With every passing year, there is more scientific literature on the connection between the gut and seemingly unrelated organ systems. There’s the gut-brain connection, the gut-pain connection, and the relationship between immunity and gut health. For example, did you know the majority of serotonin (the “feel good” chemical) production comes from your gut? What that means for millions on anti-depressants alone is astounding.
Chinese medicine has always placed a heavy emphasis on the gut, otherwise known as the Spleen and Stomach systems. For this article, we will focus on the Spleen, and use it to reference the functionality of the gut. The Spleen, being the yin organ, is commanding the yang pair organ, the Stomach. Consequently, focusing on Spleen health will have great benefit for the Stomach.
If you’re new to the blog, and want more details on the basics of the Spleen-Stomach function and purpose, refer to this article. This particular piece is focusing on Spleen rehab, which is vital to long term health, and will contribute to the healing of virtually any health concern (from chronic pain to allergies to obesity) over time. At the center of health stands the Spleen, the Earth element, which provides the building blocks for all other networks, through digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Overview of a happy Spleen diet
It will come as no surprise that the foundation of a happy digestive system is a diet based on whole, real food. If you’re already doing that, congrats, you are way ahead of the game! That being said, for a compromised Spleen, keeping food combination simple is key. The idea is to unburden the digestive system, in order for it to heal and build up strength in time.
Here’s some examples of foods that should not be combined (food combining is typically an Ayurvedic concept, but carries weight in Chinese medicine):
- In general, fruit should be eaten alone. Period. Eat as a snack between meals, or 30 minutes before a meal.
- Beans: do not eat with cheese, eggs, fish, milk, meat, yogurt
- Eggs: do not eat with milk, meat, yogurt, beans, cheese
- Milk: do not eat with bananas, sour fruits, bread containing yeast (most breads), fish, meat
- Nightshade family (tomato, potato, eggplant): do not eat with dairy
- Meat: generally eat with lighter foods like non-starchy vegetables. Meat with dairy can be a difficult combination to digest.
(Note: There is an art to combining herbs & spices to aid in digestion of some common foods pairings, which you see done in traditional cooking of many cultures. However, if you aren’t versed at how to do that, you’re better off sticking to the aforementioned suggestions).
Chinese medicine classics talk about how “rich and greasy” foods will damage the Spleen and cause Dampness. Dampness happens when the fluid metabolism becomes sluggish in the body, causing more fluids to accumulate and/or obstructing their flow. In a minor case, this could be mild allergies, or if the fluids continue to congeal, obesity can result. It is best to eat rich and greasy foods with foodstuffs that combat them with aromatic natures, or draining actions. For example, one could drink ginger tea after having tempura at their favorite Japanese restaurant.
Other rich and greasy foods to be cautious of and not overindulge in:
- fried foods
- conventional dairy products, sauces, desserts
- large amounts of meat, and/or fatty meats like pork, liver, etc. These foods can be very nutrient dense and wonderful, but should be used more like condiments in your meals, rather than a main course
- large amounts of nuts – this is easy to do with swaths of nut butters, which are already highly concentrated
Avoid Ice Water (iced coffee, iced tea, iced…)
What?! Yes. Avoiding iced beverages can do wonders for your Spleen health. The digestive fire of your Spleen needs to be warm to “burn” up your food and assimilate nutrients. You can imagine what happens to this fire after it gets flooded with cold time after time.
Fun things you can enjoy with your Spleen (ahem, this is the most important part)
As a culture we tend to fixate on what the best diet is, or what foods are “bad” at any given time, and tend to forget the impact of lifestyle and mental factors. I am here to tell you, and I believe my colleagues would agree, that people can be eating a fantastic diet, but if their stress levels are through the roof and they are not cultivating joy in their lives, health will suffer. If you’re eating the perfect diet, but on your computer or watching television until midnight, and getting poor sleep, your food choices could be overshadowed. In a nutshell, don’t get bogged down by trying to be perfect. Cultivate gratitude, joy, relaxation. Wind down and respect the restorative powers of good sleep. Eat real food, listen to your body, love your body. Nurture relationships with your community, friends and family.
Ok, and if you want to be friends with your Spleen:
- The Spleen is an Earth element organ. It desires personal connection and building of relationships. So, go do something fun with your friends and family! Talk to each other, make merry, or have deep conversations about life, the choice is yours.
- What does a wet cloth need to dry? Heat and air flow. Dampness is like a wet cloth. Therefore, getting gentle (or vigorous if you’d like) exercise will create that heat and air (breath) needed to drain Dampness from your body.
- On a mental realm, the Spleen is all about gathering information, digesting it, and drawing conclusions. If imbalanced, we can “overthink” or draw illogical conclusions based on stories we’re telling ourselves. Another symptom of Spleen imbalance could be brain fog. Aid this by meditation practices to bring the mind out of its story-telling mode, or by taking actionable steps to alleviate worry rather than ruminating about it. Don’t make assumptions, ask questions.
- Giving too much or over-committing leaves no time for nurturing yourself. Pouring into your own well gives you a deep reserve to help and nurture others when appropriate. The American culture glories achievement, working “hard”, and constant doing. How much time are we taking to just be? The “being” will be different for everyone, but a good question to ask yourself.
- Qi gong or tai chi are always great options to build vital energy of any system in the body. Do them, love them.
- Mono-task. That’s right, I said it. In the age of constant bombardment of visual, and audio stimulation, it’s challenging to be truly present. The analogy of digestion fits here. Imagine all the information and tasks as food. In other words, being on your smartphone while watching t.v., eating, and talking to your spouse is like consuming Thanksgiving ever night. Now that’s food for thought.
When the Spleen is in balance, at the center of it all, the rest of the body is better set up for success. A healthy digestive symptom will assimilate nutrients more effectively, produce the appropriate chemicals & neurotransmitters, and eliminate waste effectively. This means better immunity, a clear mind, energy, healthy weight, and a lack of pesky symptoms like gas, heartburn, allergies and more. Thank you, Spleen.
If you’d like to dive deep into more about this subject and Chinese medicine nutrition:
Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions & Modern Nutrition . Paul Pitchford
Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen. Wang, Sheir & Ono
If you want videos instead, check out the Ancient Roots nutrition series.
Amanda Johnson (AJ) practices at Thompson Family Acupuncture Clinic in Walla Walla, WA. She loves to show patients how Chinese medicine is fantastic at relieving body pain, aiding recovery and enhancing vitality. When not in the clinic, she will be out hiking, cycling, or playing in the water.