Last week we discussed the lack of motivation and depression that can result from not having enough yang in the Spleen. The rest of the articles in this series are also available including the first one about chronic anxiety, the second one about terror, the third one about closure of the heart, the fourth one about depression, and the fifth, about anger and rage.
Let’s turn our attention to a new possibility. What if there was not enough yin present in the spleen’s paired organ, the stomach?
First we should explain a core concept of Chinese medicine: paired organs. Because yin and yang are always relational concepts, that is they only exist in comparison to each other, the organs of each element are conceived of as yin and yang pairs. The Chinese elements are earth, metal, water, wood and fire. The stomach and spleen are the earth organs, meaning in part that they are the organs who deal most directly with physical matter.
The spleen is the yin part of this pair, and its functions are about fluid transport and secondary digestion (enzymes rather than acid). The stomach is the yang earth organ, and its functions are about burning things up with acid and physically mashing them up.
Understanding the yin and yang nature of an organ helps us to predict what kinds of things will go wrong with it. The spleen is yin already, and so its pathologies tend to involve too much yin; coldness, dampness, and too much stillness.
The stomach, as a yang organ, tends toward too much yang: burning sensations, dryness and manic activity.
More specifically, stomach yin deficiency generally has the following symptoms: heartburn, constipation, too much appetite, great thirst, and fever, and in extreme cases hemorrhagic (bleeding) fevers.
Emotionally, the stomach provides our appetite for life. It helps us visualize what we want, and move towards it. It reminds us that our physical bodies have needs, including hunger and thirst, and that those needs are important. On a fundamental level the stomach provides desire. Desire makes life worth living by reminding us that there is always something else in the world that we want to see, do, or have.
In a healthy person this bottomless desire is balanced by the knowledge that we can’t have everything that we want.
Even for someone with unlimited financial resources none of us can live forever, or have every experience in the world. We can only be one person having our own experiences. The yin of the earth element (the spleen) keeps us attuned to our limits, but also our need for rest and appreciation of what we already have.
Someone with a stomach yin deficiency is unable to keep these practicalities in mind.
Such a person has a strong tendency towards obsession, either with a sort of object (for example collecting antiques or model trains), an experience (seeing a certain movie every day), or a person (an ex, a potential partner, a friend, etc). It is not difficult to imagine how this could become a problem.
Our ability to tell ourselves “no”, even when we want something, is a key part of a being a healthy adult human being.
In a person whose yin has been damaged, that brake cable has been compromised. In its most extreme manifestation this can result in someone losing touch with consensus reality and moving into a space that might look like a manic episode or a psychotic break. There is the potential for violence in such a case if the person perceives that their path toward getting what they want is being blocked.
A patient in that level of an extreme state will not usually present themselves in the Chinese Medicine clinic.
For very understandable reasons, an ER visit or a trip to a psych ward are usually the path that such a person takes. However, someone who is on this trajectory but not yet at that level of extremity may come in, and at that point they can be treated. One common presentation that can look like this is a person with bipolar disorder who is on the upswing of a manic cycle. This state can also result from an intense fever or another illness that depletes the yin of the stomach, and leaves the person in a strange-feeling physical and emotional state.
Treatment is similar in either case: the excessive heat that this process generates needs to be cleared, and then the yin of the body needs to be restored.
Yin-nourishing herbs such as Maimendong (asparagus tuber) and Baihe (white lily bulb) can be given along with heat clearing herbs like Dahuang (rhubarb) and Huanglian (coptis rhizome). Acupuncture can be applied with a similar treatment strategy, and very quickly reduces the patient’s agitation and heat symptoms. The best part about treating this at its early stages is that we can head this process off at the pass and help the patient avoid potentially-disastrous life events in the future.
This article is an attempt to educate you about some of the ways that Chinese medicine looks at the treatment of mental and emotional distress – but it is not intended to help you diagnose you or your friends. If you’re interested in seeing if acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help you with your depression, anxiety, anger, or other uncomfortable emotional states – jump on my schedule and let’s talk!