In Chinese Medicine, our digestion is thought to be the root of blood production in the body, which is an important component to female health. However, before we can speak to how blood is produced in the body, we need to describe basic organ function in Chinese Medicine. To start, when Chinese medicine references the concept of “the organ,” it does not necessarily reference the solid organs described in our biology textbooks. Rather, organ in Chinese Medicine describes a series of functions which can be physiological as well as psychoemotional.
There was no deep understanding of internal anatomy at the inception of Chinese Medicine, and so Chinese Medicine had its root in observation and the description of how body functioned overall. Therefore, while there can be overlap in how Eastern and Western Medicine understands these organs (liver, kidney, heart, spleen, stomach, large and small intestines, etc), we must remember that in Chinese Medicine, “organ” is a description of function.
Chinese Medicine divides the organs into two categories, Yin organs and Yang organs. Yang organs represent the “hollow” organs (gall bladder, stomach, small and large intestines, bladder and triple burner). Yang organs are organs that receive and transform while the Yin organs are solid and have relationships with the vital substances of Yin and Blood (liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys). That being said, we’ll turn back to digestive function. In Chinese Medicine, this is the job of the spleen (Yin) and stomach (Yang) organs. This Yin and Yang organ pair work together to make new blood for all the organs to utilize. Spleen is an organ that works to digest and interpret our environment. It functions in traditional digestion to break down ingested food, but it also has a more ethereal role in digesting information. Spleen has an important job in helping us to process information and analyze our environment to help us make decisions, stay organized, and be calm.
A common imbalance in Chinese Medicine, is Spleen Qi Deficiency. In modern western living, 90% of us show some aspect of Spleen Qi Deficiency. That is because we are ALWAYS on the go, mentally and physically. Spleen easily becomes overburdened when we work long hours, read and analyze without ample rest (like students often do), worry excessively, eat on the go, eat low quality foods, etc. The Spleen needs to time to rest from information processing as well as a dedicated time to digest our foods. That is why you will often hear us remind our patients at The Nest to reinstitute meal times. Meals allow time for us to focus on eating as a time to nourish ourselves and give the Spleen the proper environment for digestion and transformation. When we eat, it should be a time to look, smell, chew and taste our food slowly and deliberately. We all can remember a time recently when we shoveled something down our throats without consciously consuming it.
What really is the big deal about Spleen Deficiency? Well, initially symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency might be more mild. Slight fatigue, some discomforts with eating, like mild gas or bloating, but as Spleen Qi Deficiency becomes more profound so do the symptoms. Fatigue can become crushing, digestive symptoms more serious, and psychoemotional symptoms, like obsessive overthinking may start to manifest and become emotionally debilitating. Because Spleen is a root of blood, as transformation weakens, so does the output of blood. Symptoms of blood deficiency may start to manifest and so the domino effect continues.
Another major consideration of a compromised spleen system is something called Phlegm Damp. When transformation of food is ineffectual, the weakened spleen doesn’t make bright clear useful Yin and Blood, it makes a goopy viscous substance, described by Chinese Medicine as Phlegm Damp. Phlegm Damp is insipid. The longer it lingers, the more problems it causes. It can show up as physical phlegm which complicates other organs, chronic sinus congestion or infections, productive coughs, mucus in stools, chronic yeast infections, etc. It can also show up as difficult to pinpoint symptoms, like foggy thinking, heavy head, extreme fatigue, and lack of motivation.
The bottom line is healthy digestion and strong spleen is a major cornerstone in healthy living and overall wellness. How we eat matters just as much as what we eat. So stay tuned for our next post, which will continue this discussion of how to care for our Spleen with specific foods, cooking styles, and the benefits of REST!