Skip to main content

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 Beijing, New York City and other cities where summer arrives with a thump and the heat and humidity are brutal, so we need to pay extra attention to avoiding dampness by nurturing the Spleen.

When I refer to dampness, is not just sweating in humid weather but more of an internal pattern of imbalance like cold, heat, wind or stagnation. Dampness manifests as a heaviness, think of the phlegmatic persona. A feeling of heaviness and physical sluggishness with a foggy mind. Reflect on how you feel in a very humid environment. For an image in nature, think of a swamp.

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 relationship”

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, also linked to the pancreas, 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. Think of your organs as a micro-cosmos. The Earth-Spleen is in the middle. The Wood-Spring-Liver is on the right-side of the torso. The Fire-Summer-Heart is at the top. The Metal-Autumn-Lung is on the left and the Water-Winter-Kidney is on in the lower position. We are created in a reflection, a micro-cosmic image, of the cosmos that surrounds us here on earth.

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. For example, eating foods that are easy to digest, regular meal times, using the 9-11am period for your most pressing tasks – for more practical tips see below.

The Spleen 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 performance, we can understand how important it is for the Spleen to be working at full potential.

“The importance of the Spleen (pí), digestive function and its relationship to who we are and how we act is highlighted in the Chinese word 脾气 pí qì, which means ‘character’ or ‘disposition’. 脾气 pí qì literally means the Spleen’s energy”


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. Avoid over-eating – especially late in the evening. For more on Cooked vs Raw Food click here

2. Regular meal times – hot porridge breakfast, midday lunch dominated by cooked grains and vegetables, then lighter dinner 6-7pm. Use three cooked meals as the foundation to your diet. Use meals as nourishing rituals in your full life.

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

3. Get up early with the sun, nourish yourself, your relationship or your career early in the morning 5-7am Large Intestine time. Use the Stomach time (7-9am) to ‘arriving on earth’ – our body is from the earth, we take nourishment from the earth, breakfast. This gives the spirit of heaven that resides in our Heart the best chance to lead us to our destiny. For more on Daily Rhythm click here

4. Exercise in the morning before breakfast. Soft, regular exercise best. Do your most important (often least enjoyable but necessary) tasks of the day 9-11am Spleen time!

5. De-clutter regularly. Keep your life light on material items.

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 (moderation the key) 


Alexander K Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To book an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here

Alex Tan

Alex Tan L.Ac is a licensed Acupuncturist. After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China. A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex's bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives. He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. Click here for more about Alex.


  • John Steam says:

    I love the description of a healthy spleen persona: “…practical, caring, self-reliant, and creative.”

    I experienced many of the symptoms you listed here in the early parts of my life. After several years of working to fix my lifestyle, it seems like I’m a different person! TCM is a crucial part of this.

    This website is a great help.

    • Alex Tan says:

      John, thanks for sharing your experience! Mind-Body-Spirit is fundamental to Chinese Medicine. I am pleased to hear you enjoy the website!

  • Leanne says:

    Alex, I’ve got to say…..your articles are so comprehensive! I feel like I’ve received a thorough education after reading each one.
    TCM is a fascinating discipline and you share your knowledge in an easy-to-understand, easy-to-relate-to way. You are a very generous soul for sharing your knowledge with the world. A hearty ‘Thank You’ to you.

    • Alex Tan says:

      Leanne, thank you for your kind words! If everyone knew what Chinese Medicine can do, the world will be a better place. More gardening, less hunting! Thanks again!

  • eric says:

    in late 2017 I had random right shoulder pain. eventualy had surgery for calcium deposits in the rotator cuff. fast forward 1 month after surgery. a violent quick sharp stab pain under my right rib. it was very painful and scary. only lasted a second. the next morning a dull ache set in, and gas and stools had a diffirent foul smell than normal. its been a year now and still deal with these random quick stab pains under right rib, but lately I feel them equally under my left. I had a endoscope and they saw gastritis and espohigal varcies. my blood cell showed low white blood cells and gluten sensitivity. ive been gluten free for months. these pains seem to happen regaurdless if I eat a nice heart meal with veggies and whole foods, or a burger and fries( no bun) the pain controls my mind. its all I think about and I don’t seem to be getting anywhere with doctors

    • Alex Tan says:

      Eric, thanks for your message!
      Difficult to say what the issue is but I would be thinking about your Gall Bladder function. I suggest a check up with your Primary Care Physician. If it is nothing they can identify, I would certainly try acupuncture to relieve the discomfort and Chinese Herbs to support the digestion. With the limited information I have I would suggest a herbal formula like Wen Dan Tang. Hope that helps!