Anxiety and The Spleen

Although acupuncture may not be what first comes to mind in the treatment of anxiety, it has a long and successful track record in treating this disorder.

Unlike other treatments such as talk therapy and pharmaceuticals which can take weeks to take effect, Acupuncture has the ability to relax an anxious person quickly, often during the very first session and with improving results after subsequent sessions. Very thin and painless needles can have a marked effect on the nervous system when used correctly by a well trained acupuncturist trained in TCM theory. This works on a few different levels. One by releasing endorphins and effecting neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain (Western approach). And two- by balancing the body’s nervous system as is reflected in a Chinese Medicine diagnosis.

In Chinese Medicine anxiety can be explained by the imbalance of three organs: The Spleen, The Kidneys and The Heart. When these organs are weak or burdened, excess emotions of worry, fear and a disturbed mental state can be experienced. We treat anxiety by rebalancing and supporting these organs with acupuncture, herbs and lifestyle advice. Your thought and feelings are often a reflection of the state of your body.

For instance, the concept and functions of the spleen in Chinese Medicine (CM) is different to the physical organ we know. In western medicine the spleen acts as a filter for blood as part of the immune system. In Chinese Medicine the spleen has many roles. Some of which are physical, but most fall into more broader categories such as it being involved in the role of transportation and transformation of food and it is considered a digestive organ. Its role is not only to digest food but this concept also applies to how we take in and integrate all stimulus and information. Today we are constantly exposed to excessive amounts of stimulus through many forms of technology. This puts a great burden on our integration system (aka-speen and digestion).
In Chinese Medicine theory each organ is attached to an emotion. The spleen which is associated with the earth element is linked to the emotion of worry. A healthy spleen and digestive system in general, will result in clear thoughts. Ideas can be taken in and easily processed and dealt with. A deficient or burdened spleen will change that healthy thought process into worry, over thinking and in extreme cases mental OCD. The spleen is unable to “digest” the thoughts and they become stagnant, linger and appear to come whenever they want and stay as long as they like.

In Chinese Medicine we do not separate the body and the mind. Constant worry knots spleen Qi and a weak spleen creates more worry. By treating the spleen (digestion) you are able to correct this unhealthy emotional imbalance.

For many when we associated the Spleen with digestion it becomes easier to see how the spleen is related to worry and anxiety. Many anxiety sufferers will experience digestive problems such as sensations of a knot in the stomach, butterflies, bloating and loose stools.

A poor diet that contains refined sugar and greasy food is said to damage the spleen. When we look at this from a nutritional perspective we know that refined sugars can cause wild fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin which can affect one’s mood and mental health. We also know that high sugar diets deplete B vitamins. A lack of B vitamins can contribute to anxiety symptoms. B vitamins, particularly B3 (Niacin) are often used to treat anxiety.
Recently there has been a huge explosion in scientific research on the gut-brain connection. This research has shown that altering the bacteria in your gut can help you better handle stress, improve your mood and treat anxiety and depression. The bacteria strains Lactobacillus casei and Bifidobacterium longum currently seem the best to ease anxiety, stress and depression.

The theory of the spleen being involved with worry and anxiety has been found in ancient manuscripts for thousands of years. Interestingly in 2016 western scientist also “discovered” this connection. The study was presented in San Diego at the Neuroscience 2016 conference and the lead author Daniel McKim stated “We found that immune cells in the spleen can contribute to chronic anxiety following psychological stress,” John Sheridan who is the associate director of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research said “the spleen is now understood to be integral to the sensitization that happens after prolonged stress in mice, leading to anxiety and other cognitive problems down the road.”

I have seen acupuncture alone treat anxiety and digestive problems, however without lifestyle changes the symptoms will simply return. For long term relief it is essential to have a well rounded low glycemic diet with limited processed sugars. I also recommended my patients make sure they are getting adequate vitamin B’s and the correct strains of probiotics through supplementation.
Through Chinese Medicine nutrition you can strengthen the spleen by doing the following:
• Avoid excessive amounts of cold foods such as icy drinks, salads and raw fruits and vegetables.
• Avoid damp, greasy and sugary foods such as dairy, confectionary, sodas, fried foods
• Eat warm, drying foods to nourish the spleen these include: soups, ginger tea, cooked vegetables, oats, barley, rice and orange vegetables such as carrots, yams and pumpkin
• Allow quiet times of meditation and try to avoid excessive stimulation from technology.
• Do not eat whilst working or watching television.

My favourite Acupuncture point to help with anxiety caused by Spleen deficiency is Spleen 3 also called Taibai or Supreme White. This point is on the foot and nourishes the spleen. I find this point is great at alleviating digestive discomforts associated with anxiety such as tightness and knots but it is especially good at stopping chronic ruminating, excessive worry and mental OCD patterns.
This look at the connection between the Spleen and Anxiety has been a brief glimpse into one of the imbalances that can lead to an anxious state. In practice it is often more complicated. Anxiety and Depression can be caused by a complex web of imbalances. As Doctors of Chinese Medicine we are trained to unravel it for you.