Food is one of the eight strands of traditional medicine in the east alongside disciplines such as herbal medicine, acupuncture and bodywork. A knowledge of food energetics can deeply supplement a practitioner’s ability to help their clients and this article sets out to provide guidelines for giving dietary advice and working successfully with food.
“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” said Hippocrates. This idea is rarely encountered in the western doctor’s surgery but it would sit well in China where it is traditionally held that the most skilled doctor “should first understand the pathogenesis of the disease, and then treat it with diet, using medicines only when food fails”. This article looks at the role played by food in our well-being from the perspective of traditional Chinese medicine.
As infants we learn to adapt to whatever environment we are born into. As we adapt to our environment and get our needs met, we are developing the power of our Spleen. Provided that the sources of nourishment are adequate and available we can develop our Spleen successfully.
Initially we are dependent on our mother’s milk and parental protection and support. Gradually we develop the ability to digest more complex food and to look after ourselves. It is not until we are about seven years old that we can expect the Spleen to reach its full maturity so these early years are critical for the Spleen’s development. The Spleen’s development may be seen as our growth from dependence towards independence, from being supported to supporting ourselves.
The functions of the Spleen are adaptation, nourishment and support. As we shall see, these functions are expressed at a physiological, anatomical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. At the physiological level the Spleen is expressed as the digestive system, the means by which we meet our nutritional needs. Digestion is the process of converting food into usable substances within our bodies and sending them to where they are needed. The Spleen adapts food to nourish and support our system. This process is called ‘transformation and transportation’. The stronger our Spleen function is, the better we are able to extract nourishment from any food to support our body’s needs.
When we eat, the question is often not so much whether a particular food is good for us but rather how strong and skilled our Spleen is at extracting the nourishment from it. The first step towards eating well may not involve changing our diet at all but rather strengthening and maintaining our Spleen. We shall see how to do this later.
The Spleen’s physical manifestation as the digestive process is expressed at the mental level as the thinking process. The Spleen governs our ability to study and concentrate, to process information. Although it may not seem so at first glance, the thinking and digestive processes are very similar. When we read an article (this one for example) we have to adapt words (food) into sense (nutritional substances) and then store them or put them to use. We recognise this connection when we say “This book is hard to digest” or “I need time to chew this over” or “There’s food for thought”. The Spleen’s function is to adapt both food and information into something we can use.
There are other ways we can observe the connection between eating and thinking. Overeating, for example, may make the mind sluggish; too much studying often produces cravings for sweet foods; too much worrying (a knotted form of thinking) can easily knot the digestive system. Our powers of concentration and digestion are related and each will influence the other.
At the emotional level the Spleen is expressed as our ability to meet our needs, to obtain and give emotional nourishment and support. When our needs are met we feel nourished and supported, comfortable and secure in our lives. Often we confuse emotional and nutritional needs, eating when in fact we need comfort or perhaps using foods to suppress feelings such as frustration or desire. From the moment we first suck on our mother’s breast the link between food and comfort is established.
So our ability to find and receive emotional nourishment is intimately linked with our digestive system. As we wean ourselves from mother and, later, from our parental home, we develop an internal mother and an internal home which we carry round inside ourselves as a constant source of nourishment and support. The internal mother and home is a good description of the role of the Spleen.
It is easy to see how the quality of our early nurturing, both physical and emotional, deeply influences our ability to develop this internal sense of self-support. Our belief that we completely deserve nourishment and our trust that there will always be enough nourishment available are thus key elements in developing a strong Spleen.
We have looked at the physiological expression of Spleen as the digestive process. Anatomically the Spleen is expressed as the fascia and soft tissue. The fascia are a continuous network of moist membranous wrappings that connect the whole body and hold everything comfortably in place. Without the fascia our bodies would have no tone and we would collapse in a saggy heap. The fascia express the Spleen’s function of support and containment.
When our fascia are relaxed and without constriction, all the subtle and larger movements of the body are smooth and easy. Our limbs have a full range of supple movement and our organs are supported in their functions. Today’s body workers are aware how our fascia contort and tense, or relax and spread, in direct response to our deepest held emotions (see Notes). When the fascia are free we feel toned and comfortable in our bodies, supported from inside. We are ‘at home’ in our bodies, comfortable with who we are in the flesh. Being at home in our bodies is an expression of strong Spleen energy.