Lethargy & Apathy in Summer?

Welcome to the world of the Spleen in Chinese Medicine. What has this seemingly insignificant organ got to do with my health, life and well-being?

The organs of summer (fire) are the heart and small intestine and later in the season, the Spleen and Stomach (earth). The Spleen and Stomach are essential and sensitive in every season, however, in Bejing the summer arrives with a thump and the heat and humidity are brutal, so we need to pay extra attention to avoiding dampness and nurturing the Spleen.

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that when we say the ‘Spleen’ we are not simply talking about the physical organ but instead a set of functions and relationships that the Spleen rules. Chinese medicine is much more about how the body functions – its connections and relationships. Think about it like this: all vital human activity is assigned to the organ system that it is most closely related to or associated with. The Spleen has some very important jobs contributing to healthy human activity and if those jobs are not being done well, then we say the Spleen is imbalanced. This does not mean that you have a ‘bad Spleen’, more that you are not providing the ‘right’ environment for the Spleen to do its job well. The Spleen is the primary organ of digestion and sometimes it is helpful to think of the Spleen as meaning ‘the function of digestion’ from a western perspective.

Why the Spleen has such an important role in the human body is linked to the fact that it is yin organ of the Earth (central) element, which is about being grounded and solid, the Spleen ruling adaption, nourishment and support. A healthy Spleen and digestive system encourages people to be practical, caring, self-reliant and creative – skills that are essential to get our needs met. An unhealthy environment for the Spleen can give you poor digestion, flabbiness, chronic tiredness, nausea, insensitive taste buds, loose stools, abdominal distension, easy bruising, dry lips, apathy, anxiety, worry, obsessive thoughts and more. There is also a tendency to be sloppy and accumulate things. If your Spleen is not working as well as it should be we say you have ‘Dampness’ in the body, our circulation is operating in an environment of high humidity or a swamp. It is slow, heavy, sinking and hard to move. Dampness manifests in feelings of sluggishness, apathy and dullness. It is a lot easier not to do things than to do them.

Ok, first you need to understand that this is the most common pattern of imbalance in the ‘developed world’ and is related to modern diets, excessive mental processing and relatively sedentary lifestyles. Secondly, if there was one tip about getting your life together using the wisdom of Chinese medicine I would suggest the key is to tone the Spleen/Stomach. This is the main motor that converts fuel into energy in this life. The Spleen is the source of motivation and creativity. When we come to realize that balance, health and energy form the core of our happiness, fulfillment, productivity and success, we can understand how important it is for the Spleen to be working at the highest possible function.

Straight Bamboo’s tips to getting your Spleen back in order:

  1. Food easy to digest – warm, cooked food to dominate diet – in general, less sandwiches, salads, fruit and juices – more porridge, freshly cooked meals, soups and stews
  2. Regular meal times – hot porridge breakfast, midday lunch dominated by cooked grains and vegetables, then lighter dinner 6-7pm. Use 3 cooked meals as the foundation to your diet. Use meals as nourishing rituals in your busy life.
  3. Get up early with the sun, nourish yourself, your relationship or your career early in the morning before 7am – Use the Stomach time (7-9am) to ‘arriving on earth’ – our body is from the earth, we take nourishment from the earth, giving the spirit of heaven that resides in our Heart the best chance to lead us to our destiny.
  4. Exercise in the morning before breakfast – soft, regular exercise best
  5. Avoid over-eating – especially late in the evening
  6. Work very hard before midday, time out for lunch,  switch off the work-mind at 5pm, enjoy time with colleagues, friends or family
  7. Drink warm water or room temperature drinks – not cold, avoid ice and be wary of raw foods.
  8. Understand and accept food is good for your health and make good food a central pleasure to enjoy with friends and family – the effect will be better – avoid seeing food as making you fat and see food as nourishing our earthly selves.
  9. Keep the feet warm (head cool) – hot foot baths before bed if you suffer from cold feet
  10. Avoid dampening foods in excess, especially dairy, wheat, sweets, raw food and beer (sorry fellas, moderation the key)
The gentleman did not eat food that was not properly prepared nor did he eat except at the proper times. He did not eat food that had not been properly cut up, nor did he eat unless the proper sauce was available.’ 
Confucius, The Analects, C.500 BCE