What do images of a golden-hued late July and humid August conjure up for you?
If you live in my neck of the woods in the Great Lakes region of Southern Ontario, you can bet your sweaty tush roasting on a hot vinyl carseat that for most of us living here, those two months usually dredge up memories of humid, sticky summer days where the mercury in the thermometer can feel like its trying to escape from the glass its encased in.
And because TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is what I write a lot about for the most part, I'm going to spend a bit of time introducing you to the wonderful Zang organ, The Spleen!
Random choice of organ? There never is a random-any-organ in the world of TCM. The Spleen is the organ that is most closely associated in TCM theory with the season of late summer and often the organ that can jam things up in the body when External Pathogenic Factors (that's the fancy pants term for extreme environmental changes or fluctuations) like extreme heat, humidity or a bad "out of season" diet, can accumulate in the body and cause Spleen Qi damage and deficiencies. When I went to school, this term was always abbreviated to EPF. This shortened version will be the term I use throughout the article (Mainly because I am too lazy to spell the whole phrase out and also, because it sounds so much cooler because it has its own tecky sounding acronym!)
Now just to be perfectly clear, when I say, The Spleen, I am referring to this organ (picture was taken from the online Merck Manual - Consumer Verison at: https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/home/blood-disorders/spleen-disorders/overview-of-the-spleen):
I just wanted to thoroughly point out (and hopefully not disappoint too many Mystery Men fans) that I am not referring to the character, The Spleen, as played by this guy below.
No gif for The Spleen available so this is the closest thing I could come up with! Sorry!
OK, now that this is out of the way, I shall continue.
So why the Spleen and late summer? In TCM theory, the human body is made up of:
1. The Zang (the "juicy" and "filled with fluid" organs) as well as,
2. The Fu (the "hollow", "must be emptied" organs).
The Zang organs consist of: The Liver, Spleen, Heart, Lungs and Kidney.
The Fu organs: The Gallbladder, Stomach, Small Intestine, Large Intestine, Bladder, and the elusive Sanjiao or Triple Burner (the organ that I'll have to explain in another article because its pretty complex one to describe!).
And each of these organs is assigned a specific function, a particular time of year or season, a colour and so on....in short, each has been given a particular correspondence to a certain recurring pattern or phenomenon in nature.
In this article, I will only be focusing on the Zang, fluid-filled organs since these are most often described by (and their corresponding syndromes diagnosed) in TCM theory by their respective correspondences. **I describe the Zang and Fu organs and their relationship with each other in a little more detail in a previous article that I wrote in April of this year - if you're curious, it's here: https://www.acuinthesix.com/single-post/2019/04/23/The-Lungs-Speaking-with-the-Language-of-Grief. It's a little heavy but that was due to the circumstances that I was going through at the time.
Each of these Zang organs is responsible for the healthy functioning of its associated meridian (that channel of energy that Acupuncturists work on when they do acupuncture on points that are found on these channels). Each organ is also assigned special seasonal, elemental, colour, taste, temperature and sense organ correspondences.
In the case of this particular organ, The Spleen, the associated time and season of year is Late Summer (the time of year in North America that corresponds with the calendar months of late July and most of August). I summarized some of these correspondences here in the list below for easier reference.
** if anyone is interested, these are great websites for more info on the theory of Zang and Fu Organs:
Spleen Zang Organ Correspondences:
Paired Fu Organ: The Stomach
Seasonal Correspondence: Late Summer
Emotion: Worry, Over-thinking, Ruminating
Bodily function: Digestion (in particular the separation of the turbid from the clear)
Temperature / Weather Pattern Association: Humid
Paired Sense Organ: The Mouth
Remember that people living in ancient times (without online updates, phone apps and social media news) didn't have modern tools that would tell them about the time of year that they were in or even what time of day it was. A lot of observations of the seasons, the position of the sun and moon, the patterns of animal migrations (and such) gave them the regularly occurring signals that they would use to know (and inform others) what season it was in the current year and what sorts of conditions they would encounter in the natural world (so they could plan for crop plantings, harvests, festivals and the like).
And it was from these repeating, cyclical, natural phenomena that people living in ancient times extrapolated the following correspondences of the internal organs, their corresponding meridians and their disease patterns. Seen below is the diagram, "Classification of Things According to the Theory of the Five Elements", taken from the website, https://www.tcmworld.org. It highlights the correspondences and associations of each of the five Zang Organs and from a glance, you get the idea that each organ has not only its actual physiological function to look after. The organ also plays additional roles in regulating the health of a particular bodily tissue, an emotional response, a particular cardinal direction and so on. Each of these organs has a specific set of associations from which disease could be diagnosed from. However, for the sake of brevity, The Spleen will be the one focused on in this article.
So regarding the Spleen and it's associated symptoms and corresponding seasonal, bodily tissue and emotional attributes, if you have a look at the yellow circle below, you'll see that this organ has associations with the season of late summer, the taste (or rather flavour preference for) sweet, the bodily tissue of muscle, as well as the emotional correspondence of overthinking (which I usually observe as a tendency towards overanalysis-paralysis in our modern world).
It was from these associations that diseases could be diagnosed by an acupuncturist or TCM doctor living in those ancient times. Interestingly, modern day practitioners like myself follow those same principles of diagnosis as well so when you come in for a condition that resembles a Spleen Disease, you can bet that I will be looking for Spleen Deficiency patterns when I ask you about your condition and observe that symptoms that you report to me. A lot of these Spleen Deficiency symptoms will likely overlap with some of the associated correspondences seen in this diagram below!
Picture taken from: https://www.tcmworld.org/what-is-tcm/the-five-major-organ-systems/
(A really great and informative site that gives a lot of good information in clear language, making it easier to understand and grasp some of the toughe and almost more metaphorical concepts used in the field of TCM. The site is also very pretty and nice to look at - always a bonus! Yes, yes. Hint taken by myself to myself.....and being worked on)
In the case of Spleen Disease, a patient would be diagnosed with Spleen Qi Deficiency if he or she came in with muscular cramps/spasms, had an overarching preference for sweet foods (to the point perhaps of sweet cravings), have a yellowish almost sickly complexion, tended to retain water (particularly in the middle, abdominal area of the body) and overthought and overanalyzed everything. And as the season indicates, most of the time, these diseases of the Spleen would usually occur around the time of late July and most of August - during the hottest and most humid time of the year (well, at least in the northern hemisphere anyway). That is the season most rife with such EPFs like extreme humidity, long periods of no rain, heat waves and easily spoiled foods. When these EPFs enter a person's body, through weakened meridians, they could easily cause havoc and disrupt daily bodily functions like digestion.
Now if you think about it, the time of late summer is usually a time of humid, damp and sweltering conditions. People tend to feel tired and lethargic because of the oppressive nature of the heat and humidity. It is also a time when we seek out icy cold drinks and foods to try and cool ourselves off. It's a time when diseases or health conditions of a sticky, heavy and turbid nature also become more prevalent. Think of the nature of humidity and of dampness - it tends to "stick to you" making you feel like you are wearing a coat of heavy, wet and hot yuck-ness (yes, that's the best term I could coin up for that hot sticky feeling!). Your'e slower in thought and movement, more tired than you'd care to admit and a whole lot hotter than you would like to be,
Conditions like weeping eczema or rashes, fullness of the abdomen, extreme fatigue, brain fog, digestive issues, a drop in focus and concentration, cystic acne, loose stools etc all tend to follow the nature of this time of year. The key words here are: heavy, turbid, slow-moving, damp and downward bearing or sinking. In other words, your body and brain suddenly turn into a swampy, soupy mess and it feels like there is no escaping the boggy marshes of the diseases of late summer.
The Spleen is associated with the function of digestion. However, because this is TCM, the process of digestion for the Spleen goes a bit further in this system of medicine and it does more than just the physical breakdown of food into its basic nutritional building blocks. The Spleen actually goes a step beyond this because it also sorts out where the good stuff (the nutritional aspects of the food breakdown known as gu qi or grain qi) go in the body. At the same time, this amazing organ will also tackle an additional task of determining where the bad stuff (the waste products from the process of metabolic breakdown) goes - usually descending to the large intestine to be finally expelled out of the body.
Its sort of like a massive post office (or Amazon warehouse) that sorts, classifies, and then designates where the mail (the gu qi or the turbid, waste-filled qi) is to be delivered so that the body can function in a healthy, efficient way. Think of what happens when the post office shuts down or goes on strike. The mail doesn't get delivered. Nutrient-dense gu qi doesn't go to the organs, meridians and muscles to nourish them. At the same time, waste and turbid qi collects like neglected garbage on the sidewalk within the cells and tissues of the body and the everyday metabolic processes that give rise to clear thinking, ease of movement, efficient digestion and a feeling of energy to tackle your everyday tasks just falls apart. This is essentially the metaphor for what happens when the Spleen gets hunkered down by EPFs (like extreme weather changes or poor quality foods).
What does this look like in a person? Usually like conditions such as poor digestion, gassiness and bloating, irregular bowel movements, feeling full even though you ate a few hours ago, a lack of ability to remember things well or concentrate on tasks, as well as a general feeling of being weighed down and tired all the time. What happens in general when you're tired? Most of us humans tend to crave energy bombs like your office coworkers last chocolate chip muffin, that "emergency" Reece's peanut butter cup that you've been keeping in the event of eminent apolocypse, or that extra side of soft honey baked bread that everyone declines. Why? Because they are sweet! And sweet as a flavour preference is very much a Spleen condition symptom.
Though sweet flavoured foods and drinks help bolster up energy in the short term, that energy doesn't sustain because sweetness causes more dampness. Dampness, being heavy, turbid and sinking, tends to accumulate in the body; hiding internally in the tissues until it starts seeping outwards and literally throwing a monkeywrench in the works, causing the internal Spleen-driven "post office" to slow down until it resembles a literal postal strike. Dampness in general, tends to stop the natural flow of qi or energy. In this particular case, sweetness acts as the precursor (if you may) to a dietary form of dampness which, like a blockade, stops the natural easy flow of qi within the body and impedes the delivery of essential nutrients (found in gu qi) to the skin, tendons, muscles or bones. When the parcels don't get delivered and the essential gu qi doesn't get to where it needs to go to nourish the body or its related meridians, people slow down and start to have issues with energy slumps and productivity. And since nutrients aren't being funnelled to the skin's surface (or to injured tissue for that matter), slow-healing injuries or skin conditions that tend to weep (like open sores or angry large boils or cystic acne) can occur due to the slowed down metabolic response of tissue repair. Sweetness, like external humidity, high heat and temperature extremes, can also be considered in this case, to be an EPF that should ideally, be minimized as much as possible to prevent Spleen Qi Deficiencies from taking root in the human body.
Because the Spleen is also associated with the season of late summer, there is a tendency to eat or drink a lot of cold watery foods as a way of cooling down. We instinctively know to eat seasonally and seek out foods that are naturally abundant and help us cool off at this particular time of year. In the North American content, July and August are months blessed with an abundance of seasonally cooling foods like cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupes and juicy, watery crops like lettuce and celery.
We gravitate towards seasonal foods like these because our bodies know that they will naturally cool our bodies down. However, thanks to modern refrigeration technology and the ability to flash freeze foods, more super chilled, non-seasonally temperate foods are available more than ever to us. Think of popsicles, ice cream, freezies, ice cube filled drinks and sub-arctic desserts that are often touted as "life-saving" during a particularly nasty heat wave (ok, so yes, maybe they are sometimes and no, that wasn't actually me partaking of a sorbet in the last half hour of me writing this article).
Though they cool the body down, they are not seasonal foods. Seasonal fruits and vegetables cool the body down in a gentle moderate way that doesn't hamper the process of digestion. Super flash frozen and chilled foods that have been in cryogenic sleep in a freezer for the duration of the summer tend to lower the temperature of the body down waaaaay too fast. In TCM theory, this sudden arctic blast of coldness is classified as an EPF and introduces an un-natural element to the internal environment within the body - and in particular, the digestive system. This EPF is known as damp-cold and that has a tendency to suppress healthy digestive function and allow for the accumulation of turbid dampness in the body.
The Spleen is often thought of as a warm oven or stove. It needs to be kept warm to process that food that has been broken down in the Stomach into its corresponding nutrients before they can be delivered to where they need to go to fuel the body. If you introduce an unnaturally cooled food that has been kept at a sub zero celsius environment for a long time, you are essentially shutting down the fire and the warmth of the stove and causing it to go cold. Food doesn’t get processed and refined into gu qi and nutrients don’t get delivered where they need to be.
That’s why eating seasonally is so important. You are eating foods that have a naturally occurring counteractive effect to the harsh environmental influences of the current season. Not eating foods that have been manipulated to lower the body’s internal temperature and impair digestion will help prevent some of our most common digestive ailments from occurring. Symptoms like bloating, stomach pain, gas or colic, acid reflux, bowel movement irregularities or commonly referred to IBS-like symptoms can be avoided if patients diligently follow standard seasonal eating patterns.
The spillover effects of nutrient dense qi not nourishing muscles and joints will look like weakness of the limbs and a feeling of heaviness or tiredness. Also, if digestion is not efficient, naturally it will be harder to think clearly and to be present at all times. Think of the times when, post-Christmas dinner, you may not have been able to keep your eyes open after that third helping of mashed potatoes and gravy. That is the Spleen slowing down due to inefficient digestion, causing a build-up of the EPF commonly known as dampness (which is an external pathogenic factor that relates to the humidity and turbidity of the late summer climate). Dampness tends to be clinging and sticky in nature so Spleen essence (or clear qi) doesn’t ascend to the head. Hence you get what most of us describe often as "brain fog" (or a "food coma" depending on its severity). Dampness is very much like damp-cold. Both are heavy and descending in nature. However, the only difference is, dampness can exist without the cold on its own and often only shows up as an abdominal bloating, heaviness, stiffness in the body (joints and muscles) and slowness in thinking without the feeling of a sense of internal cold.
Dampness can also accumulate until the human body cannot retain its own natural bodily fluids. Usually conditions like swollen, puffy and stiff knees (or fingers, elbows etc) or oozing, thick and weeping sores on open wounds are very much examples of Spleen Disease whereby dampness has accumulated and pooled in certain areas of the body beyond that part of the body's natural capacity. This is seen in cases like puffy bursitis of a joint like the knee, badly swollen and water-filled knuckles, boils or carbuncles on the surface of the skin that fill up with thick, damp, heavy pus. All are conditions whereby dampness has collected and turned into a disease or condition.
Lastly, turbid heavy qi can occur externally in the case of food gone bad right in the height of late summer. If anyone has had food poisoning after an outdoor barbecue or picnic, they can certainly relate to the symptoms of having eaten food that turns after being exposed to heat for long periods of time. Because late summer is usually a time of high humidity as well as high temperatures, foods that are left outdoors for too long start to warm up beyond the temperature that they should be kept safely at. Humidity is also referred to as a sort of EPF (it can be thought of as an external kind of climatic dampness) that can be "caught" by an individual if it is ingested in the form of spoiled food. That as we all know too well, often ends up looking like quick bathroom runs, cramping abdominal bloating and pain, loose, watery stools as well as vomiting and esophageal pressure and pain. That is because the natural "postal sorting" ability of the Spleen to sort turbid dampness from clear, essential gu qi is hampered down by the external condition of dampness, known as humidity and it's ability to turn potato salad into a toxic e coli bomb.
I could go on but I figured that you'd get the idea of just how important that Spleen is in daily everyday functioning. We're practically just in the throes of the so called dog days of summer right now being literally right at the last day of July as I conclude this article. So in going forth, be kind to your Spleen. Eat seasonal foods that will help sustain healthy digestion, don't feel obliged to clean up those leftover pieces of food at the close of an outdoor wedding and stay cool! There's nothing wrong with keeping a nice moderate temperature - both internally and externally - so that the temptation to swing to Spleen defying extremes will not be so enticing when the mercury starts rising.
I'm going to try and crank out at least another article before the end of the summer as my workplaces need new feeds for clinical newsletters (and I'm notoriously sloth-speed at getting onto those!). However, I do want to try and ambitiously tidy up my website a bit too and maybe do some editing so the next one may not be until at least another couple of weeks away-...ish?. Until I see you here again, stay cool as ice, enjoy the last remainder of summer and stay healthy!!