Organs in TCM: The Spleen

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), organs are described in terms of relationships, characteristics and functions that together give a sense of the organ’s ‘nature’ and role in maintaining health. Here is the description of the TCM Spleen.


Element: Earth

Flavor: Sweet

Emotion: Worry

Tissue Type: Muscles and Limbs

External Manifestation: Lips

Opening: Mouth

Governs Transformation and Transportation.

According to Western Medicine, the Spleen is similar in structure to a large lymph node and acts primarily as a filter of the blood. Its major roles are recycling iron, removing old red blood cells and holding a reserve of blood in case of hemorrhagic shock. The Spleen’s major role, as described by TCM, is to assist the Stomach in extracting energy and nourishment from food—a very different function indeed. Many TCM practitioners, myself included, think that the term ‘Spleen’ is a misnomer and that the organ described in the classical texts ought to have been translated as ‘pancreas.’ The reasoning behind this is that, in addition to the fact that the pancreas does, in fact, aid in digestion by secreting pancreatic juice and digestive enzymes there is also the observation in classic texts that the flavor associated with the ‘Spleen’ is sweet. A small amount of an organ’s associated flavor is helpful to the organ, but excessive amounts are damaging. This matches very well with what we know from Western Medicine about the development of diabetes. However, since the term Spleen is used in most textbooks and reference works in Chinese medicine, I will continue to use it here as well.

Dirt between the toes. by tlafrance via DeviantartElement: Just like the ground nourishes the plants that grow in it, the Spleen and Stomach nourish the body. This is why they are metaphorically related to the Earth element.

Emotion: Worry or over-thinking is the emotion associated with the Spleen. The organ’s physical job is to process the food and water we ingest, while on an emotional level it also processes our experiences and life-events. If the digestive system is not functioning well, the result is indigestion. The food sits in the digestive tract and the system has to work overtime to get it processed successfully. Worry is a bit like mental indigestion. The mind keeps returning over and over to one event, or problem or experience that is not ‘processing’ well. Each organ has a finite store of energy that it has to allocate to all its functions. If too much energy is going to worry, then physical digestion will begin to suffer. A classic presentation of this disorder is insomnia due to racing thoughts accompanied by diarrhea, poor appetite and lethargy following meals.

Tissue Type: Since the Spleen is involved with extracting energy and nutrients from food, long-term impairment of this function will cause loss of muscle mass and, consequently, weakness of the limbs.

External Manifestation: Nutritional impairment due to Spleen deficiency often manifests as pale lips. In Western Medicine this may correspond to conditions such as iron-deficiency anemia.

Opening: Each of the major organs is associated with a sensory organ that it “opens” to. The Spleen is said to “open” to the mouth because when the digestive system is impaired food often does not taste appealing.

Governs Transformation and Transportation: Transformation refers to the Spleen’s role in turning ingested food and water into energy, blood and the myriad other substances and structures required by the body. The Spleen governs the vital first step of breaking down food into its constituent components. Impairment of this function manifests as poor appetite, abdominal distention or lethargy following meals, chronic loose stools or diarrhea, and in extreme cases emaciation and malnutrition.

The Spleen’s role involves the correct processing of both food and water. Transportation refers to its role in properly absorbing, transporting and distributing body fluids. If this role is not being performed there can be fluid retention and edema in various parts of the body—usually the lower limbs, but it may occur in the upper body and under the eyes as well.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the digestive system plays a very central role in TCM. There is a great emphasis on keeping it in good working order. Many advanced pathologies are understood to have their root in an impairment of the digestive system which then lead to the impairment of other organs. Additionally, many conditions can be vastly improved by paying attention to digestive health and proper nutrition.

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