I didn’t know my spleen was so important until it started fighting back.
The last time I probably thought about my spleen was at 16 in Biology class. I am now 31. So far, I’ve lived a pretty good and healthy life without worrying or wondering whether my spleen was healthy and happy. Surely, there are more important things to worry about? I definitely thought so.
I like to think I listen and understand my body and have always tried to pay attention to her and any symptoms she shares with me. The problem is, I think my spleen had been crying out for help for a long time, I just wasn’t listening.
I dropped the ball on myself.
It’s been happening for a while but every couple of months when I know I have been burning the candle at both ends — not getting enough sleep, missing too many workouts, eating badly, struggling to manage my stress levels, drinking too much and too often — my body begins to fight back. These messages have been so clear but we’re always wiser in retrospect right?
My stress symptoms manifest with both the corners of my mouth splitting, making eating and even talking unbearable. They normally take a couple of days to heal, putting me back on track in no time. Western medicine calls this condition Angular Cheilitis and reckon it’s either caused by too much saliva in the corner of the mouth that then causes the skin to get soft and crack, or a lack of B-Vitamins. I have spent a lot of money on B-Vitamins lately and while they seem to help, I don’t think they’ve cured what’s been going on with me in the long term.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a couple of months ago, I woke up with split corners (oh no not again) PLUS lips so dry they were starting to crack. I could literally peel layers of skin off. If wasn’t pretty. Lip balm didn’t help at all, I drank a lot of water to no avail and when they started to bleed I knew something had to change.
Eventually, I made my way to Chinese Medicine and wondered why it had taken me so long! I discovered a world of medicine and concepts on health and wellness that I wish I had found years ago. It just made sense and through a bit of light digging I found out that what I was experiencing with my mouth and lips was directly related to my spleen. This poor fist-sized organ had been crying for help. Turns out, she’s a pretty important part of your internal machinery.
Along with the stomach, the spleen is one of the main organs associated with digestion (according to Chinese Medicine) and is responsible for the distribution of food and nutrients throughout the body. The spleen extracts qi energy from the food we eat to build immunity, keep things moving (stagnation breeds disease), aids the function of other organs and helps to regulate mental function and emotions. The emotion closely associated with the spleen is worry and over-thinking. Sound familiar?
The spleen is apparently also charged with processing the information we absorb through daily stimulus. There’s no wonder why spleen deficiency is a common problem because as a culture, we’ve become so used to doing many things at once and find it hard to really rest (which is what the spleen needs). In Chinese Medicine, to keep the spleen healthy, it is important to do one thing at a time, and as mindfully as possible. For example, when we eat in front of the TV our spleen is trying to process the food and the visuals from the screen. A good plan is to do something with full conviction before moving onto the next task. Easier said than done.
Symptoms of a spleen qi deficiency range from weakness in the muscles, loose stools, digestion difficulties, a pale tongue with teeth marks on the sides, super dry lips and fatigue.
Food is the best medicine.
Lucky for us, food is the best medicine when it comes to aiding a spleen qi deficiency.
In Chinese Medicine, all foods are deemed to have a certain ‘thermal nature’, either warming, cooling or neutral. This hasn’t got anything to do with the cooking process or how hot the food is when eaten, it’s how certain foods affect the body. Each organ has its own desired thermal energy and when attempting to fix an imbalance, it’s important to know what each organ prefers.
The spleen likes to be warm and dry. It is associated with the earth element after all. It likes sweet, warming foods. But not sweet as in processed sugar, think sweet potatoes, pumpkin, rice, carrots, onions, garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic, leeks. All these foods have a slightly sweet taste when cooked.
If the spleen likes to be warm and dry, then that means it doesn’t like dampness in the body. This is a somewhat intricate but ultimately worthwhile pattern of disease to understand. The fluids in the body comprise saliva, digestive enzymes, intestinal enzymes, the fluid in the joints, tears, mucus, sweat and urine. In Chinese Medicine theory fluids are divided into two basic categories, “Jin” (clear and thin) and “Ye” (thick and heavy) and the spleen is in charge of both of these. Together these fluids nourish all the tissues and organs of the body.
Generally speaking a principle sign of dampness is heaviness (lethargy, fatigue, sinking, depression) which many of us mask with caffeine and other stimulants. One may feel a heavy sensation in the head particularly or the body as a whole. If the dampness is prolonged in the body it has a tendency to create stagnation (fixed masses), settle in joints (arthritis), or create heat which can rise up and/or towards the surface (eczema).
Who would have thought that juicing raw fruit and veg, drinking a lot of water and eating salads could have a harmful effect on the spleen? You are drowning it actually. Turns out, all these foods cause a build up of dampness in the body and could also be the reason so many people who eat ‘healthy’ like this struggle losing weight.
All in all these patterns indicate our need for regulation. As all systems have relationships to the seasons, the spleen system relates to the earth. The earth element in Chinese Medicine provides us with our stability, groundedness and our root. Without a strong root nothing can grow. When you drown a plant with water it dies, when it is too hot it wilts and dies, if you overfeed your plant it dies and if you don’t feed your plant it dies — we are no different except the process takes longer and goes through many different avenues.
Symptoms may take longer to show up in some people than others.
At the end of the day, I am glad those cracked lips took me down this path. I would never have learnt so much about my body and the need for regulation. The good news is, my spleen and I are slowly becoming friendly again. I still mess up but now I know what to listen for.
This new life has me trying to not overload or overwork myself and in turn, not do that to my spleen.