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Nourishment to Build a Healthy Mind & Body: A TCM Perspective

TCM Channels & Physical Organs

Traditional Chinese Medicine works with a core group of organs and their channels (or meridians) that cover particular exterior and interior areas of the body. The inter-relationships of these channels to the soft tissue, organs, and systems of the body are one important reason that the function of the “organs” reach beyond the mere physiological functions understood in western medicine. When we consider studying, thinking, and memorizing from a western medical perspective, we would not necessarily think that our spleen needs to be well nourished. However, it is interesting to consider that a growing awareness exists regarding the importance of a healthy diet to best support our children’s learning capabilities.

TCM & Western Medicine

In TCM, the Spleen and Stomach are yin and yang paired channels, respectively. In this vein, they work to mutually support and compliment each other. The Stomach receives the food we consume, churning it with digestive juices and preparing that food for future stages of digestion. Then, the Stomach sends that food down to the Spleen, where valuable nutrients are extracted and sent up to the Lungs and/or Heart to help with the generation of qi (vital life force/energy) and/or blood, respectively. When the Spleen is healthy and the food we consume is nutritious, then high quality food essence is extracted from the food and utilized in the production and replenshing of blood and qi in the body. This in turn helps to keep the “marrow” that fills the brain well nourished and vibrant.

Now, in western medicine, the role of the Stomach is quite similar to that of TCM. However, according to western medicine there exist both similarities and differences regarding the role of the spleen. It is commonly understood that the spleen plays an important role in the production of red blood cells and is a valuable part of immune health, but it does not participate in the overt digestion of food. As these articles are very focused in topic and relatively short in length, it is beyond the scope of this article to provide a thorough discussion of the different perspectives on the physiological roles of the Spleen and Stomach in Chinese vs. Western medicine; if you are interested in exploring this further, I would suggest The Web that Has No Weaver by Ted Kaptchuk.

For the purpose of this article, I invite you to suspend disbelief regarding the unique attributes of the Stomach & Spleen, as according to TCM. It is said that the Spleen and Stomach are injured (depleted) by pensiveness, worry, excessive study, poor diet, and excessive physical work; additionally, the Spleen is damaged by excess dampness (processed sugars generate dampness), while the Stomach is hurt by dryness (excess spicy or roasted foods generates dryness). The factors listed above may cause the Spleen or Stomach to grow deficient or, in certain circumstances, develop excess heat/fire. Regarding excess study, ensuing deficiency is a far more likely situation than an excess heat or fire. When the Spleen and Stomach grow deficient, we experience a poor appetite, become weak in the muscles and limbs, feel fatigued, are prone to chronic illness (especially Chronic Fatigue and related imbalances), and suffer diminished intellectual, memorization, and critical thinking capabilities.

Simple Practices for Nourishment

Does this mean it is simply unhealthy to study? Surely this would be a dream come true for those students who do not enjoy school! However, the notion that excessive studying can drain the Spleen and Stomach is not an excuse to cease such endeavors! Rather, it highlights the fact that we must take the best care possible of our physical bodies when engaging with study, learning, and intense thinking.

One excellent way to balance the rigors of intellectual study is through physical exercise to help us connect with the earth. This gets us out of our brains, encouraging the circulation of qi and blood in the rest of our body; it gets us in touch with the earth and our physical beings! This exercise could include dancing (to indigenous music to connect with our primal body), walking, hiking, running or other outdoor activities. As we engage with such exercise, it is valuable to imagine ourselves literally be nourished by the vital energy of the earth and mother nature.

A well-balanced and nourishing diet is central to keeping the Spleen and Stomach, as well as our intellectual capacities, vibrant. When we are engaged with intensive studies, it is imperative that we eat healthy, wholesome foods that are brought forth from the bounty of the earth. This means getting away from processed foods, even when they are just snacks.

A well balanced diet includes a core of foods with a sweet quality, such root vegetables (carrots, beets, turnips) and grains, such as rice. It is also important to have a balance of the other 5-element flavors and food qualities: pungent, salty, sour, and bitter (*a brief list of examples is provided at the end of this article). An excess or lack of the 5 flavors leads to imbalances in the body and contribute to poor health. It is important to remember that the terms sweet and salty do not refer to the highly processed sugars and table salts, but nutritious whole foods with these inherent flavor qualities.

Given that the Spleen and Stomach work at the initial stage of digestion and oversee the extraction of vital nutrients used by the body to build our energy and blood, it stands to reason that when the Spleen and Stomach are strong, healthy, and vital, the blood will be in good supply and our qi will be efficiently replenished. In turn, the marrow of the brain and spinal cord is nourished, allowing for effective study, as well strong intellectual and physical capacities. Thus, for vibrant learning regardless of age, let us remember to nourish our bodies and minds with healthy, nutritious, and balanced diets!

Blessings upon the food you eat this day and each day forth. May the earth nourish and sustain you in body, mind, heart, and spirit!

*Examples of the 5-flavors in food:

Sweet: carrots, yams, beets, kale, all beans, rice, chicken, dairy
Pungent: onion, ginger, kale, olives, curries
Salty: miso, seaweed, clams, kidney, black, & adzuki beans, ham
Sour: pistachios, yogurt, pheasant, raw apple cider vinegar, quinoa, lemon/lime, wine (in moderation)
Bitter: broccoli, cauliflower, scallions, lentils, pumpkin seeds, garlic, tea & coffee (in moderation)

May peace be upon you!