Supporting the spleen, stomach and digestive system
In this post I focus on the spleen and stomach, which in Chinese Medicine play a key role in our overall health and wellbeing, providing us with our day to day energy, helping our immune system, and helping us to recover our strength after illness.
Chinese Medicine (CM) talks about our ‘pre-heaven essence’ (constitutional energy you are born with) and ‘post-heaven qi’ – this is energy derived from what you eat and drink after birth providing nourishment for the body. The spleen and stomach are the source of this post-heaven energy. If we overdo it, stay up late, work long hours, and party hard without adequate rest, over time we will start dipping into our pre-heaven energy and use it up more quickly.
The spleen is paired with the stomach, and they pertain to the earth element (like the liver I talked about in my last post belonging to wood). Earth nurtures and nourishes the growth of all living things. In a similar way, the spleen and stomach energy nourish all the organs and tissues of the body providing them with the power to perform their jobs.
The spleen is the digestive ‘fire’ of the body, transforming our food into qi and then transporting it all around the body to nourish us physically, mentally and emotionally. The stomach begins this process by ‘rotting and ripening’ our food, ready for the spleen to create qi for our bodies.
In our busy lives, it is easy to forget our eating habits, but when, how and what we eat are important to the spleen and stomach.
If the spleen and stomach are strong our digestion and metabolism will be good, our immune system strong and we will feel robust and healthy to go about our daily lives. If the stomach and spleen are not working as efficiently as they should our body will be sluggish (easy to gain weight), our energy low, limbs might feel heavy, head foggy and our thinking muddled, we might feel bloated and tired after eating and our stools might be loose!
The stomach and spleen process our thoughts and ruminations as well as what we eat. Worry, overthinking and brooding are the emotions that directly affect the stomach and spleen (in a similar way to anger affecting the liver). Experiencing any of these emotions excessively or over a period of time ‘knots the qi’ and impacts upon your digestive health and energy levels. Enjoying food and enjoying preparing food is good for the digestion!
There is a saying in CM ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.'
When we eat is important! The time when the stomach is at its peak activity is said to be between 7am and 9am (stomach time) and 9am – 11am (spleen time) making breakfast the most important meal of the day and the best time to eat a good portion of food to provide fuel for the day ahead. It follows that the stomach is at its weakest between 7pm and 9pm so eating in the evening is more of a burden on the digestive system. But this is the time we regularly enjoy our main meal.
How you eat is also key. It is important to focus just on eating when having a meal to avoid diverting energy away from your digestion by reading, watching TV, or participating in a work meeting etc. Any stress or emotions felt during mealtimes can cause food to stagnate in the digestive system and ‘knots your qi’causing symptoms such as stomach pain, ulcers and heartburn. Chewing the food well is also important to get those digestive juices flowing.
What you eat is another influential aspect of the diet in Chinese Medicine and needs to be considered in relation to your individual constitution. If you are someone who feels hot and sweats very easily, the heat from spicy foods and curries would not be so beneficial to you. Too much heat can lead to dryness in the body. It is also important to choose foods that have good nutritional value, good qi! A well balanced diet would be a plate with plenty of fresh vegetables (get as many different colours (red, green, yellow, orange, purple, white) and variety as you can, a small portion of good carbohydrates (wholegrain brown bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats) and some quality protein (e.g. eggs, lean meat) and fats (e.g. avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, ghee). Aromatic herbs help a weak spleen get more energy from your food – such as cardamom, basil and coriander. The taste that corresponds to and supports these organs is sweet. If you crave sweets, perhaps your stomach needs support! The taste of sweet naturally supports the healthy function of your stomach but too much weakens it.
A word on raw foods and salads: The spleen likes warmth and looking after our spleen means eating warm cooked foods and avoiding cold and raw foods. If food is cold and raw the stomach has to ‘cook’ it for you and is considered to be harder to digest. This is especially important for people who have a weak spleen (low energy, bloating or tiredness after eating, easy bruising, put on weight) and those who feel cold. This is in direct contrast to some popular diets and comments from nutritional therapists where raw food is considered very healthy and full of good nutrients. Keeping that in mind, in CM it is also important to eat according to the seasons, so spring and summer are the time to eat lighter foods and when salads can be eaten more. But combine with lightly cooked foods such as steamed vegetables, stir-fry, or grilled food. Whilst in winter – more root vegetables, soups and stews, roasts and more protein provide us with more fuel to keep us warm.
Yellow corresponds to the spleen and is associated with yellow soil/earth. The yellow river in China is famous for silting up and if this were to happen in the body it would slow down and impede the flow of energy making a person feel sluggish! Foods with a yellow earthy hue are good for us such as millet, yellow peppers, and sweet potatoes.
The spleen keeps everything ‘lifted’ including organs and keeping blood in blood vessels. Prolapse and easy bruising would suggest a weak Spleen. The muscles are the tissue associated with the spleen and stomach. If your muscles are weak and underdeveloped, or if they cramp or tire easily, you may have a stomach or spleen dysfunction.
Tips to take care of your spleen and stomach energy
Do not skip breakfast – it provides fuel for the rest of the day
Try to eat in accordance with the seasons
Eat mostly cooked and warm foods (and beverages) – if you like your salads, enjoy them with something lightly cooked when nutrients are easier to absorb. Too much raw food can lead to weight gain and bloating!
Reduce dairy, sugar and fried foods which create mucus
Avoid TV dinners - try to eat at your dining table with no other distractions and avoid eating when stressed
If you have a craving for certain foods be careful not to eat too many of them. The flavour associated with the stomach and spleen is sweet and when these two organs are weak, craving sugary sweet foods will deplete you further rather than being easy energy for the body. Sweet potatoes are a great alternative and if you are feeling really tired and run down, boil some sweet potatoes for 30 mins, let them stand for 30 minutes and drink the water they were boiled in for ‘pick me up’. You can eat the potato too if you want, but at a different time! The water the sweet potato was boiled in is like a clear soup and very nutritious and easily absorbed.
Green tea is very popular in China, it aids digestion and allays hunger! It is full of anti-oxidants.
Try to have your dinner by 7pm, on some nights anyway. If you eat a big meal in the evening you are making your stomach work overtime when it should be resting.
I hope some of these tips are of interest for you. As before, only apply those that resonate with you or just pick one and see how you go. As we move towards the summer months, lighter and fresh foods are seasonal so are fine in your diet. But if there are any cold spells, try to reduce the salads.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me individually if you have any questions!