To read the previous articles in this series : the first on chronic anxiety, the second addressing terror and the Chinese medicine heart, the third looking at severe closure of the heart, the fourth concerning depression and the Chinese medicine liver and the most recent about Chinese medicine and rage or anger.
I’ve gone five entire articles without mentioning digestive health so far. Five! For writing about natural medicinethis is unheard of.
The day has come though, as our digestive health is in fact the foundation of our overall health. The entire Internet can tell you what to eat, and what not to eat, with varying degrees of accuracy. However my focus here will be on the intersection of gut health and emotions.
In particular I want discuss the humble and lovable spleen.
The spleen in Chinese medicine is related to the western medicine spleen, but is also distinct from it. The first thing to know is that, when we say spleen, we really mean “spleen-pancreas”. This is clear in classical texts, but was not carried over into English translations. The spleen in western medicine is basically a giant lymph node, while in Chinese medicine it forms a functional pair with the pancreas, and this pair helps us properly digest our food, transport broken down nutrients and water around the body, and direct waste products down and towards the eliminatory organs.
How did the pancreas get lopped off the end in translation?
Originally many translations of Chinese medical texts were done by French medical missionaries, and their system of translation was sometimes not entirely accurate. Though this mistake has been recognized for many years, it is a fact of life that the term “spleen-pancreas” simply does not role off the tongue, and thus western practitioners continue to shorthand this important organ simply as the spleen.
As is true for all organs in East Asian medicine, the spleen has a yin and a yang aspect.
The yin is cooling and moistening, while the yang is warming and drying. It is the yang of the spleen that warms our food and exerts enough force on it that is can transported around the body as useful food essence. One very literal part of this process is the digestive enzymes of the pancreas, but there are emotional aspects as well. The yang of the spleen digests and integrates the outside world; experiences, relationships and emotions. It also maintains our physical boundary and sense of our body.
The spleen builds the muscles of our body and maintains their strength, and thus it is responsible for a certain kind of confidence in our own stability. It allows us to support others by having the energy to do so and the knowledge of where we end and where the other begins. Understanding the boundary of our body is key in relationships, because without boundaries all intimacy can feel dangerous and blurry, and threaten our sense of self.
A person with a struggling spleen yang will often have cold digestive issues.
These can include diarrhea; tiredness after eating, generalized body pain, brain fog, low energy, cold abdomen, nausea, and low appetite. They will also have a few key emotions difficulties as well; poor sense of boundaries around care are especially common. Either they will care for others at the expense of themselves, or they will feel that they cannot afford to spend the energy and risk the loss of self in doing so, and they instead avoid extending themselves on behalf of others entirely. This can come off as either intense neediness or cold aloofness, both of which are opposing sides of the same spectrum of troubles.
Anxiety and depression are common in these individuals, and the specific kind of each are characterized by exhaustion. This person has the sort of depression where they cannot get out of bed, and an anxiety that prevents them from leaving their house or doing much of anything. While it may appear that they are uncaring, what is more true is that they don’t have the energy to care.
This person needs warming, both physically and emotionally.
A Chinese medicine practitioner would use warming needling techniques and would burn Moxa (dried Chinese Mugwort) over points on the spleen and stomach channels, as well as prescribe warming and dampness-draining herbs. A favorite formula of mine in these case is Fuzi Lizhong Tang (pronounced Fu Tsuh Lee Johng Tahng), which is traditionally indicated for digestive pain and diarrhea, with cold hands and feet and lethargy.
As the cold and dampness resolve, and the person’s body recovers, their spirits generally return to normal as well.
This article is not intending to diagnose or help you treat any illness. Whether your digestive difficulties or emotional issues are exactly the same as the ones described above or not, it can be very helpful to seek care from a trained professional. I have appointments available at convenient times and I’d be happy to talk with you about your digestive, emotional or other health concerns.