Lauren Laks, licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, is a graduate of the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco.
Traditional Spleen Qi Deficiency Symptoms
The main symptoms of spleen qi deficiency are:
- Fatigue (especially after eating)
- Low appetite
- Loose stools
- Slight abdominal distention after eating
- A desire to lie down (especially after eating)
- Pale complexion
- Weakness of the limbs
- A tendency towards obesity
There are four different variations of spleen qi deficiency. The symptoms for each of these patterns includes a few, some, or all of the symptoms listed above, in addition to:
- Spleen Yang Deficiency: Feeling cold, cold limbs, edema.
- Spleen Qi Sinking: Depression, a bearing-down sensation in the abdomen, prolapse of the stomach, uterus, anus or bladder, hemorrhoids.
- Spleen Not Controlling Blood: Blood spots under the skin, blood in the urine or stools not related to an infection or ulcer, tendency to bruise easily, excessive uterine bleeding.
- Spleen Deficiency With Dampness: Obesity, excess body fat, edema, oily skin, fungal infections, thick tongue coating, excessive mucus production or phlegm, heavy feeling of the body, slow or foggy thinking, lack of taste or thirst, nausea, excessive vaginal discharge, mucus in the stool, tumors, cysts.
Based on the variation of spleen qi deficiency, a patient may want to include foods that not only tonify the spleen, but also deal with the underlying symptoms of their particular variation. The different variations are included in the foods lists below.
Modern Spleen Qi Deficiency Symptoms
There is another, more contemporary way to look at spleen qi deficient patients: to break them into groups based on weight and blood-sugar regulation. Because spleen qi deficiency is so closely related to diabetes, two groups that automatically emerge are Type I and Type II diabetics. We might also include a third group, the pre-diabetics (Type II), or people on a trajectory to developing Type II diabetes. The most common symptoms belonging to each group are as follows:
- Type I Diabetes (juvenile-onset, insulin-dependent diabetes): Pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin (if at all), excessive thirst, frequent urination, weight loss, normal or underweight, extreme hunger, fatigue, blurred vision, neuropathy, viral infection leading to acute diabetic episode.
- Type II Diabetes (adult-onset): Cells may be resistant to insulin, pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, excessive thirst, frequent urination, increased hunger, weight loss, but overall overweight or obese, fatigue, blurred vision, slow-healing sores, frequent infections, areas of darkened skin, neuropathy, constipation, high fat and meat diet.
- Pre-Diabetes (Type II): Any of the above symptoms for Type II Diabetes in addition to hypoglycemia or other blood sugar abnormalities listed below.
Blood sugar levels for normal patients, pre-diabetics and diabetics are listed below:
- A1C of less than 5.7%
- Random blood sugar of less than 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L)
- Fasting blood sugar of less than 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L)
- A1C between 5.7% and 6.4%
- Random blood sugar between 140 mg/dL and 199 mg/dL (7.8-11.0 mmol.L)
- Fasting blood sugar of 100 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL (5.6-6.9 mmol/L)
- A1C of 6.5% or higher on two separate tests
- Random blood sugar of 200 mg/dL or more (11.1 mmol/L)
- Fasting blood sugar of 126 mg/dL or higher on two separate tests (7 mmol/L)
Spleen-Tonifying Foods, Diabetes and the Glycemic Index
In traditional Chinese medicine, a lot of foods classified as spleen tonics are actually considered high-sugar/high-glycemic foods, which are not recommended for most diabetics. These foods are only appropriate in cases where the patient is normal or underweight (such as with Type I diabetics), and only when their blood sugar is very low and needs to be brought up quickly. Because it is more common to see overweight, spleen-deficient Type II diabetic and pre-diabetic patients, I have mostly included low glycemic-index (low-GI) foods, or foods that raise blood sugar the least on the general food charts. For a more complete listing of low-glycemic foods and how to determine the glycemic load of meals, please see www.glycemicindex.com.
I have also included a generalized list of foods categorized by their glycemic index. Glycemic index refers to the glycemic impact of a single food on the blood sugar. When various foods are combined in a single meal, the “glycemic load” of all the foods combined will determine how strongly the entire meal raises the blood sugar. Glycemic load is a combination of a food’s glycemic index and the serving size of that particular food. To help offset high-glycemic foods, they can be combined with low-glycemic foods to create an overall lower glycemic load.
As a general rule, whenever eating a high-carbohydrate food, such as sugar, grains, fruit or starchy vegetables (like potatoes, carrots, or root vegetables), combine it with fat, fiber and/or protein in order to reduce the glycemic impact. Fat, fiber and protein take a longer time for the body to digest, and thus slow down how quickly the meal will raise a person’s blood sugar. This creates a more gradual release of insulin over time, which can stabilize blood sugar, mood, energy, and food cravings. For best digestion, try to avoid combining too many different foods in one meal.
Another general rule for overweight, spleen-deficient patients is to avoid or limit foods that promote dampness or mucus: dairy products, meat, eggs, tofu, and other soy products, excessive amounts of oil, nuts, or seeds, pineapple, salt, and concentrated sweeteners. Please take this suggestion into consideration when reading through the following food charts.
Low Glycemic-Load Food Combining
- Sugar and excessive intake of grains, fruit, juice or soda should be avoided!
- When eating grains, choose whole, soaked, sprouted, and/or fermented grains. This makes them easier to digest and less irritating to the GI tract. Whole grains have more fiber than refined grains and flours, which will slow down their digestion and lower their glycemic impact.
- Green and non-starchy vegetables are considered carbohydrates, but their fiber and water content negate most of their glycemic impact. Hence, green and non-starchy vegetables can be eaten in abundance and lower the impact of other high-glycemic foods.
- Beans and legumes, while considered high in protein, also have relatively high carbohydrate content, making them unsuitable in large amounts. Small amounts may offset other high-glycemic foods, though.
- Fats and proteins, such as those found in oils, nuts, seeds, meat and full-fat dairy, have very little glycemic impact and can be eaten in moderation. The type and quality of the fat/protein is very important, however—choose organic, cold-pressed, soaked, sprouted, unrefined, high Omega-3, and unsaturated fats as much as possible. These should come mostly from olives, avocados, almonds, walnuts, sunflower, hemp, flax, sesame, and similar sources. Coconut oil, despite being a saturated fat, has many healing qualities and can be eaten in abundance. Organic lean meat, wild-caught, fish that is low in heavy metals, and organic eggs are also fine in moderation. Other saturated fats should be limited or avoided, such as from fatty meats and dairy products.*
- High-glycemic fruits should be avoided in general. These include bananas, melons, oranges, grapes and stone fruits. Low-glycemic fruits tend to be less sweet and have higher fiber content, such as apples, pears, berries, grapefruit and lemons/limes. Nonetheless, patients should aim to only eat one or two servings of these fruits per day. Green and non-starchy vegetables should make up the other four to six servings per day. Dried fruit is generally considered high glycemic because it lacks water and the drying process concentrates the naturally occurring sugars. Fruit juice is also considered high glycemic because the fruit’s fiber has been extracted, leaving a higher concentration of sugar.
* A lot of people worry about dietary fat in terms of calories and weight loss. However, this type of thinking has recently changed. Although fats have more calories per gram than carbohydrates and proteins, healthy unsaturated fats, such as the ones listed above, leave a person feeling more satiated and less likely to overeat. Calories from excessive saturated fat, sugar and grain consumption are more likely to contribute to weight gain than healthy fats.
Spleen Tonifying Food List
Grains: Barley, broomcorn, Job’s tears (including root, leaf, and grain), millet, spelt, and whole grain rice.
Vegetables: Cucumber, rice sprouts, shitake mushrooms, string beans, squash, sweet potato, radish, rutabaga, turnips, and white mushrooms.
Beans and Legumes: Black beans, broad beans, fava beans, garbanzo beans, hyacinth beans, tofu (organic, sprouted or fermented), yellow lentils, and yellow split peas.
Fats, nuts and seeds: Apricot seed, bitter gourd seed, butter, goat's milk/yogurt, lotus seed, pine nuts, and pistachio.
Fruit (in moderation): Cherries, coconut, figs, and strawberries.
Meat: Anchovy, beef, carp, chicken, clams, duck, eel, goose, halibut, ham, herring, lamb, mackerel, mandarin fish, octopus, perch, pheasant, rabbit, sturgeon, tuna, turkey, and whitefish.
Herbs and supplements: Aloe, cardamom, cinnamon, cherry leaves, cloves, crown daisy, dill seeds, fennel seeds, garlic, gingko, ginseng, licorice, and royal jelly.
Foods for Diabetes and Related Symptoms
Foods that are generally good for diabetics (in addition to all of the above spleen tonifying foods): Asparagus, avocado, barley and wheat grass, black fungus, blueberry and leaf, bottlegourd, cedar berries, chlorella, chlorophyll, dandelion root and leaf, eggplant, flax oil, fresh corn, grapefruit, huckleberry and leaf, Jerusalem artichoke, kiwi fruit, lemons/limes, licorice tea and powder, mulberry, mung bean, oats, oranges, palm seed, pears, plums, spinach, spirulina, stevia powder and extract, sweet rice, tangerine, wheat and wheat bran, wintermelon, yam, yarrow flowers, chromium, zinc, manganese, and silica.
Foods for weight loss: Adzuki beans, alfalfa, amaranth, anise, asparagus, basmati rice, bean sprouts (various), bee pollen, black currant oil, blue-green algae, borage oil, bupleurum root, burdock root, cayenne pepper, celery, cereal grass powders, chamomile, chickweed, cloves, corn, cumin, dandelion root, evening primrose oil, fennel, flax oil and flax seed meal, ginger, goat's milk and yogurt, grapefruit, green tea, kohlrabi, lemon, lettuce, mung beans, oats, quinoa, raw honey, rye, scalion, seaweed, spearment, spirulina, stevia leaf, wintermelon, yam, yellow dock root; all vegetables except zucchini, summer squash, sweet potato and yam; apples, plums, peaches, berries, oranges and pears in moderation; and peppermint, chamomile, kohlrabi, turnip, radish, taro and white pepper for heat symptoms.
Foods for lowering blood sugar in diabetic patients: Bitter melon, chives, citrus fruits, dandelion leaf, ginseng, mung beans, plums, potato leaf tea and sweet potato vine leaf tea, radish, spinach, sweet rice, turnip, watermelon rind tea, wax gourd, and yarrow flowers.
Foods for normal/underweight patients with low blood sugar, or in combination with low-glycemic foods: Black and red dates, carrots, chestnuts, corn, fermented glutinous rice, grapes, honey, jackfruit, longan fruit, lotus rhizome powder, mangoes, milk, parsnips, peas, persimmon, pineapples, polished rice, pumpkin, rock sugar, squash, tapioca pearls, and white potato.
Foods for poor appetite: Black, green and red pepper, cantaloupe, ham, honey, kiwi fruit, onion, orange, shiitake mushroom, tangerine, and tomato.
Foods that promote digestion: Apple, cilantro, ginseng, green and red pepper, hops, malt, nutmeg, papaya, pineapple, plum, radish and leaf, sweet basil, and tomato.
Foods Based on TCM Diagnosis
Foods that tonify yang (warming function): Chestnuts, chive seeds, cinnamon, cloves and clove oil, dill seeds, eggs, fennel seeds and roots, fenugreek seeds, green onion seeds, kidneys (from animals), lobster, orange seeds, oxtail, pistachio nuts, prickly ash root, raspberries, shrimp, star anise, strawberries, and sword beans.*
Foods that warm the body: Black, white, red and green pepper, chicken, chive roots, clove, fennel, ginger, mutton and lamb, nutmeg, sword bean, and wine.
* Note: there is a difference between yang tonic foods and foods that warm the body. Yang tonic are usually warm or hot in nature, just like foods that warm the body, but they have a nourishing component as well. Foods that warm the body tend to do so because they are hot and spicy in nature, but may not offer as much nourishment as a tonic food.
Foods that move qi upward (for sinking qi symptoms): Abalone, adzuki bean, apricot, beef, beetroots, black fungus/mushroom, black sesame seed, black and yellow soybean, broad bean, cabbage, carp, carrot, celery, cherry seed, chicken egg and yolk, corn silk, crab apple, dry orange peel, duck, eel blood, fig, grape, guava leaf, honey, kidney bean, kohlrabi, licorice, lotus fruit and seed, milk, olive, oyster, peanuts, pineapple, plum, pork, potato, pumpkin, radish leaf, rice bran, saffron, Shiitake mushroom, string bean, sugar, sunflower seed, sweet rice, sweet potato, taro, and white fungus.
Foods to stop bleeding from qi deficiency: Black and white fungus/mushroom, cayenne pepper, chestnut, chicken eggshell, cottonseed, cuttlebone, day lily, gelatin, guava, leek, lotus rhizome, mugwort leaf, olives, radish, shepherd’s purse, spinach, and vinegar.
Foods for draining dampness (promote urination): Adzuki beans, alfalfa, amaranth, asparagus, autumn bottle gourd, barley, beef, bitter herbs (chaparral, chamomile, pau d’arco, valerian), blue-green algae, cabbage, carp, carrot, celery, chicken, clam, coconut, coffee, corn and cornsilk, cucumber, day lily, duck, grapes, hops, Job's tears, kidney beans, kohlrabi, lettuce, mandarin orange, mango, mulberry, mung beans, muskmelon, onion, pear, pineapple, plum, pumpkin, radish and leaf, rye, scallion, seaweed, shepherd's purse, sorghum root, star fruit, sugar cane juice, turnip, water chestnut, watermelon, wax gourd, white pepper, and wintermelon.
Glycemic Index of Foods
High-GI foods (70 or higher): White rice, white bread, pretzels, white bagels, white baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, crackers, sugar-sweetened beverages, corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal, short-grain white rice, rice pasta, macaroni and cheese from mix, pumpkin, pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, saltine crackers, melons, and pineapple.
Medium-GI foods (56-69): Bananas, grapes, spaghetti, ice cream, raisins, corn on the cob, whole wheat, rye and pita bread, quick oats, brown, wild or basmati rice, and couscous.
Low-GI foods (55 and under): Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut), oat bran, muesli, peanuts, peas, raw carrots, kidney beans, hummus, skim milk, most fruits (except those listed above and watermelon), 100% stone-ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread, whole grain pasta, converted rice, barley, bulgar, sweet potato, yam, lima/butter beans, and legumes, such as lentils.
Cooked vs. Raw Foods
Foods that are more nutritious when cooked: Asparagus, carrots, cabbage (for antioxidant absorption), mushrooms, peppers, spinach, and tomatoes.
Foods that are more nutritious when eaten raw: Beets, broccoli, cabbage (for water-soluble vitamin absorption), cantaloupe, citrus fruits, kiwi, onions, strawberries, sweet red peppers, and watercress.
Adding a little oil or fat to cooked veggies and salads can help the body to better absorb the fat-soluble vitamins they contain, such as A, E, D and K. Try adding small amounts of olive oil, coconut oil, other plant oils, butter, milk or cream to dressings and sauces.
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.
gabriel on August 21, 2019:
I got here from researching iron supplement and why I need them. Iron in the alchemical texts has the same symbol as Mars. Mars is the planet for blood and the animating energy(shakti) of the body. I took a vow to not kill living beings and i'm vegan/vegetarian due to this vow and other spiritual philosophy.
In addition to iron supplement, I believe the spleen tonifying foods are very good. I would also like to see a list of simple blood-boosting qi-tonifying herbs and supplement like iron on a list.
matthew on January 28, 2018:
kim on November 01, 2017:
This is a wonderful and simple explanation. I was told from my Acupuncturist to eat spleen tonifiying foods and this is the best help,
thank you so much
Maria Pinho on March 08, 2016:
No cooments Yet? TCM people are sleeping :)
Im from Portugal.This page is very professional. Thank you for sharing with us. I will share with my students. Keep working.