The Spleen and Dampness in Chinese Medicine
By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP
The Spleen is an extremely important organ in Chinese medicine and imbalances in the spleen system are some of the most common. It is sometimes confusing to refer to the spleen, as it is very different than the spleen of Western medicine. In Western medicine, the spleen is part of the immune system, where the blood is purified and red blood cells are recycled taking things like iron and cycling them back into the bloodstream so they can be used by the body. The spleen is the largest lymphatic organ and plays an important part in the body’s immune system by helping it to recognize foreign invaders. The spleen also holds a reserve of blood which is valuable in case of hemorrhage. It is possible to survive without a spleen, with the liver taking over many of its functions. Removal of the spleen, however, does make one more susceptible to certain infections. The spleen is approximately 3x1x5 inches in size, weighs seven grams and is located in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen, between the 9th and 11th ribs on the left hand side, beside the stomach.
The spleen in Chinese medicine is quite different. The spleen is considered the major organ of digestion, and is partnered with the stomach. The spleen in yin and the stomach is yang. There are many factors that affect the spleen.
Every organ in Chinese medicine has an emotion associated with it. The emotion of the spleen is worry and overthinking. We live in a culture where both of these things are extremely common. We work long hours, often don’t eat properly and don’t get enough sleep. We eat at our desks, multitasking, which puts more of a burden on the spleen because it is responsible for taking in not only the food and drink we consume, but all the stimulus as well. This is why doing one thing at a time and doing it mindfully takes the load off the spleen. Chewing your food very well and not eating too many raw foods will also help take the burden off the spleen. Intense thinking, concentration, studying, brooding and obsessing are all emotions that, if in excess, also weaken the spleen.
What we eat is of vital importance to the spleen. This is good news, because there are many foods that are beneficial for this important organ. The spleen likes to be warm and dry, so eating warming foods that do not create too much moisture are excellent for the spleen. Also, the colour associated with the spleen is yellow, so as a rule, yellow foods are healing for the spleen. Below is a handy chart.
Foods The Spleen Loves
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Button mushrooms
- Brown rice
- Kidney beans
- Adzuki beans
- Small amount of lean organic meat, poultry and fish, tuna
- Small amount of whole fruits (as opposed to just the juice), lemon
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Green tea
- Jasmine tea
- Raspberry leaf tea
- Chai tea
- Pine nuts
- Black pepper
- Cinnamon bark
Foods That Hurt The Spleen
- Cold drinks
- Fruit juice
- Processed foods
- Refined flour, pastry, pasta, breads
- Cold raw foods
- Refined sugar and sugar substitutes
- Coffee, alcohol
- Deep fried foods
- Peanuts and peanut butter
The Spleen and Dampness in Chinese Medicine
The concept of dampness in Chinese medicine is related to a deficiency of the spleen’s function of transporting and transforming body fluids. When the spleen becomes deficient, it will cause it to produce more dampness, creating a vicious cycle. Dampness can come from both internal and external factors. The characteristics of dampness are that it is heavy, sticky, difficult to get rid of, slows things down and tends to settle in the lower parts of the body like the legs and abdomen. Dampness often starts in the legs and can work its way up to the organs in the abdomen. If it settles in the female genital system it causes vaginal discharges, often with a foul odour. If it settles in the intestines it will cause loose stools and if it gets into the bladder it will cause cloudy urine, difficulty, frequency and even a burning sensation upon urination.
Dampness has several clinical manifestations, which can be broken down into a few categories. Each has specific symptoms associated with it. Below are some common symptoms of dampness.
- A feeling of being tired
- A heavy feeling in the limbs
- Difficulty getting up in the morning and getting going
- A heaviness or fuzzy feeling in the head
- Unclear thinking
- A feeling of fullness or oppression of the chest
- Cloudy urine
- Urinary difficulty
- Vaginal discharges
- No appetite
- Sticky taste in the mouth
- Dull ache and swelling of the joints
- Skin diseases with weepy discharges
- A thick, sticky tongue coating
Dampness can be acquired externally by living in damp conditions (like moist basements), being out in damp weather, wearing wet clothing or sitting on damp ground. It can then get into the channels causing the above symptoms. External dampness generally invades the lower body, typically the legs and can cause aching and swelling of the joints. It can work its way up the leg channels and cause symptoms in the urinary system, female genital system, and intestines. Because of the heavy, sticky nature of dampness, especially when it mixes with heat, it is difficult to get rid of and tends to return again and again.
Being careful to stay covered up and warm as well as staying out of damp environments as much as possible is the best defense against an invasion of external dampness. If you are out in the rain, dry off right away so dampness doesn’t set in.
Internal dampness mainly affects the spleen, but can also affect the kidneys. If the spleen becomes deficient and its ability to transport and transform fluids is affected, it will lead to the accumulation of fluids, creating dampness. The symptoms for both internal and external dampness are the same, the difference being that internal dampness will have a slow onset, as external dampness’ onset is more sudden. Another difference is subtleties in the tongue and pulse. In external dampness, the tongue will have a thick, sticky coating, whereas in internal dampness, the tongue coating will be thin. The pulse in both internal and external dampness will be slippery, but with internal dampness, it will be fine, or weak and floating. An external damp pulse will be slippery and full.
Acupuncture as well as Chinese herbs are used in the treatment of dampness. Most commonly points on the spleen meridian are used to clear dampness and strengthen the spleen, and Chinese herbal formulas are used to drain dampness, expelling it from the body (often through urination), as well as building the spleen so that more dampness is not created. Dampness can be difficult to treat because of its heavy, sticky nature, but with nutrition therapy – eating foods that strengthen the spleen and drain dampness – as well as acupuncture and herbs, you can get rid of dampness, and have a happier spleen as a result – which is what we all really want. 🙂
The featured image is this adorable spleen, brought to you by the nice people at I Heart Guts