Worrying, Studying, Sugar, and your “Spleen”

Somehow I’d expected acupuncture school to be a place where we learned healthy habits and practiced balance; but, dealing with the same time-and-money constraints as any other graduate school program, it looked more like this:

Back to back classes. Late night studying. Constant testing (and I mean constant, several exams a week, many of them practicals). We crammed our heads full of too much information. We worried and stressed, a lot, about our next tests and presentations — all the more so because we knew we needed to know this stuff, and know it well, to be good practitioners. We ate in a mad dash between classes, or as unobtrusively as possible at our desks during lecture. In the late afternoon and night classes we succumbed to ever-stronger sugar cravings, knowing all the time this wasn’t exactly healthy.

It turns out we were embodying a classic “pattern of disharmony” in Chinese medicine.

Apparently, they had stressed-out students in ancient China, too.  Because Chinese medical theory devotes a good amount of attention to how learning and thinking affect the function of organ systems, and vice versa.  “Organ systems” in Chinese medicine are more conceptual than anatomical, and encompass a variety of processes that are seen as interconnected.

The organ system most affected by academic activities is the “Spleen” (in ancient texts, thinking was not really attributed to the brain; in fact, the brain was considered a “curious organ” and not given much credit at all for doing anything!).

Physically, the Chinese Spleen is primarily connected with digestion; mentally, it is associated with the emotions of sympathy and “pensiveness” (which I never thought of as an “emotion” before studying Chinese medicine!).  Pensiveness encompasses a range of mental activites, including brooding, worrying, and even studying. Intense thinking and learning draw heavily on Spleen energy, as does prolonged worrying.

It also works the other way: excessive worrying, and repetitive or obsessive thinking, are common symptoms of a depleted Spleen. Insomnia can also result, especially the kind where you can’t stop thinking long enough to fall asleep. If you find yourself in these patterns, first of all don’t take it personally; it’s just a sign that you need to take care of yourself. At the same time, do make an effort not to add fuel to the fire (it’s remarkably easy to worry about worrying!).

Other signs that the Spleen needs attention include digestive issues, especially bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, or loss of appetite. Spleen depletion can also cause fatigue, typcially with a foggy-headed feeling and/or a heavy feeling in the legs and arms. And, sugar cravings are a dead giveaway of Spleen imbalance. Any of these signs are a reminder to take good care of your Spleen!  Try some of the suggestions below.

Here are some suggestions to keep your Spleen healthy and in balance:

Take time to eat in a relaxed manner. This can be hard when you’re preoccupied and/or pressed for time, but it’s especially important at those times. It truly is amazing how much better you can feel just by setting time aside to nourish your body without distraction. Chinese texts specifically recommend the following:

  • sit down to eat: don’t eat while standing up or moving around (this includes eating while driving)
  • relax at mealtimes: don’t eat when very upset or stressed
  • don’t read or study while eating (efficient though this may seem)

For sugar cravings, add some naturally sweet foods
into your diet. Sweet vegetables such as winter squash, sweet potato, carrot, onion, and parsnip help nourish the spleen and balance blood sugar. A limited amount of fruit is also fine (whole fruit is much better than juice, since the fiber helps the body absorb the sugars more slowly and evenly).

Avoid artificial sweeteners. Research shows that these can actually increase sugar cravings; the sweet taste signals the body to get ready for sugars, and when they don’t come the body continues to expect them. It’s better to eat small amounts of sugar and slowly taper off than to substitute “diet” drinks or snacks.

Gentle exercise helps: it relaxes the Liver and harmonizes the close relationship between Liver and Spleen. This can increase energy, clear fogginess, regulate the appetite and digestion, and calm the mind.

Acupuncture and herbs can help restore balance and resolve symptoms including insomnia, fatigue, poor digestion, sugar cravings, and anxiety. If you need support beyond these self-care tips, consider coming in for some treatment.

If you have signs of dampness, see the posting on humidity and digestion
: Signs of dampness include sinus congetsion or phlegm production; bloating, loose stool, or nausea; water retention and edema; and feelings of lethargy, heaviness, or grogginess.