The Spleen-Stomach Network: Sea of Grain and Water
The Effects of Modern Eating Habits on Health: A TCM Perspective

(Note: the word “Spleen” is capitalized throughout this article to distinguish its usage from Western medicine.)

Zhenjiu Dacheng (ca. 1590), in The Great Compendium of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, listed in the chapter on the Spleen channel a quote from an older Taoist source (The Original Classic of Guiding the Breath):

"The spleen is situated at the center of the five organ networks. Therefore, it is assigned to no particular season but flourishes during all four seasons. It contains and fosters the five flavors, it brings about the five mental faculties, and it moves the four extremities and the one hundred marrows.

As soon as there is irregular intake of food and drink or overexertion of any kind, the spleen qi will be harmed. As soon as the spleen and stomach suffer damage, food and drink stagnate and do not transform: the mouth loses its ability to distinguish flavors, the extremities feel limp and tired, discomfort and distention is felt in the stomach and abdominal regions, symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea appear, and there may be dysentery or a host of other symptoms which have been specified in the Neijing and other books, and which can be looked up there."
In his seminal work, Piwei Lun, (translation: Treatise on the Spleen and Stomach) written in 1249, Li Dong-yuan described the stomach as the sea of grain and water. He advised eating in moderation and with the seasons. He also advised avoiding extremes of emotion (either anger or ecstasy), as these damage the Spleen function. Many of us have experienced the sensitivity of our digestion and elimination to our emotional state. Moreover, because the Spleen governs the flesh, muscles, and extremities, sound nutrition, digestion, and assimilation are essential toward maintaining health and vitality.

In traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is the Spleen functional cycle (some refer to this as the Spleen-Pancreas function) that is responsible for “transformation and transportation.” That is, the Spleen receives food and drink from the Stomach (where it has already undergone “rotting and ripening” – pre-digestion) and converts the food into essences (nutrients). These are then “transported” via the oxygenated arterial blood supply to all the various tissues of the body so that they can be nourished and so that via the exchange of gasses and the return of venous blood, metabolic waste product can be removed.

Pixu (丕绪) is a term from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) meaning “Spleen vacuity.” Pixu is a very common problem in modern societies. In turn, it can contribute to other, more serious health problems over time. In TCM, organ names mainly refer to functional states and relationships in the body. This is the fundamental Chinese medicine concept of correspondence.

Food allergies may develop when food is not digested properly and causes fermentation activated by yeast microorganisms in the bowel. This process further increases the amount yeast in the digestive tract. The increased level of yeast causes increased permeability of the wall of the intestine (leaky gut syndrome). The micro-organisms (yeast) then enter the blood stream and settle in different parts of the body, perhaps resulting in yeast infection of the vagina (candidiasis), allergic response, sinus infections, asthma, meningitis, chronic fatigue, etc. Eating food high in sugar or food that converts rapidly to blood sugar contributes to this problem.

In the Chinese system of correspondences, the Spleen is associated with the sweet flavor. Sweet has an affinity to the Spleen (earth) network and is the principal flavor of harmony. When the Spleen function is acutely distressed the sweet flavors can harmonize the Spleen, thereby supporting production of central qi. The Huang Di Neijing (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine -黃帝內經, from the 1st century BCE) notes that "Sweet generates the spleen." However, when consumed in excess, sweet foods produce phlegm, obstruct transformation, and harm the flesh (muscle) layer that is associated with the Spleen. Swelling, bloating, and obesity will result. Again, this fundamental principle has been recorded in the Neijing: "Sweet harms the flesh," and "if the disease is in the flesh layer, the patient should abstain from the excessive consumption of sweet flavors."

When treating spleen/stomach disorders, the system's relationship to other organ networks needs to be taken into consideration. Particularly the liver's controlling tendency needs to be corrected if it is the original cause for or primary contributor to the Spleen's distress. Spleen tonics are therefore often accompanied by herbs that emolliate or course the liver.

Foods high in sugar cause fermentation and increased yeast population in the digestive tract. It also causes blood sugar to rise initially and drop rapidly below the normal healthy level. The drop of blood sugar causes serotonin production to fall, leading to depression or mania. The decrease of serotonin also contributes to production of histamine which results in expansion of blood vessels. Under the wrong circumstances, blood vessel dilation results in extravasation of blood in the vessels (i.e., plasma leakage). Fluids leaking from blood vessels in various parts of the body contribute to associated symptoms (post-nasal drip, asthma, headaches).

Eating too much sugar in a short period leads to hypoglycemia (a plunge in blood-sugar levels), contributes to acid-alkaline imbalance (i.e., abnormal pH). In an attempt to cleanse itself of the accumulated acid levels, the body leeches minerals otherwise necessary for health to neutralize the acid. It also shunts excess acid to the liver, lungs, and skin (organs of filtering and elimination), eventually straining these systems. The Great Compendium also says: 

"If we therefore force ourselves to eat when we are not hungry, the spleen will suffer. If we force ourselves to drink when we are not thirsty, the stomach will bloat. If we eat beyond capacity, the vessels in which the qi circulates will become obstructed, and the body's center (stomach region) will become jammed and shut off. If we eat too little, on the other hand, the body will become emaciated, the stomach will grow anxious, and our thoughts will become unsteady. If we eat contaminated food, the heart's ability to differentiate will become blurred, and we will grow more and more restless. If we eat things that we should not eat, the four great upheavals will occur and bring along disease. None of these types of behavior represents the way of good health.

Therefore, it is most important to consume our food at the appropriate time, to drink our fluids in regular intervals, and to avoid both overeating and hunger pains."

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