Earth. Fire (summer element) giving birth to Earth, the element of this season of late summer, which began a few weeks ago. Think of the ashes of the fire transforming into rich fertile soil, growing our nourishment with loving abundance. Earth is the center of the five elements in Chinese Medicine, relating to the organs of Spleen and Stomach in the body. Late summer is the center of the seasons on the Chinese calendar (which begins in spring), but Earth times also center us throughout the year; during the first and last week of each season, Earth element is present along with the energy of the element of that season.
I started noticing it was Earth time because of how many patients were coming in with Spleen/Stomach issues, some with just a short digestive upset, others with more complex or emotional issues. Earth time is a time when these organs can be at their strongest, and flourish, but it is also a time when we may notice imbalances that are present. Earth times throughout the year can be centering, yet they can also call attention to where we are ungrounded in our lives. Either way, it’s a delicious time to attend to Spleen and Stomach, and to ground ourselves in the Earth we live in.
Spleen (this concept includes the pancreas) and Stomach are the main digestive organs in Chinese medicine. Whereas the Kidneys house the “pre-natal (pre-heaven) qi,” which is the qi we inherit from our parents and ancestry and any other universal karma we may come in with, the Spleen and Stomach are creators of the “post-natal (post-heaven) qi” in our bodies, along with the Lungs. Lungs of course help us breathe in air, while Spleen and Stomach are the organs of nourishment and digestion—all very necessary forms of qi! This “post-natal/post-heaven qi” is the kind of qi that we are continuously creating in our bodies, qi that we have some degree of choice over, qi essential for the flourishing of our whole body. Spleen and Stomach are responsible for absorption, transformation, and transportation of nutrients, and are thus related to every cell in the body.
The color for Earth and for Spleen is yellow (I picture the golden yellow of harvest time), the taste is sweet (like summer fruit), the sound is singing. Direction is center, as mentioned, and the climate of the Spleen is damp. Spleen relates to muscles, mouth, lips, saliva, lymph. Spleen is producer of blood and holds the blood in its vessels. Spleen also produces phlegm (while the Lung is the container of phlegm). Spleen ascends clear qi to the head, so when the Spleen is deficient or too damp, we may feel foggy-headed, dizzy, or have a lack of focus. Associated with the Spleen are pensiveness, rumination, deliberation, decision, discernment, overthinking, anxiety, worry. Nurturing, giving (as well as overgiving), and sympathy are also characteristics of the Spleen. The Spirit aspect of the Spleen is Yi, which relates to setting of intention, implantation/gestation of ideas, vision, reflection, motivation, insight, creativity, understanding needs of other people, and cultivation of true purpose.
I like this bit from Lesley Tierra, a wonderful herbalist/acupuncturist in the Santa Cruz area, in a piece she writes about the overwhelming inundation of sugar in our culture:
“In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the sweet taste nourishes the Earth element and its organs, the Spleen and Stomach. The Earth element is at the center of all the other elements, providing grounding, centering, identity, nourishment and focus. It’s also our relationship with ourselves and ability to manifest our visions and inspirations. It enables us to digest ideas, cultivate our paths, fully commit to ourselves, develop our true identities, love ourselves and have staying power over our lifetimes. A little sweet strengthens these aspects, but in excess, it makes us “sticky” – stuck and needy. In time this not only injuries our digestive processes, but impairs our abilities to develop strong identities as well.”
Common imbalances related with Spleen/Stomach include indigestion of various forms. The Spleen has a general tendency toward too much dampness or coldness (though we can also see damp-heat), and so dislikes damp and cold foods, while the Stomach has the opposite tendencies and does not like to be too dry or hot. When these get out of balance, we see issues such as gas, bloating, loose stools, constipation, acid reflux, heartburn, nausea, abdominal pain, belching, and so on. Immunity, allergies, muscular issues, anxiety, fatigue/low energy, dizziness, lack of focus, phlegm, and various menstrual presentations can also be related to Spleen imbalance, as can of course many other things.
To help achieve balance in Spleen and Stomach, it’s helpful to limit dampening and cold food, such as dairy (somewhat depending on constitution as well as kind of dairy), soy unless its fermented, raw vegetables/salads, and food/drink that is cold in temperature. Foods which may cause too much heat or are otherwise hard to digest might include coffee, alcohol, sugar, white flour and other refined foods, some vegetable oils when heated, and excessively spicy foods. Taking time to eat, and enjoying our food, is also beneficial to Spleen and Stomach, while eating on the run or multitasking can be harmful.
Foods which are nourishing to our body’s Earth include yellow or golden foods, round foods, and mildly sweet foods in balance. Millet, carrots, squash, yams, lamb, beef, chicken, quinoa, buckwheat, peaches and apricots, alfalfa, nettles, fresh ginger, fennel, cardamom, shiso, miso soup and other foods rich in probiotics (such as fermented vegetables), raw honey, congees and soups, foods with easily absorbed protein—all of these can be harmonizing for the Center (all in moderation of course). The famous combination of unpasteurized apple cider vinegar and raw honey (diluted in warm water) is also useful because it harmonizes Liver and Spleen—strengthening Spleen so that the Liver does not overdominate. Liver overdominating Spleen is a common pattern, often related to stress, which can lead to indigestion among other issues. Foods during this season should be cooked simply, emphasizing moderation in all things, and balance. For easier digestibility, grains and beans should be sprouted, soaked, or fermented.
Oh, there is so very much to say about food, about Spleen, and about Earth! Maybe the next blog will have to be a poem, or a book list, or both…. In the meantime, let’s enjoy being Earth-lings as much as possible, taking time to enjoy and nurture the rich soil under our feet and the beautiful planet of which we are part. And may we cultivate and nourish the flora and fauna of our bellies as well, in order that our bodies, minds, and spirits flourish-- centering, planting intention, and growing our true purpose with creativity, discernment, and understanding.
Partial Book List:
- Real Food by Nina Planck
- Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice
- Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig
- Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellis Katz
- Why Some Like it Hot by Gary Nabhan
- In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
- Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
- Healing with the Herbs of Life by Lesley Tierra