What does Spleen do anyway?

Western Medicine view

In western medicine view when we talk about "spleen" we are referring to the soft, purplish-red organ tucked just under the rib cage on the left side of the abdomen. It is about the size of the heart and is made up of a spongy material that can hold up to three gallons of blood. The function of spleen is:
• to serve as a reservoir for blood in case of emergencies
• to filter worn-out red and white blood cells, and platelets from the blood
• to store platelets (the part of the blood that helps us clot our blood) ready to be sent where needed. 

The spleen is the largest organ in lymphatic system.  Probably the most important role of the spleen is to bring blood into contact with the spleen's lymphocytes. When the blood contains any foreign invader, such as a virus, bacteria or parasite, the spleen's T-cell lymphocytes become activated. This contact causes the lymphocytes to attack the foreign invaders or produce antibodies directed against them. So, it has a strong function against germs in the bloodstream.
Another important note to make about spleen is that it manufactures red blood cells for the fetus during the last months of fetal life. After birth this role is taken over by the bone marrow. However, in cases of a bone marrow breakdown, the spleen can revert back to its fetal function.
The signs and symptoms of an injured spleen include abdominal pain, guarding (holding a hand over the area), tenderness in the upper left part of the abdomen, left shoulder pain and signs of shock and blood loss. So, in some cases the condition can be a major life-threatening event. In cases of excess bleeding spleen is removed and liver and lymphocytes then take over its function.

Traditional Chinese Medicine view

In TCM, Spleen is considered a yin organ, a nutrient substance oppose to a yang organ that has a functional activity.  The Spleen Meridian (or channel) is  paired and connected to stomach which is a yang organ. The two are interconnected and belong to the earth element.  Spleen is considered to be the main organ for manufacturing of qi and blood. When there is an imbalance in the yin and yang organs it results to disease. The function of spleen channel is to assist:
• with food digestion and nutrient absorption
• in the formation of blood and energy
• in keeping blood in the blood vessels

When spleen is balanced and its qi is strong then the:
• digestion, absorption and transmission of food and water are normal
• source for the manufacture of blood is also strong and the blood is prevented from extravasations
• strong muscle development and proper function of limbs is achieved.
"Spleen is in charge of muscles."
When spleen is imbalanced and its qi is deficient and weak then there may be:
• poor appetite, abdominal distention, loose stools, lassitude, emaciation and malnutrition.  Also, possibility of retention of dampness (related to water metabolism) that could lead to edema, diarrhea, phlegm and retained water, mucous discharge
• various kinds of hemorrhaging, i.e. bloody stool, excess menstrual bleeding 
• weakness and softness of the muscles of the four limbs

The spleen channel opens into the mouth and manifests on the lips. When the spleen is healthy, due to ample qi and blood the lips will be red and lustrous. But, if there is deficiency of spleen qi then the lips will be pale or sallow.
The spleen is also involved in thinking, studying, and memory. It is connected to emotions such as worry, dwelling or focusing too much on a particular topic, excessive mental work. 
So, what leads to imbalance of spleen? The following is a list of leading factors:

• Over work
• Over fatigue
• Too much worrying
• Over-thinking and obsessive thought patterns
• Unhealthy dietary habits
• Lack of exercise

It is possible to regain balance in spleen and strengthen its qi and nourish the blood. This can be achieved by applying life style changes which include dietary modification, following a regular routine exercise program as well as taking Chinese herbs and receiving acupuncture treatments. It is of great importance for one to also change his or her view of life and circumstance.

I hope this brief article enlightens you in understanding the function of spleen both in western and eastern medicine. And, the next time your licensed acupuncturist comments on tender spots on the spleen channel you will have an idea of what she/he is referring to.

Soheila Beberness, Licensed Acupuncturist

Chinese Acupuncture and Moxibustion – Foreign Language Press Beijin  1987
The Practice of Chinese Medicine- Giovannie Maciocia – Churchill Livingston 1997