The spleen is probably one of the more misunderstood organs of the body. For a long time, Western medicine was unclear as to what it even did, or whether it was important. In Eastern medicine traditions however, the spleen is regarded as necessary for all immune, digestive and energetic processes.
Here’s the basic (very basic, because anatomy isn’t exactly my strong suit) anatomical information. The spleen is located in the abdomen, behind the stomach. It’s not very big, weighing in at about 150-200g but it is an integral part of the immune system. The spleen is basically a mass of lymphatic tissue with connections into major veins, arteries and capillaries. It destroys old red blood cells that the body no longer needs and acts as a reservoir for extra blood, while also using white blood cells to help fight infection and disease. It plays a vital role in helping the body decide what aspects of the food you are eating should be assimilated into the body and which should be rejected. In cases where someone ruptures the spleen or where it has to be removed surgically, the liver can help take over some of the functions. You can live without a spleen, which is where much of the belief that it isn’t important comes from, but you lose some resistance to disease and some of the subtler aspects of the organ function.
The ancient Greeks used a system of medicine based on the “humours’ or body fluids. Black bile of the spleen was associated with melancholy. This view was popularized in Romantic era literature in the 18th centaury. In Chinese medical literature the spleen is part of the earth element, grounded the individual and forming the base of someone’s temperament.
In Chinese five-element theory the energy of a particular meridian or organ goes far beyond the actual anatomical function. Metaphors are commonly used to create a picture of health within the body. So knowing what the spleen’s function is on a physical level, we could ask the more metaphorical question; how are you at breaking problems down into digestible parts? Or are you burdening yourself with toxins on any level? This gets more interesting when you consider that the spleen meridian also houses the pancreas, making it particularly sensitive to dietary choices. This means that eating sugar tends to keep it from working properly! Which begs the question, do you have enough sweetness, or too much? .
The spleen can be strengthened with a healthy diet. Eating whole grains that are naturally high in B-vitamins and vitamin E will help it keep working well. Foods that are rich in vitamins A and C support a healthy immune system and help the spleen do its job more efficiently. These include citrus fruits of course, but also most brightly coloured vegetables like red and yellow peppers and dark green leafy veggies. Sticking to a clean diet when possible – because everyone needs cheesecake and wine on occasion – makes the spleen’s task of purifying the blood easier and keeps the lymphatic system as a whole running smoothly.
We tend to take our fantastic bodies for granted, until the day comes when they don’t work the way they should. In this case, a little prevention, maintenance and TLC will make a big difference to your health.