What is the Earth Element?
In Chinese Philosophy there is the theory of the Five Elements (or Five Phases; wu xing, 五 行): Wood, Fire, Earth (as in soil), Metal, and Water. This is a theory based on observation of natural phenomena to explain the inter-relationships and interactions we see in the world around us. [see blog post on fengshui] It is incorporated into Chinese Medicine as a means of understanding, diagnosing, and treating illnesses too. There is even a school of acupuncture centered around it called (no surprise) Five Elements acupuncture. The Earth element is the topic today; specifically, as it relates to the current season – Late Summer – and to its associated organs and symptoms.
From a psychological perspective, the Earth element is all about getting needs met and maintaining the proper balance between giving and receiving. The earth element relates to a maternal or mothering energy — both receiving mothering and giving mothering — and by extension physical and emotional nourishment. In addition to balance and nourishment, the virtue of the Earth element is integrity. Integrity refers not just a personal trait but also to the body. In that context, integrity means the ability to hold things in their correct place; Spleen helps to prevent other organs from prolapsing and keeps Blood contained in the vessels.
Let’s talk about Late Summer… from an acupuncturist’s viewpoint.
The season of Late Summer is that hazy time between summer and autumn between mid-August and the autumnal equinox in September. In some countries (or parts of countries) it may not be as distinct. It’s that time when yin and yang feel really balanced. Days are getting shorter, yet the trees haven’t begun shedding their leaves. When it’s not too hot, it’s not yet cold; there’s a slight crispness in the air early morning and late evening. It’s also the harvest time, suggesting that there’s a sense of abundance. You’ll notice, there’s an abundance of food ripening quite literally on the vine. This is the Earth Phase at its peak.
The Earth season of Late Summer is a time of everything coming back to the core – all of your energies coming back into the center. A time for grounding and re-balancing. So, this is a perfect opportunity for you to come back to your center, spend a little bit of time regrouping, grounding, and preparing for what’s coming in the next season and in life in general. When we do this, we give our body an abundance of energy again to work with and do whatever it needs to do in order to balance itself in the next season. Things that help are getting in touch with nature and resting in the sense of slowing down your pace in life. Our body does what it knows it needs to do with the energy. And because Earth/Late Summer is associated with the organs Spleen and Stomach it is a good time to focus on eating habits that help digestion. You can also get acupuncture tune-ups to help.
The Earth Organs: Spleen and Stomach
While the season of Summer belongs to the Heart and Small Intestine, Late Summer, being the Earth season, is associated with the Stomach and the Spleen. But first, a reminder about organs in TCM…
A Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner and a western medical practitioner perceive the body somewhat differently. Each organ according to TCM has its own set of functions. Some overlap with the western functions, and some are entirely different. Generally, it is better to think of organs in TCM as referring to an organ system rather than the individual organ. One thing that is important to remember, is that when an acupuncturist talks about organs, they are talking about them in terms of the way they were trained to make a diagnosis. So, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something biologically wrong with the actual organ. It means that according to the ways an acupuncturist was trained, that particular organ could be part of the pattern that is leading to specific symptoms and signs. So back the Spleen and the Stomach…
According to TCM theory, one of the main functions of the Spleen is to transform and transport nutritive substances from food and fluids. The Stomach receives foods and fluids and digests food, or translating from the Chinese “rots and ripens food.” For this reason, we often talk about the Spleen as analogous to the digestive system because together with the Stomach, they cover many functions associated with a variety of organs in Western medical physiology related to digestion. However, the Spleen in TCM theory is responsible for many other functions:
- Produce blood from the energy of your food – lack of energy can be a sign that your Spleen is out of balance.
- Controls the blood vessels, keeping the blood from leaking – If you bruise easily it’s a sign that your Spleen is a little bit weak.
- Helps keep your organs “upright” and in their proper place – prolapse according to TCM is thought to stem from a Spleen disturbance.
- Houses clear thinking, the intellect – so if your Spleen is out of balance, your thoughts may not be as clear and your thinking muddled.
- Control of muscles – weak muscles and atrophy can be a reflection of a Spleen imbalance.
Each organ has its own time of day where it’s at its strongest. The times of day for the Earth organs, Stomach and Spleen, are 7-9am and 9-11am. There’s an old saying: eat breakfast like a king, eat lunch like a prince and eat dinner like a pauper. This is true because the Qi is the strongest in the digestive system in the Stomach between 7:00 and 9:00AM and in the Spleen between 9:00 and 11:00AM. Eating your biggest meal of the day between these times means you’re going to have optimum digestion, and your body is going to be able to take the most Qi from the food and transform it to give your body the most energy available. Eating your biggest meals at the opposite times will have the opposite effect, as there’s the least amount of Qi in the digestive system 12 hours later. So between between 7:00PM and 11:00PM we’ve got the least in the digestive system.
Signs and Symptoms of a Spleen/Earth Imbalance
The energy of the Stomach is descending in nature so excess fluid and food waste will be sent downwards to the excretion organs. If stomach energies rebel, the energy moves upwards instead of downwards, causing nausea, vomiting and excess gas. Stress, overactive Liver, illness, and pregnancy are all potential causes for Stomach Qi ascending.
The energy of the Spleen is to ascend — up-bearing organs, transforming fluids. When the energy of the spleen is weak, instead of ascending, the Qi sinks downwards resulting in lethargy, excess dampness and phlegm – and in extreme cases, prolapse of organs. Things like overthinking, excessive work habits, and even eating while working are potential causes of Spleen Qi sinking. Furthermore, when the Stomach and Spleen are weak, it can actually lead to overthinking and worry. Your Stomach and Spleen as paired organs are responsible not just for digesting food and transforming food into Qi, blood, fluids, essences that your body will use for all of its functions, but it’s also for digesting information. When we take in a lot of information, or when doing mental work of any kind, it’s a good idea not to eat at the same time as this can overtax the digestive organs and over time weaken them further.
The color that is associated with the Earth element and Spleen is yellow. Though often represented by bright yellow, like a lemon, the color tends to be closer to brown than many Americans might identify; think more like the golden color of ripe wheat. For people with an Earth imbalance, they may have a slight yellow tinge to their skin, particularly around the corners of your mouth and around your eyes. (This is why it is a good idea to NOT wear makeup to your first acupuncture appointment. Acupuncturists are trained to notice small signals of imbalance within the body. Showing up with a clean face will allow your acupuncturist to get a clear glimpse at your facial color.)
The environment that’s associated with the Earth element is dampness. When the earth element is out of balance in our bodies, the internal climate becomes damp. One of the functions of the Stomach and Spleen is to transport and transform fluids and dampness and to keep everything in balance. If the spleen is weak it won’t be able to do that efficiently. Cold and dampness in the environment will affect your Spleen. If you’ve got a weak spleen already, you’ll feel generally more cold and you’ll have more dampness internally. Cold and damp environments will penetrate through your skin and increase your internal dampness. Stay as warm and dry as possible, as often as you can. If you experience a lot of dampness you’ll find you have excess water retention, puffiness and you possibly produce a lot of mucus. As a result of this you may find that you catch more colds and that they linger. These are all signs of a weak Spleen that’s not transforming the dampness and the mucus very well in your body.
The flavor of the Earth element is sweet. Each of the elements has a flavor associated with it, if your Earth element is out of balance you might crave a lot of sweet things. However, when you consume a lot of sweet things, or things that are excessively sweet, it can weaken the Spleen, creating even more dampness. This compounded damp environment within the body will eventually increase the amount of water retention within the body. Choosing naturally sweet foods in moderation helps the Spleen, but most people with cravings for sweets tend to choose desserts and foods with added sugars.
An acupuncturist’s super-simple guide to keep your spleen strong:
Avoid damp, sugary, greasy, cold foods. Eat warm, dry foods, herbs, warm drinks. You have more flexibility in the summertime when it is acceptable to consume more cooling foods, but always be mindful about warming the digestion and stoking the digestive fire. You don’t want to dilute the digestive fire by adding too much yin, water, and too much dampness. Drink room temperature or hot beverages with your meals (and throughout the day). Your digestion is the first point of generation of your physical Qi, for your body, for your mind, for your life, and for your dreams.