Fall 2023 – The functions of Spleen and Signs of Deficiency

Happy Fall. 

While we’re transitioning from the late summer to fall or (Earth to Metal according to the Chinese Medical language), there are a few things to consider.

Spleen/Earth is the mother element of Metal/Lungs so before the ‘child’ element gets sniffles let’s take care of the mother.



The functions of the Spleen

The Spleen has an arguably much bigger role in Chinese Medicine than in Western medicine.

Below is an expanded view of its functions and signs/symptoms of deficiency.


1. It rules the transformation and transportation of food Essences (nutrition) and Qi

The partially digested food from the Stomach is transformed into Grain Qi (Gu Qi) by the Spleen. It then gets transported upwards to the Lungs where it is mixed with inhaled Air Qi (Da Qi). The mixture is called Gathering Qi (Zong Qi), which then gets transported to the Heart to make Blood.

The refined parts of food, called ‘Food Essences’ or nutrition in Western terms, are transported by the Spleen to various parts of the body so that all the Organs, limbs, bones, hair, and tendons are nourished. Therefore, Spleen is considered to provide the material basis for the whole body. It functions as the root of Qi and Blood making. Therefore, in order to tonify Blood and Qi, we tonify the Spleen.

If the Spleen transforms and transports food Essences and Qi properly, then digestion, appetite, absorption, and elimination are normal. Otherwise, there may be poor appetite, indigestion, abdominal distention or pain, anorexia, lassitude, and loose stools.

2. It rules the transformation and transportation of Body Fluids

Another function of the Spleen is to separate, transport, and transform fluids in the body. The fluids ingested are divided into usable (the pure) and unusable (the dirty) groups. The usable ones are ‘raised’ and distributed to the Lungs. The unusable ones are sent to the Small Intestines to be separated further.

This process happens at the same time as the Spleen transforms, transports, and distributes food Essences and Qi. They have an impact on each other. An imbalance in one will influence the other. If the Spleen’s transforming function is poor, the Body Fluids can congeal to create Phlegm or cause edema. Therefore, whenever the body has Dampness or Phlegm, the Spleen may be one of the causes.

3. It controls the raising of Qi”

The Spleen Qi has the tendency to ascend (Stomach descends). Not only it transports Grain Qi up to the Lungs, but it also raises and holds the Organs in their places. If Spleen Qi is Deficient, chronic diarrhea can happen, together with prolapse of different Organs such as the Bladder, Uterus, and Anus.

If the Spleen is in excessive Dampness, it stagnates the ascending quality of energy (we call Clear Yang Qi) and it can lead to fuzzy thinking and heaviness of the head.

4. It controls Blood

This is one of the most important functions. The Spleen is the root of Blood in the body. The Spleen Qi is also said to keep the Blood flowing in vessels. When the Spleen Qi is weak, Blood can flee its pathways and this results in easy bruising, heavy periods, abnormal uterine bleeding, and potential Blood Deficiency.

5. It controls the muscles, flesh, and limbs

If the food Essences (nutrition) are properly transported by the Spleen throughout the body, the muscle tone and strength are good. If the Spleen doesn’t function smoothly, the muscles become weak, and the person feels tired.

6. It houses the Intellect / Thought ( Yi )”

Yi is translated as Thought or Idea. It is the intellectual function of the body which includes absorbing and remembering information, focusing, studying, thinking, and organizing ideas. If Spleen Qi is strong, it is easy to study, to think, and to concentrate. If not, thinking can be fuzzy, memorization can be weak, and concentration poor.

7. It is affected by worry

The Spleen is affected by worry, obsession, sympathy, and nostalgia. Indulgence in or prolonged experience of any of the above emotions causes deficiency in the circuit of Spleen resulting in poor digestion, gas, bloating, ulcers, decreased appetite, and Stagnation of Qi in the abdomen.


What Is Spleen Qi Deficiency?

Spleen qi deficiency is a very common condition in the United States and is often due to the Standard American Diet – SAD (pun intended) and poor eating habits. The spleen, in traditional Chinese medicine, is considered the main digestive circuit (we don’t look at physical organs only the energy of such) and is closely tied to the function of the stomach and pancreas. The spleen’s qi (chee), or energetic function, can decline for a number of reasons:

  • Diet:
    • Excessive consumption of foods and beverages that are
      • cold in temperature and properties
      • damp in nature
      • raw
      • sugary and consist of refined carbohydrates (white flour, soft drinks, alcohol, and artificial food additives)
  • Poor Eating Habits:
    • Eating at irregular times
    • Overeating
    • Undereating
    • Lack of dietary protein
    • Late meals
  • Psychological Excess:
    • Long-term overthinking
    • Overworking
    • over studying
    • chronic worry
  • Climate:
    • Living in damp conditions either due to weather or environment (especially where mold is persistent)
  • Chronic Illness:
    • Any long-term illness, especially those where phlegm production is a prominent symptom.
  • Constitution (heredity):
    • When one or both parents also have digestion issues or chronic illness.

In Chinese medicine, the spleen, and stomach are responsible for heating up chewed food particles, breaking them apart, pulling out and transforming glucose, proteins, fats, and nutrients into usable energy, and finally, separating out waste products for elimination.

When this process loses efficiency, food passes through the body partially or fully undigested. A by-product of this faulty metabolism, known as dampness, is then created, dampness manifests as phlegm or mucus that can be seen, felt, or expelled. Dampness also presents as excess body fat, or as unseen phlegm that slows down and blocks energetic functions in the organs and acupuncture channels. Extreme cases of spleen qi deficiency with dampness are often found in overweight, obese, and inactive individuals.

Common Symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency

Abdominal bloating after eating Muscle aches (often inside the calves)
Fatigue/Foggy-headedness (especially in the mornings) Sugar cravings
Bloating/Loose stool/ Undigested food in stool Choosing damp-producing (high-caloric) foods

The Health Consequences of Spleen Qi Deficiency

If left untreated, spleen qi deficiency can eventually result in blood deficiency (not anemia but rather low blood volume) and/or a spleen yang deficiency (the loss of the warming function of the spleen) eventually leading to Kidney deficiency. When blood is not properly nourished or there is not enough being generated by the spleen, the heart, and lungs are easily affected, leading to fatigue, heart palpitations, and lightheadedness.

Blood is very important to all the systems of the body, and such a deficiency can lead to numerous complications and additional circuit deficiencies as well (i.e. liver). In an effort to warm the digestive fires, the yang-deficient spleen will pull yang (warming) energy away from the kidneys, until they too become yang-deficient (cold).

How to Avoid Spleen Qi Deficiency in Your Diet

Try to incorporate the following suggestions into your daily routine. Start slowly and add new pointers only when the previous ones become a habit.

  • Eat at regular times/intervals each day: Digestion works most efficiently when we eat three distinct meals each day: 7:00-9:00 a.m. for breakfast, 12:00-1:00 p.m. for lunch, and 5:00-7:00 p.m. for dinner. Small snacks throughout the day are also fine, as long as they are mostly healthy (unprocessed) foods.
  • Eat a big breakfast, moderate lunch, and light dinner: This is a great model for decreasing fatigue throughout the day. A big breakfast with lots of protein gives the body its first dose of energy for the day. An all-carb or carb-heavy breakfast (i.e., cereal, pancakes, bagels, toast, pastries, fruit, etc.) causes the blood sugar to spike and then crash, leading to mid-morning or afternoon fatigue.

Eating a meal at breakfast time that is more like lunch or dinner (such as vegetables, protein, and grains) is common in Asian culture for a reason—it gives more sustained energy throughout the day. Eating a moderate-sized lunch of cooked (not raw foods) also prevents afternoon fatigue, as the spleen doesn’t have to work as hard to digest it. A light dinner helps the spleen to better digest the last intake of food for the day as the metabolism begins to slow down before bedtime.

  • Don’t eat late at night: Any food consumed after 8:00 pm will not be digested well or at all because the body’s metabolism slows down when night-time. Undigested food leads to bowel problems and weight gain (damp formation) the following day.
  • Don’t overeat: Overeating overwhelms the spleen and stomach so that food passes through without being fully digested, again leading to indigestion, bowel problems, and weight gain (damp formation).
  • Avoid undereating: Undereating deprives the body of qi, and blood, and also weakens it systemically. It can also cause whatever food is eaten to be stored more easily as fat because the body is in starvation mode and responds by lowering/slowing its metabolism—a common reason for persistent weight gain in people who claim to be eating less and less. In Chinese medicine, this is seen as the process of damp formation due to spleen qi deficiency. If the appetite is low, or your schedule doesn’t allow for enough eating throughout the day, try to find ways to eat small snacks every couple of hours.

Hint: Imagine that your grandma is joining you at every meal

  • Be present when eating: Don’t eat when in a hurry, while driving, standing up, doing computer work, watching television, reading, writing, experiencing strong emotions, or arguing. All of these activities either distract the body from being completely focused on digestion or are stressful in nature and activate our “fight or flight” brain response, as opposed to our “feed and reproduce” brain response. This shifts the blood supply away from the digestive system and into our brains, eyes, and muscles (in order to fight or flee from a potential predator), which reduces our body’s ability to digest food properly. Try to keep mealtime conversations light and minimal.
  • Chew your food slowly and thoroughly: Carbohydrate digestion actually starts in the mouth through the act of chewing. Enzymes released in the mouth are responsible for pre-digesting our food, which takes some of the burden off of the spleen and stomach.
  • Avoid potential food allergies or sensitivities. If a food repeatedly gives you indigestion, heartburn, loose stools, flatulence, constipation, nausea, skin rash, mental fogginess, fatigue, or any other allergic response, avoid it. You can eliminate a food group (i.e. gluten or lactose) for two weeks and then “challenge” or reintroduce it to the diet to determine if the specific food was really causing the sensitivity or not.

Foods to Avoid with Spleen Qi Deficiency

Cold drinks Sugar Hydrogenated or heat-treated (rancid) oils
Ice cream Refined carbohydrates (white flour) Raw, unsoaked nuts and seeds
Yogurt Milk and Dairy products Raw leafy greens and cooling vegetables
Undiluted fruit juice Sugary and rich desserts Pastries, cookies, sweet baked goods

Avoid Eating Cold Foods

Avoid cold, damp-producing, raw foods as much as possible and in accordance with the seasons. When we consume cold foods or drinks it takes energy and heat from the internal environment to bring it to the body-level temperature, making the spleen and stomach work harder to break it apart for digestion. Cold food and drinks also draw heat away from nearby organs through the process of heat transference, eventually causing yang (warming function) deficiency in other organs. Raw, cold, and damp-producing foods are simply more difficult to digest and require more effort from the spleen and stomach. Eating these foods repeatedly over time forces the spleen to work extra hard day in and day out, weakening its digestive function and leading to its deficiency.

In Chinese medicine, soups, stews, and steamed foods are preferential for people with digestive difficulties. Allow food or drinks to come to room temperature or heat them before consuming. Try rinsing cold fruit or vegetables in warm water before eating. Drink warm/hot water in the fall and winter, warm or room temperature water in the spring and summer, and reserve small amounts of cool (not cold!) water for directly after a strenuous workout.

Hint: Avoid anything Raw during the months that have the letter R in it.

Decrease Your Alcohol Consumption

Avoid excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol itself is damp and hot in nature. A small amount can warm and circulate the blood and the acupuncture channels, as is used in Chinese medicinal wines. In excess, alcohol slows down liver metabolism (creating liver qi stagnation) and, in turn, hinders the spleen’s function.

Exercise Regularly for Optimum Health

Get moderate amounts of exercise. In Chinese medicine, exercise warms and circulates the blood and qi, which has an overall strengthening effect on the organs and acupuncture channels. Exercise also strengthens the spleen by virtue of the muscles, its paired body structure. Using the muscles requires the conversion of ATP (or stored glucose) into physical energy. This encourages the spleen to function properly during digestion, which is needed to produce enough qi for regular exercise.

Consider Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture

The best way to assist you with incorporating the above dietary changes and exercise suggestions is to use acupuncture and Chinese herbs in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle.

In short, Spleen creates the energy necessary to sustain daily demands. As the air cools and we enter the Metal Phase, the immune system must be kept up to avoid the side effects of the ‘flu’ season.

Book your well-check or well-kept visit today.




Reference list:

The Spleen (Pi) According To Chinese Medicine. (n.d.). https://www.meandqi.com/
What Is Spleen Qi Deficiency? https://remedygrove.com/