Lauren Laks, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, is a graduate of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.
What Is Spleen Qi Deficiency?
Spleen qi deficiency is a very common condition in the United States and is often due to the Standard American Diet (SAD) and poor eating habits. The spleen, in traditional Chinese medicine, is considered the main digestive organ and is closely tied to the function of the pancreas and the stomach (they are paired organs). The spleen’s qi, or energetic function, can decline for a number of reasons:
- Diet: Excessive consumption of foods and beverages that are cold in temperature, damp in nature, or raw, as well as an overconsumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, alcohol, drugs, medications, and artificial food additives.
- Poor Eating Habits: Eating at irregular times, overeating, undereating, lack of dietary protein, or a lack of adequate exercise.
- Psychological Excess: Long-term overthinking, overworking, overstudying, or worrying.
- Climate: Living in damp conditions either due to weather or environment (especially where mold is persistent).
- Chronic Illness: Any long-term illness, especially those where phlegm production is a prominent symptom.
- Constitution (heredity): When one or both parents also have digestion issues or chronic illness.
In Chinese medicine, the spleen, pancreas, and stomach are responsible for heating up chewed food particles, breaking them apart, pulling out and transforming glucose, proteins, fats, and nutrients (food qi) into usable energy (true qi), and finally, separating out waste products for elimination.
When this process loses efficiency, food passes through the body partially or fully undigested. A by-product of this faulty metabolism, known as dampness, is then created. Dampness manifests as phlegm or mucus that can be seen, felt, or expelled (such as in the lungs or in stool). Dampness also presents as excess body fat, or as unseen phlegm that slows down and blocks energetic functions in the organs and acupuncture channels. Extreme cases of spleen qi deficiency with dampness are often found in overweight, obese, and inactive individuals.
Common Symptoms of Spleen Qi Deficiency
Undigested food in stool
Fatigue (lack of energy and nutrition from food)
Overeating due to lack of nutrition
Abdominal bloating after eating
Choosing damp producing (high caloric) foods
The Health Consequences of Spleen Qi Deficiency
If left untreated, spleen qi deficiency can eventually result in a blood deficiency (not enough qi to create and nourish the blood), and/or a spleen yang deficiency (the loss of the warming function of the spleen). When blood is not properly nourished or there is not enough being generated by the spleen, the heart and lungs are easily affected, leading to a decline in their function.
Blood is so important to all the organs and systems of the body, that such a deficiency can lead to numerous complications and additional organ deficiencies as well (e.g., a liver blood deficiency or blood stasis). Long-term and chronic spleen qi deficiency will also eventually affect the kidneys (vitality, youthfulness, and sexual health). In an effort to warm the digestive fires, the yang deficient spleen will pull yang (warming) energy away from the kidneys, until they too become yang deficient.
How to Avoid Spleen Qi Deficiency in Your Diet
Try to incorporate the following suggestions into your daily life as much as possible. If overwhelmed, start slowly and add new suggestions only when the previous ones become a habit. Remember: Bad habits are easier to change when they are replaced by healthy habits.
- Eat at regular times/intervals each day: Digestion works most efficiently when we eat three distinct meals each day: 7:00-9:00 a.m. for breakfast, 12:00-1:00 p.m. for lunch, and 5:00-7:00 p.m. for dinner. Small snacks throughout the day are also fine, as long as they are mostly healthy foods.
- Eat a big breakfast, moderate lunch, and light dinner: This is a great model for decreasing fatigue throughout the day. A big breakfast with lots of protein gives the body its first dose of qi energy for the day. An all-carb or carb-heavy breakfast (i.e., cereal, pancakes, bagels, toast, pastries, fruit, etc.) causes the blood sugar to spike and then crash, leading to mid-morning or afternoon fatigue. Eating a meal at breakfast time that is more like lunch or dinner (such as vegetables, beans and grains) is common in Asian culture for a reason—it gives more sustained energy throughout the day. Eating a moderate-sized lunch also prevents afternoon fatigue, as the spleen doesn’t have to work as hard to digest it. A light dinner helps the spleen to better digest the last intake of food for the day as the metabolism begins to slow down before bedtime.
- Don’t eat late at night: Any food consumed after 8:00 pm will not be digested well or at all because the body’s metabolism slows down when nighttime/darkness sets in. Undigested food leads to bowel problems and weight gain (damp formation) the following day.
- Don’t overeat: Overeating overwhelms the spleen and stomach so that food passes through without being fully digested, again leading to indigestion, bowel problems, and weight gain (damp formation).
- Avoid undereating: Undereating deprives the body of qi, blood, and weakens the organs. It can also cause whatever food that is eaten to be stored more easily as fat because the body is in starvation mode and responds by lowering/slowing its metabolism—a common reason for persistent weight gain in people who claim to be eating less and less. In Chinese medicine, this is seen as the process of damp formation due to spleen qi deficiency. If the appetite is low, or your schedule doesn’t allow for enough eating throughout the day, try to find ways to eat small snacks every couple of hours.
- Be present when eating: Don’t eat when in a hurry, while driving, standing up, doing computer work, watching the television, reading, writing, experiencing strong emotions, or arguing. All of these activities either distract the body from being completely focused on digestion or are stressful in nature and activate our “fight or flight” brain response, as opposed to our “feed and reproduce” brain response. This shifts the blood supply away from the digestive system and into our brains, eyes and muscles (in order to fight or flee from a potential predator), which reduces our body’s ability to digest food properly. Try to keep mealtime conversations light and minimal.
- Chew your food slowly and thoroughly: Carbohydrate digestion actually starts in the mouth through the act of chewing. Enzymes released in the mouth are responsible for pre-digesting our food, which takes some of the burden off of the spleen and stomach.
- Include spleen tonifying foods in your diet.
- Avoid potential food allergies or sensitivities. If a food repeatedly gives you indigestion, heartburn, loose stools, flatulence, constipation, nausea, skin rash, mental fogginess, fatigue, or any other allergic response, avoid it. You can eliminate a food for two weeks and then “challenge” or reintroduce it to the diet to determine if the specific food was really causing the sensitivity or not.
Foods to Avoid for Spleen Qi Deficiency
Hydrogenated or heat-treated (rancid) oils
Refined carbohydrates (white flour)
Raw, unsoaked nuts and seeds
Certain raw fruits and vegetables
Undiluted fruit juice
Sugary and rich desserts
Pastries, cookies, sweet baked goods
Avoid Eating Cold Foods
Avoid cold, damp producing, raw foods as much as possible and in accordance with the seasons. When we put cold foods or drinks in our stomach, it is not only shocking to our warm, internal environment, but the spleen and stomach have to work that much harder to heat the food before breaking it apart for digestion. Cold food and drinks also draw heat away from nearby organs through the process of heat transference, eventually causing yang (warming function) deficiency in other organs. Raw, cold, and damp producing foods are simply more difficult to digest and require more effort from the spleen and stomach. Eating these foods repeatedly over time forces the spleen to work extra hard day in and day out, weakening its digestive function and leading to a deficiency.
In Chinese medicine, soups, stews, and steamed foods are preferential for people with digestive difficulties. Allow food or drinks to come to room temperature or heat them before consuming. Try rinsing cold fruit or vegetables in warm water before eating. Drink warm/hot water in the fall and winter, warm or room temperature water in the spring and summer, and reserve small amounts of cool (not cold!) water for directly after a strenuous workout.
Eat Balanced Meals
Combine carbohydrates, proteins, and fiber in each meal so that there is a slow and sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream, as protein and fiber both slow down the digestion of carbohydrates and sugars in the body. This takes the burden off of the pancreas to constantly produce large amounts of insulin in response to high levels of blood glucose in a short period of time (also known as the blood sugar spike).
Type 2 diabetes mellitus is the decline in our cell’s ability to respond to insulin from the pancreas effectively, and the eventual loss of the ability of the pancreas to produce enough insulin to maintain normal blood sugar levels. In other words, if the pancreas is always being forced to send out massive amounts of insulin (due to excessive or unbalanced sugar/carb intake), then the cells will eventually wear out and lose their ability to either uptake glucose from the blood or produce enough insulin to uptake glucose from the blood, thus depriving our bodies of proper fuel. For this reason, untreated diabetes can lead to heart and blood vessel disease, nerve damage (neuropathy), kidney damage, eye damage, foot damage, skin and mouth conditions, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s, hearing problems, coma, and death.
The most common symptoms of diabetes are:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased hunger
- Weight loss
- Blurred vision
- Slow healing sores
- Frequent infections
- Areas of darkened skin
Interestingly, diabetes could be likened to a severe form of spleen qi deficiency, although the signs and symptoms of spleen qi deficiency can be present even without lab-based evidence of elevated fasting blood sugar or clinical signs of glucose intolerance.
Learn to Cook From Home
Learn how to cook for yourself. People that love food and love eating should also learn to love cooking! Cooking for oneself is by far one of the best self-care activities a person can engage in and is truly the first step in taking control of dietary wellness. It ensures that we are consuming pure and healthful foods within our own taste preferences and conditions, without the use of additives, as is commonly found in prepared and restaurant foods. It’s also cheaper than eating out and quite rewarding as well, especially when cooking for other people. If you don’t know how to cook, or only know how to cook a few things, it’s good to start by researching the healthiest cooking techniques (steaming, blanching, sautéing, baking, etc.). Look into taking cooking classes offered through local community centers, community colleges, or restaurants. Watch cooking shows on television for ideas, although be aware that even professional chefs don’t cook healthfully. Ask friends who enjoy healthy cooking for tips and instructions. Buy some healthy cookbooks or research recipes online.
As a general rule of thumb, avoid microwaving and deep frying. Occasional grilling is fine, but avoid blackening vegetables and meats on the barbeque, which can be cancer-causing. Avoid boiling vegetables unnecessarily, which can change their carbohydrate structure and glycemic profile (such as carrots, potatoes, and other starchy vegetables). When steaming or sautéing, add heartier ingredients first—those that require longer cooking time. Add lighter ingredients at the end—those that are better consumed fresh or closer to raw (i.e. al dente).
Try to find staple dishes that can be eaten and prepared easily and regularly, such as grains, vegetables, and beans. In the beginning, try not to take on recipes that are particularly complex or time-consuming, as this may cause frustration. Practice cooking meals that take 20-30 minutes to prepare, especially in cases where you have regular time constraints. Don’t give in to the suggestion to prepare and freeze all of the week's meals in one day.
Get into the habit of cooking every day or every other day (making enough for leftovers), so as to ensure you are constantly consuming fresh meals and ingredients. Fresh foods have more qi energy available than preserved or old foods, and are thus better for your body. If your patience or discipline runs thin, remember that good food takes time. The Ancients had more healthy diets than we do today because they dedicated more of their time to meal preparation. Try to limit eating out to only once or twice a month.
Drink Plenty of Water Throughout the Day
Drink enough water. Some doctors have suggested that overeating can actually be a response to dehydration, so make sure to drink a glass every 2-3 hours throughout the day. Avoid drinking large amounts with meals, which dilutes digestive enzymes and makes digestion harder for the spleen.
Decrease Your Alcohol Consumption
Avoid excessive alcohol intake. Alcohol itself is damp and hot in nature. A small amount can warm and circulate the blood and the acupuncture channels, as is used in Chinese medicinal wines. In excess, alcohol slows down liver metabolism (creating liver qi stagnation) and, in turn, hinders the spleen function, which depends on the smooth flow of qi throughout the body for proper digestion. (Imagine a river being backed up by a dam where the water has become stagnant and putrid.)
Alcohol, which the body considers a toxin, lingers in the blood waiting to be metabolized along with other toxins that cannot be expelled from the liver until the alcohol is first processed and removed. This creates toxic heat and dampness, which further block the smooth flow of qi and blood throughout the body. Alcohol is also taxing on the pancreas which has to release large amounts of insulin in response to the alcohol sugars (the blood sugar spike).
Exercise Regularly for Optimum Health
Get moderate amounts of exercise. Exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of many diseases, diabetes included. In Chinese medicine, exercise warms and circulates the blood and qi, which has an overall strengthening effect on the organs and acupuncture channels. Exercise also strengthens the spleen by virtue of the muscles, its paired body structure. Using the muscles requires the conversion of ATP (or stored glucose) into physical energy. This encourages the spleen to function properly during digestion, which is needed to produce enough qi for regular exercise.
If we rarely exercise, the spleen is constantly digesting and storing dampness (fat), as opposed to digesting and creating qi (energy). In essence, exercise “trains” the spleen to keep up with the body’s demands. If you find it difficult to start or stick with an exercise regime, begin with regular walking as a baseline. The average person needs approximately six miles a day (10,000 steps) of walking to achieve optimum health, and half that amount to maintain body weight when combined with a healthy diet. Remember that over-exercising can be just as damaging as not exercising—it overworks the spleen so that its function begins to decline. More is not always better!
Eat From the Earth
Stick to whole foods, with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds in their natural state. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest diet trends, but Mother Nature has always been the best source of nourishment and optimum health for human beings. Eat a varied diet in accordance with what is in season. Plant-based diets are some of the healthiest! Avoid artificial preservatives, food additives, food colorings, conventional/pesticide treated foods (aka non-organic), genetically modified foods, conventional meats treated with hormones or antibiotics, or any other unidentifiable food ingredients. These things can mask a food’s freshness, which leads to the ingestion of old, stale, or otherwise rancid food. All of these items are considered toxic to the spleen and liver (because the body cannot identify them or identifies them as rancid), and their effects on the human body are by and large not even fully known.
Many unexplained digestive disorders can actually be caused by the immune system’s inability to recognize the “foods” we are eating. A general rule of thumb is if the ingredients list is a mile long or you don’t recognize any of the ingredients on it, you may want to consider a fresher, more natural version. Also avoid canned foods, processed or prepared foods, frozen foods, and restaurant or fast foods. Avoid all items that can contain toxins or undisclosed ingredients. Even tap water can be considered toxic, so check the status of the water at your home for microbes, excessive minerals, fluoridation, or other environmental toxins. (City water information is often disclosed online, and well water samples can be tested for free through county health services or at some water dispensing companies.) Buy refillable water containers (not disposable plastic water bottles) and refill them at a grocery store or water store in your area, or buy a quality water filtration system for your home or work.
Avoid Prescriptions and Synthetic Medication
Avoid excessive over-the-counter and prescribed medications. Research how necessary your prescriptions are and if there are natural alternatives you can use instead. Many medications weaken the spleen function simply because they are considered toxic by the human body or are cold in nature (such as antibiotics). Don’t stop prescribed medications abruptly—always talk to your doctor or acupuncturist first about how to decrease or replace medications gradually.
Stop Overdoing It
Avoid overthinking, overworking, overstudying, and worrying. Overthinking can be due to personality, upbringing, intense life circumstances, or simply occupation. Whatever the case may be, the best solution is to channel the thoughts into some sort of creative or therapeutic endeavor. For example, writing in a journal, playing music, singing, or creating art are all healthy ways to channel emotions so that the mind can eventually let go of obsessive or pervasive thoughts. Mind-body practices such as dancing, hiking, walking, gardening, martial arts, sports, yoga, or meditation can also help to deal with difficult feelings. Although talking can be therapeutic (as with a counselor, partner or wise friend/advisor), too much talking or talking with negative, unsupportive, or antagonizing people (even trusted friends) can actually make the overthinking worse, and furthermore, can be damaging to relationships.
Try to view overthinking and worrying as forms of negative self-talk that need to be overridden by positive reinforcing thoughts. When the thought comes up, mentally tell yourself that you are dwelling on something that either isn’t important, you cannot control, or just simply isn’t true (as in imagining or expecting the worst). Remind yourself that your worrisome thoughts are a waste of your precious life energy. Remember that life is too short to be spent worrying, and that worrying about something never changes the outcome. Don’t sweat the small stuff!
Over time, with enough reinforcement, the obsessive thoughts will be replaced with calmer, more positive ones. If overworking or overstudying is necessary for some reason, such as in reaching a goal or ambition, try to utilize your free time as much as possible to return balance—relax, rejuvenate, rest, and also take time to exercise, breathe, and meditate. If work becomes all-consuming, consider cutting back for the sake of your health!
Consider Chinese Herbs and Acupuncture
The best way to assist you with incorporating the above dietary changes and exercise suggestions is to use acupuncture and Chinese herbs in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle. Acupuncture and herbs have been used for thousands of years into antiquity to keep people healthy—it’s one of the oldest forms of preventative medicine out there. It takes time, effort, and patience, but the rewards to your health and quality of life are plentiful and worthwhile.
Avoid Damp Climates
Get out of damp conditions. We can’t control the weather or we may even prefer to live in a damp climate, but living in a damp house can be very damaging to one’s health. Dampness indoors often leads to mold, yeast, and fungal problems in walls, floors, ceilings, wood, insulation, carpets, and furniture. Sometimes, mold and mildew develop under or behind furniture and mattresses, and goes unseen and unnoticed until we move the item. Living in moldy old houses or structures not only injures the spleen, but is especially damaging to the lungs and the immune system (defensive qi).
Children living in moldy homes are especially prone to allergies, asthma, recurrent colds, flu, sinus infections, ear infections, bronchitis, skin rashes, and digestive disorders. If you live in a damp environment, consider buying a dehumidifier for indoor use, as well as bathroom and kitchen fans to disperse humidity in the air. Also, avoid dampness by staying out of the cold, rain, or fog, lying in cold, wet grass, going out in cold weather with wet hair, or staying in wet clothes too long after swimming or sweating.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
gebre brehane on February 08, 2016:
Hi there please , I am diabetic person in type 2 .I have eaten excess food and I have a problem on my tongue like spots & also more gaseous around bladder. So what you advise me
Lauren Laks LAc MSTCM (author) from Placerville, CA on July 08, 2014:
Please see: https://remedygrove.com/traditional/The-Spleen-Def... for the Food Charts. Thank you!
Lauren Laks LAc MSTCM (author) from Placerville, CA on June 30, 2014:
Thank you for reminding me! This article was originally a hand-out I gave my patients and the food list was a separate file. I have recently turned the food list file into an article and will publish it here. Thanks so much for reading!
Kae on June 18, 2014:
Hi, I just wanted to follow up on the question above. Could you tell us where to locate the Food Chart? I'd love to take a look at it.
Thank you for this informative article.
Bea on June 08, 2014:
• Include Spleen-tonifying foods in your diet. See Food Chart for more information.
Where is this food chart, please? I have looked all over on your pages but don't find a food chart.
Thank you - the information you do have is very helpful!