In traditional Chinese physiology, the spleen takes a lead role in the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength.

The Role of the Spleen (Pi) in Traditional Chinese Medicine

The spleen (pi), of all the organs in traditional Chinese medicine, bears the least resemblance to its Western counterpart. The latter deals primarily with production and destruction of red blood cells and storage of blood.

In traditional Chinese physiology, the spleen plays a central part in the health and vitality of the body, taking a lead role in the assimilation of nutrients and maintenance of physical strength. It turns digested food from the stomach into usable nutrients and qi. Entire schools of medicine were formed around this organ; the premise was that all aspects of vitality depend on the entire body receiving proper nutrition from the healthy functioning of this essential organ.

Symptoms of imbalance in the spleen include a lack of appetite, muscular atrophy (wasting), indigestion, abdominal fullness, bloating, jaundice, and inappropriate bleeding or bruising.

The Traditional Attributes Possessed by the Spleen

The spleen governs transformation and transportation. Once the stomach breaks down and digests food, the spleen transforms it into usable nutrition and qi, then transports this food essence to the other organs. The spleen plays an essential role in the production of blood as well.

For this reason, fatigue (qi deficiency) and anemia (blood deficiency) are often attributed to a breakdown in the spleen's ability to transform food into qi and blood.

In addition to its role in nutrition and blood production, the spleen is also responsible for the "transformation of fluids": It assists in water metabolism, helping the body rid itself of excess fluid and moistening the areas that need it, such as the joints. If this function is disrupted, fluid disorders such as edema (severe water retention) or excessive phlegm can develop.

The spleen governs the blood. Considered the "foundation of postnatal existence," the spleen is the most important organ involved in the production of sufficient blood to maintain health. A highly nutritious diet appropriate to the individual's needs enhances the qi of the spleen, thus improving the person's energy level.

These improvements are seen readily in clinical practice, where a sickly person can become quite strong through tonifying herbs, dietary changes, and breathing exercises. Spleen qi is also specifically responsible for keeping blood within the vessels. A weakness in this function can lead to chronic bleeding, such as a tendency to bruise easily, or breakthrough bleeding in the middle of the menstrual cycle.

The spleen dominates the muscles and four limbs. Since the spleen is responsible for transforming food into qi and blood and transporting them throughout the body, proper functioning of the organ is essential to maintain muscle mass and strong limbs. A person with deficient spleen qi often experiences weakness and fatigue in the limbs. Exercise and a healthy diet benefit the body only if the spleen is able to transmit this nutrition and energy to the muscles.

The spleen opens into the mouth and lips. As the gateway to the digestive system, the mouth can indicate whether the spleen is functioning normally. If qi is normal, appetite is good, the lips are red and supple, and the sense of taste is sufficiently sensitive.

Spleen qi moves in an upward direction. All organs have a normal direction for their flow of qi. The flow of spleen qi keeps other organs in their proper place. If spleen qi is weak, then prolapse, or sagging, of the transverse colon, uterus, rectum, or stomach can result.

The spleen likes warmth and dislikes cold. Since the digestive enzymes require warmth to break down food properly, excessive consumption of cold foods and drinks can impair spleen function. Foods that are warming and easy to digest, such as soups with grated ginger, benefit spleen function.

On the next page, learn about the role of the heart in traditional Chinese medicine.

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