Many climates throughout the world have five seasons – late summer, or Indian Summer, is usually the fifth, lasting from sometime in July through sometime through about mid-September. In traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the spleen is associated with the earth element. It is considered much more than a component of the lymphatic system but instead one of the most important ‘organs’ in the body. As such, it, along with its partner the stomach, is in charge of digestion and assimilation. And good digestion is a major key to health!
So what does the spleen do, exactly?
Being responsible for assimilation and transportation of nutrients throughout the body, the spleen not only controls food and fluid metabolism, but also cell respiration and similar metabolic functions. It rules the muscles, flesh and limbs, keeps the organs in place so they don’t prolapse, and keeps the blood in vessels so they don’t leak.
What health problems arise from a spleen imbalance?
Late summer is the season of dampness (as seen externally in monsoons or heavy late summer rains) and so can be a particular problem now, because the spleen hates to be damp as this interferes with its ability to transform and transport food and fluids. This causes lots of symptoms; weight gain that won’t respond to dieting, feelings of heaviness, lung mucus, drippy nose, post-nasal drip, oozing skin eruptions, abdominal distention, nausea, vomiting, heavy joints, bloating, fluid retention, poor appetite, acid reflux, gas, the need to clear the throat after eating, excessive drooling, snoring, anemia, lymphatic congestion, loose stools or diarrhea, undigested food in the stools, lethargy, weakness in arms and legs, fatigue, poor muscle development, edema of abdomen, hips and thighs, blood spots under the skin, easy bruising, lack of sensation of taste, prolapsed organs, frequent bleeding, abdominal distension, and increased obsession and/or worry.
It never fails that in late August through early September, people show up at my clinic with digestive issues. They either experience increased gas or bloating, or else can’t lose weight no matter what they try, even if only eating salads or fruit. Others experience loose stools, diarrhea, low energy, or any combination of the abundant symptoms listed above.
So are you doomed at this time of year, or can you improve your symptoms? Fortunately, you can spark digestion and stop weight gain now through the use of herbs and diet.
How to Nourish the Spleen with Herbs
CODONOPSIS: Sometimes called ‘poor man’s ginseng, codonopsis has a gentler, cooler nature than Panax ginseng and so is traditionally is substituted for it in the summer. It strengthens blood and energy as well as supports immunity, digestion, energy and the respiratory system. It also protects the body from radiation treatment.
ASTRAGALUS restores energy, improves immunity, aids fluid metabolism, dispels edema, treats diarrhea, organ prolapse, and bleeding, plus with dang gui it builds blood to alleviate anemia.
DRIED GINGER: Warming and drying, it ‘revives’ the Spleen to spark digestion, treating diarrhea, loose stools with undigested food, poor digestion, nausea, vomiting, and edema. Note: fresh ginger acts differently in the body so use dried ginger for the listed purposes.
AGASTACHE strengthens and “revives” the Spleen’s metabolizing function, treating digestive disturbances due to Dampness. It drains edema on heavy thighs, legs and buttocks, and reduces cellulite.
CARDAMOM: dries dampness and alleviates food stagnation (food that’s poorly digested because the stomach is overwhelmed, acutely or chronically). It’s great to add to any dampening food – yogurt, fruit, flour products – to aid its digestion. It’s also good for a feeling of heaviness or edema to loose stools, diarrhea, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, abdominal distention, chest fullness or an oppressive sensation in the chest, and lethargy.
CLOVE increases digestive energy and dries dampness; great for GERD, acid reflux, hiccough, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal pain, poor appetite, stomachache, hernia pain in the uterus, chronic indigestion, and fullness in the stomach and intestines.
ELECAMPANE increases energy, alleviates pain from fullness, distention, and pain of the chest and abdomen, treats nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cough with white phlegm, bronchitis, asthma, whooping cough, pleurisy, cholecystitis, and gallstones.
HAWTHORN: While most often known as an herb to help heart function, hawthorn berries actually assist the digestion of meat, fat and greasy foods. As well, it alleviates symptoms of abdominal distention, pain, and watery diarrhea or dysentery (especially for the latter two when the herb is charred).
CITRUS PEEL: Aged tangerine peel aids digestion, clears coughs with excessive clear to white phlegm and a stifling sensation in the chest, alleviates gas, belching, watery diarrhea or loose stools, nausea, vomiting, abdominal swelling or fullness, bloating, lack of appetite, and fatigue. Lemon and orange peels are similar though weaker in action.
How to Nourish the Spleen with Nutrition
Cooking herbs with food is one of the best ways to improve digestion. Codonopsis, astragalus, and the big red jujube dates are all great choices. The sweet taste, attributed to the earth element, strengthens digestion but this is not the sweet flavor we get from white sugar; rather it’s complex carbohydrates and protein. Add more of these foods along with plenty of cooked vegetables and some seasonal fruit.
What to eat
- Sufficient protein for your body’s needs, particularly chicken and smaller amounts of beef
- Lots of cooked vegetables and dark leafy greens
- Cooked fruit with spices (cinnamon, ginger, cardamom)
- Whole grains and legumes, pre-soaked and cooked
- Small amount of fat (ghee, olive oil; small amounts of nuts and seeds)
- Small amounts of honey, maple syrup or other natural whole sweetener
What to avoid
- Cold, refrigerated, or iced foods or drinks
- Flour products
- Soy milk, tofu
- Raw foods
- Cold juices
Hot temperatures outside can lock coldness inside the gut, which, of course, is compounded by iced drinks, ice cream, smoothies, and other cold fluids, excessive eating of salads and other raw foods, and imbibing foods and drinks directly out of the refrigerator or freezer. This is compounded by fats such as chips, fries, dairy and greasy foods and by flour products, which also cause dampness and mucus. The result is feeling hot but having loose stools, weight gain or any of the other above symptoms. As well, the cold food/fluids encapsulate the fat, making it unable to properly assimilate, resulting in cholesterol, toxic fat and cellulite.
|SPLEEN STRENGTHENING FOODS||SPLEEN WEAKENING FOODS|
|Protein (all proteins, especially beef)||Insufficient protein and nutrition|
|Cooked foods||Excessive intake of raw foods, including salads|
|Warm/room temperature drinks||Refrigerated foods and drinks|
|Root vegetables||Iced drinks|
|Winter squash||Frozen yogurt, ice cream, Popsicles|
|Rice, quinoa, barley, amaranth, buckwheat, millet; Peanuts; tofu||Excessive intake of flour products (breads, pasta, chips, cookies, crackers, pastries, etc.)|
|Spices (garlic, cumin, ginger, black pepper, etc.)||Excessive hot, spicy foods (ex. Salsa)|
|Soups||Excessive intake of vegetable juices|
|Congees||Excessive intake of potatoes|
|Peach, apple, mango, papaya, loquat; cook
Fruit with spices
|Excessive intake of fruit and fruit juices|
|Beets, cabbage, carrot, yam, sweet potato, potato, string beans, peas, winter squash, lotus root||Excessive intake of supplements|
|Small amounts of whole sugar, especially malt||Sugar|