The Importance of the Spleen
In acupuncture, the Spleen and the Stomach are the organs of the Earth element.
The Earth itself is central – It is our home, it provides us with shelter, food and water and all the other necessary conditions for life. It is the Earth’s revolution around the sun that causes the cycles of time. In the Five element system, the other elements can be depicted as revolving around the central axis of the Earth.
In fact with the Stomach and Spleen we see the merging, and mingling of Yin and Yang in lots of unusual ways, which may also be a characteristic of this middle position. The place where Yin and Yang begin to transform into each other. For example
The Spleen transforms and transports, which would normally be a Yang function and the Stomach is the origin of fluids, which are Yi.
The Stomach in the only Yang channel that is found on the front of the body, which is a very Yin area.
Likewise, the organs of the Earth element, in us are central. It is the continuous process of digestion that fuels all the other functioning in the body. The Stomach and Spleen are physically located in the centre and without food and drink we can not survive for long.
The Kidneys store Jing and Yuan Qi, that is the Qi that we are born with, but it is the Stomach and Spleen that are fundamental in creating the Qi we use from day-to-day, by transforming food into Gu Qi. Our ability to absorb food and drink is vital for our strength and well-being, and it is the health of our Spleen that determines this. A healthy Spleen allow us to take in and make full use of nourishment we ingest.
The Role of the Spleen
The Stomach and Spleen take ingredients from the outside world, break them down, sort them out, rearrange them and then make them into useful things.
At a physical level this involves converting food and drink into components that can be used by the body and excreting anything else as waste.
This is way good nutrition is so important – we literally ARE what we eat. The Stomach and Spleen can not ‘make a silk purse out of a sows ear’ and if we eat too much they become overloaded and sluggish. However, what we take in may not be the whole story, even with the best diet in the world, if the Stomach and Spleen are weak you may not be absorbing the nutrients from your food well, or you may be absorbing food and gaining weight, but your Spleen may be struggling to transforming that food into energy. Weak Spleen energy may also lead to a poor appetite, which means you are not eating enough.
In Chinese Medicine the Spleen, in particular, is also involved in processing information. In other words, everything that comes in from the outside is ‘digested’ through the Spleen – taken in, broken down, rearranged and made useful. In our modern world, this particular function of our Spleen is under more strain than ever before – We are surrounded by information at every turn, and this means that Spleen deficiency is very common.
Emotionally, the Spleen is about providing nourishment, both for ourselves and those we care about. As Mother Earth provides for us so the Earth within us desires to take care and look after. Ideally, we take care of our own needs and then share our surplus with others. But again, the ‘time scarce’ nature of modern life can make this difficult to achieve in a balanced way.
The Functions of the Spleen
- Governs transportation and transformation:
As we have already said, the Spleen, with help from the Stomach, extracts Gu Qi from the food and drink that we consume. To be useful this Qi has to be further processed by the body. Using the momentum of the Qi of the Kidneys, Gu Qi rises to the chest, and goes to the Lungs. Here, is some combined with the air we breathe to form Zong Qi and eventually the Qi that is found in the channels and some goes on to the Heart to be transformed into Blood.
Similarly, with fluids, the Spleen separates the usable from the unusable, sending usable fluids up to the Lungs and then on to moisten the skin, and the unstable down to the Large Intestine for further filtering.
The Spleen is said to ‘like dryness’, this is because just like the Earth itself, it can easily become waterlogged. Excess Damp of this kind hinders both the transforming and transporting function of the Spleen and can have numerous clinical consequences.
In this way the Spleen is heavily involved in transforming food and drink and transporting the essence taken from them around the body.
On a mental level the Spleen is doing the same thing with the information we digest. It is breaking it down, filtering in thorough what we already know, using it to solve immediate problems, storing it away as memory and finding useful application. Sorting, transforming and transporting.
- Controls the blood:
The Spleen is in charge of holding the blood in the vessels. Whereas the Liver is said to store the Blood, the Spleen keeps it contained and controlled. Weak Spleen Qi may result in a tendency to bruise easily or to haemorrhage.
As we have already said the Spleen also plays an important role in the formation of Blood, by providing the Gu Qi that is transformed into Blood in the Heart.
- Dominates the muscles and the four limbs:
This function relates to the Spleens’ role in nourishing the body. If the Spleen is functioning well transforming and transporting Gu Qi as it should, the muscles will be nourished, and the limbs will be strong, with good tone and vitality. If the Spleen is not functioning well, the muscles and the limbs will be weak and easily tired.
- Opens into the mouth and manifests in the lips:
The mouth is where digestion begins. Chewing our food starts the process of transformation to Gu qi that is continued by the Stomach and Spleen. It makes sense, then, that the mouth is linked to the Spleen.
In Chinese Medicine each of the organs is said to have an associated taste, the Heart is linked to the bitter taste, the Lungs to pungent, Liver to sour, Kidneys to salty and Spleen to sweet.
If the Spleen is well there will be a healthy appetite, the lips will be moist, pink, and we will be able to taste the five tastes. If the Spleen is deficient the appetite may well be abnormal and there may be a strange taste in the mouth or no taste at all. The lips may be dry, pale or red.
- Controls the raising of Qi
The movement of the Earth creates gravity that ‘holds things in place’ therefore it is the Earth energy of the Spleen that keeps our organs where they should be.
The natural direction for Spleen energy to travel is upwards – as we have seen, it moves Gu Qi up to the Lungs and the Heart. In balance with this, the natural movement of the Qi of the Stomach is down. Between them, the Stomach and Spleen balance the movement of digestion – absorbing and transporting what is useful and removing what is not.
If the raising function of the Spleen is weak, there may be prolapse of the uterus, stomach, kidney bladder or anus.
- Houses Thought (Yi)
In Chinese medicine each of the Yin organs is said to be responsible to one aspect of the Spirit. That aspect of the Spleen is called the Yi or thought.
This means that the Spleen gives us that ability to concentrate and process information. It helps us to study and memorise things, making sense of the world.
It is our ability to ‘intellectualise’ and reason and therefore links into the Earth element tendency to worry or overanalyse problems. Unfortunately if this becomes a habit it can weaken the Spleen, as does over thinking or excessive studying.
1The role of the Spleen in Chinese Medicine is more like that of the pancreas of Western medicine. Therefore, some texts concerning the Spleen talk about the Spleen-Pancreas.