This is one of the 12 organ systems in Chinese medicine.
The information below is intended to enhance and expand your experience of the Spleen & Stomach podcast, but can of course be used on its own to understand your treatment at Watershed Wellness more deeply.
Spleen organ system overview
The Spleen is known as 脾 pí in Chinese.
The Spleen is one of the 5 most frequently referenced organ systems in Chinese medicine, along with the Liver, Heart, Kidney & Lung. Unlike the other 4 organ systems in that group, the Spleen is not as well known by laypeople and is relatively unimportant to most conventional medical providers. In Western biomedicine, it chiefly helps with certain immune system functions and helps to filter the blood, removing damaged cells from circulation. However, in Chinese medicine, the Spleen is very important and employs an different set of functions.
In Chinese medicine, some of the major functions of the Spleen organ system are:
- The processing of food & fluids and extraction of nutrition from what is taken in
- Balancing the relative levels of dampness and dryness in the body
- Production and dissemination of qi, particularly to the extremities
- Working with other organ systems to maintain immune function both in the gut and elsewhere
- Keeping the blood in the vessels, in other words ensuring that the blood viscosity and blood vessel integrity are optimal
Let’s dig in a bit more using the various structures and symbols associated with the Spleen.
The Spleen acupuncture channel
The Spleen acupuncture channel has 21 points, about median for the primary channels.
The first point is on the inside corner of the big toenail, it then goes along the inside of the foot up to the ankle then travels up the inside of the leg about midway between the big shin bone and the achilles tendon line. It goes through the inner knee and up onto the inner thigh before diving into the inguinal region. It then travels up on the abdomen and travels up the chest on the lateral side of the pectorals, finally ending in a point on the side, in the seventh intercostal space.
Like most acupuncture channels, it can be used to treat pain and dysfunction along its course. The Spleen channel is used somewhat less for this purpose than most channels, but it can be used to treat calf, thigh, breast/chest and rib pain.
Phase Element – Earth
The five phases, also known as the five elements or five phase elements, is one of the most common symbolic systems used in Chinese medicine. The five phases are Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood. Each phase has its own basic character and series of associations, all of which can be used to understand human health, as well as other aspects of reality.
The Stomach and Spleen share the same phase element – Earth. Earth is sometimes depicted as relating to late summer, the early harvest. Other times it is thought to be a sort of buffering season that lies between the other four seasons. No matter how we look at it, Earth is ultimately about nourishment. It is the soil in which we grow our crops and it is our gut biota that processes that helps to process that food and makes it into our bodies.
Earth is related to worry and rumination – the tendency that some of us to have to overthink and try to control situations that are ultimately outside of our control. Think about when you really think yourself into an anxious state – most of us feel that right in the gut. The spleen is particularly related to worry and rumination – there are many chronic digestive problems (including food allergies) that can be significantly improved by finding ways to reduce this mental activity. Meditation can be of particular help for those who are inclined.
Six Conformations – Tàiyīn 太陰
The six conformations is a system of diagnosis that divides the twelve organ systems into six synergistic pairs. There are a variety of ways to parse the information contained in this system, which is chiefly used when diagnosing and treating infectious conditions such as colds and flus, but has utility beyond that use.
Tàiyīn translates to greater Yin. This conformation is the strongest and most exterior of the yin conformations, sort of the front door to the interior of the body. The yin is very strong in these two organ systems and both do a lot to regulate the presence of dampness in the body. The spleen is associated with the digestive and assimilation functions of the body, and thus has a relationship to aspects of our immune system. This is a quality it shares with the Lung. Thus, when a person comes in with dietary or respiratory allergies, Taiyin is the first conformation on our mind.
Ultimately, knowing about this conformation helps us to understand that an important link exists between Lung and Spleen function.
Huángdì Nèijīng – Chapter 8 – Storage & Flavor
One of the most important books in Chinese medicine is the Huángdì Nèijīng or Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic. In Chapter 8 of that text, all of the organ systems are described using language that relates to the operation of a country or state. This is a common way of symbolically discussing physiology and pathology in ancient Chinese texts.
One thing I’ve not discussed about the Spleen so far is that in many texts and traditions, the Spleen and Stomach are discussed almost as a single organ system. They are so closely united in function, that they are spoken of in the same breath. This is true in this chapter of the Nèijīng as well.
In the text, this translation by Paul Unschuld, it is said,
“The spleen and the stomach are the officials responsible for grain storage. The five flavors originate from them.”
This gets to the heart of how we view these organ systems in Chinese medicine. Together, the Spleen and Stomach form the center of consumption, digestion and assimilation of nutrients. They form the “central storehouse” of the body, where all-important food is stored and processed. The “five flavors” are what we experience as we taste food, and in Chinese medicine also relate to the function of the various nutrients in building and powering our bodies.
Organ clock – 9am-11am
The spleen is associated with the late morning. So, we continue the story that we found in the Stomach – increasing activity, increasing warmth, and sometimes increasing stress – depending on one’s situation. We’ve eaten our breakfast (don’t forget breakfast!) and our bodies are now hard at work breaking that food down and sending the first nutrients where they are needed in our bodies.
We should be at peak energy around this time – ready to take on any tasks that come our way. The proper functioning of the spleen in extracting and delivering qi throughout the body is essential for this purpose.
Organ clock – May
Note : The lunisolar Chinese calendar doesn’t match up perfectly with the months of the Gregorian calendar. I’m using the closest month on the Gregorian calendar that makes sense.
The Spleen is associated with May – as spring begins to flow into summer. On the North Coast, flowers begin to really show themselves, migratory birds return, and our local animals begin to nest, mate & in some cases give birth to young. It’s a celebratory time full of energy & life. While windy weather can still show itself, in most places in the Northern hemisphere we begin to have beautifully warm days.
The spleen, then bears this energy, and just like the hours of 9-11am, here we can think of how much energy a person should be feeling this time of year. This is the time for getting out for a hike, digging in the garden and socializing with friends – no more time for hibernation! When we don’t feel that we have the energy for this, that can mean that it’s time to work on the Spleen.
Organ clock – The Snake
Every organ system is related to an “Earthly Branch” which is one of the pieces of the ancient Chinese calendar system. To make those symbols easier to relate to, the Chinese associated each with one of the 12 zodiac animals from Chinese astrology.
The Spleen is related to the snake – making an interesting reptilian pair with the dragon of the Stomach. The snake is one of those animals that gets an undeserved bad rap in some cultures. It is associated with the fall in the Garden of Eden and otherwise is used to scare or startle people. However, most snakes steer clear of people and are wonderful eliminators of animals that can become pests, like rodents.
Apart from their ecological function, symbolically snakes are really about transformation. The transformation of food into nutrients into OUR BODIES. The transformation of spring into summer. The transformation of morning into midday. The spleen can also be associated with the power of birth – the stamina to get through the birthing process, and then to be able to nurse young afterwards, relies to a great extent on the power of the spleen. We can consider, too, that the spleen channel (along with its Earth companion the stomach) runs through the abdomen (where babies reside) as well as the breasts.
Acupuncture & Herbs
Spleen – 3 / Tàibái (acupuncture point)