We have entered late summer, the season of the earth element. Plants that were a bright and vibrant green in spring and a dark, sumptuous green in early summer have turned golden. It is the time of harvest and preparation for winter and yet the days are still long, warm and glorious.
Earth is one of the easiest elements to characterize because so many cultures consider the earth a nurturing, parenting figure. There are many names for the earth spirit and many images and rituals honoring it. Earth is the harmonizer, the balancer, the stabilizing force. It is a good element to call upon in times of transition and uncertainty.
In Chinese medicine, the organs of the earth element are the Spleen and Stomach. (Note: some translate “Spleen” as “Spleen-Pancreas” because this organ system is credited with some of the functions of the pancreas, like metabolizing sugar and digesting foods with enzymes). They are the organs that take in food from the outer world and convert the nutrients into blood, qi and fluids of the body. When the digestive system isn’t functioning well, the very substances of our body are compromised. Instead of turning food into physiological substances, a weak Spleen can create dampness in the forms of weight gain, water retention, Candida (yeast) and other fungal infections, foggy-headedness and depression to name a few.
The Chinese medical view on the physical functions of the Spleen include:
Digestion and Absorption
Building Blood and Qi
Keeping Blood in the Vessels
Ascending Fluids and Preventing Organ Prolapse
Housing the Thoughts/Intellect
The Spleen, along with the Stomach, is responsible for all the earth element’s functions of bonding, nurturing and grounding. They govern boundary setting, decision-making and memory.
The Gut Feeling
Have you noticed that when you are nervous or upset it’s hard to eat? When the nervous system becomes heightened into sympathetic, or “fight or flight” mode, it affects our ability to digest.
There are 500 million neurons in your gut, or the enteric nervous system. That’s five times more than the peripheral nervous system. The “gut feeling” is real. It is your nervous system communicating with you. It is the body putting in its two cents. The mind doesn’t make decisions alone.
An estimated 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin is made in the digestive tract. Serotonin affects mood, social behavior, memory, sleep, digestion and even sexual desire and function. Most anti-depressant and anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals target the serotonin circuitry (SSRIs).
The cells that produce serotonin in the gut (remember, 90% of it) appear to be dependant on a good, healthy gut bacteria, according to several studies. And gut bacteria is affected by what you eat. Some foods feed the “good” bacteria and some feed the “bad” bacteria and yeast (like Candida). When the bad bacteria outnumber the good -called dysbiosis- and the delicate balance of the GI tract is thrown off, not only are serotonin levels potentially reduced, but it lays the foundation for other disease- and symptom-causing destruction to take place.
But not only that! Many chronic, degenerate and autoimmune diseases are now being linked to compromised gut health. Anything from eczema to arthritis to fibromyalgia to diabetes.
In short: what you eat matters. A lot.
It may be obvious that the state of the mind affects the digestive tract, but the reverse is true as well. The microbiome, aka, all the little bacteria (100 trillion of them) in the gastrointestinal tract have a direct impact on brain function and the immune system. They are responsible for eating up irregular cells and free radicals and protecting the body from foreign invaders. They are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the epithelial cells in the gut lining to prevent leaky gut (food substances entering the bloodstream) and malabsorption (cells not being able to take in the nutrients from food). They also break down food and provide some nutrients like B vitamins.
The main things that cause imbalances in the gut microbiome are:
A diet heavy in sugars and carbohydrates
A lack of necessary nutrients and healthy fats
Antibiotics have an important place in our medical system. However they are often overprescribed, and even when necessary, it is very important to take care of the digestive system after taking antibiotics. Antibiotics kills bad bacteria, but they kill good bacteria too, so it is very important to regrow the good kind of bacteria after taking them. I recommend taking probiotics and eating probiotic foods any time antibiotics enter the system. Probiotic foods include:
Sauerkraut (salt-fermented not vinegar-pickled)
Fortunately, these foods are easy to buy or make and taste delicious. They can be added to meals or eaten on their own.
The gut thrives on biodiversity, so the more strains of probiotics you eat and take, the better.
Stress can cause inflammation of the GI tract making the body more susceptible to infection. It shuts down blood flow to the digestive system, affecting the digestive muscles and secretions and can cause constipation, diarrhea, gas and bloating, irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn.
An excess of sugars and carbohydrates feed the unhealthy bacteria, causing Candida overgrowth, small intestine bacterial overgrowth, and heightened cholesterol and insulin levels.
Proteins, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats are necessary to build strong cells of every kind. The cell wall is comprised of 40% fat. Do not believe the hype that low fat is better for everyone! There are people who need to watch their fat intake, but most of us just need to focus on the healthy fats like olive and coconut oil, avocado, nuts and grass-fed animal fats. Once the gastrointestinal tract is compromise, it’s harder to absorb these necessary nutrients from our food. For more on healthy fats and the role sugar plays in throwing off the balance of the digestive system, see my article here.
Chinese Medicine and the Intellect or “Yi”
So how does all this relate back to Chinese medicine? According to Chinese philosophy, each of the yin organs houses a spirit or "soul" of the body. When that organ is in balance, the soul has a safe place to rest and reside. When that organ is out of balance, the soul may lash out, fall out of balance, or become docile and hidden.
The Spleen houses the “Yi” or the intellect. In essence, the Spleen houses thoughts and is responsible for memory, concentration and mental function.
Some of the mental signs that the Spleen is out of Balance are:
Lack of boundaries
Cyclical thinking is a common sign of Spleen involvement. Because the earth spins and goes through cycles, cyclical movement and circular thinking are pathologies of the earth element.
Mental taxation is a common cause of Spleen imbalance that befalls students and academics, but fortunately there are herbs, essential oils and formulas for just that.
In Chinese medicine, the connection between gut health and mental health is a known. For thousands of year doctors have designed acupuncture protocols and herbal formulas to treat imbalances that affect the gut-brain connection. It’s nice that western medicine is now on board!
More and more scientific studies are showing the important role digestive health plays in mental health. In an age where so many people are burdened with anxiety, depression, insomnia, ADD/ADHD and Alzheimer’s, it is crucial that we examine the body as a whole entity and regard digestive health with the emphasis and importance it deserves.
More about fermented foods and how to make them:
More about gut health:
A good fall reboot and reset cleanse: