.
Acupuncture and herbal medicine can also be very helpful in treating digestive problems. These ancient therapies can help to improve Stomach and Spleen function, encourage better digestion, and reduce inflammation and pain. When the Stomach and Spleen are functioning at their peak, they will provide the other organs with enough qi and blood to promote good health and vitality throughout the entire body.