This has been coming up a lot lately in clinic, so usually that means it’s time to write about it. I often tell my patients to stop drinking iced beverages, or even cold water, and they will look at me like I’ve lost my mind. For some people this is not as important, but for any patient that has heard me talk about them having “Spleen Deficiency”, or someone who is experiencing any kind of digestive disorder, this one step is vital to their success with treatments. Rest assured the advice to stop drinking iced beverages is one that actually makes sense, and I think when you see the reasoning it will be a lot easier to give it up—even on hot summer days!
The Spleen and Stomach in Chinese medicine is so much more than just the anatomical organs we have heard of in Western culture. In the Chinese tradition, one word actually encompasses a whole philosophy of conditions and concepts—which is why learning and speaking Chinese is so hard for us Westerners. If I say shoe, you know I’m talking about a shoe. But in Chinese medicine, if I say Spleen, I don’t mean your “spleen”, I mean a complicated and elaborate system within your body that digests food, holds your immune system, repairs muscles, regulates hormones and homeostasis, and, finally, regulates your energy levels. Phew, that’s a mouthful. There is NO Western word equivalent for all of these functions being related to each other in a systematic, elegant pathway stemming from an anatomical organ. So, since we don’t have an English equivalent to this concept, us Chinese medicine practitioners continue to say “Spleen” and have been confusing Westerners for decades. To make things easier for the purpose of the article, when I mean the anatomical organ I will use lower case (spleen) and when I’m referring to an entire system of physiological responses I will use upper case (Spleen).
Now that we have established that when I say “Spleen” I actually mean all of those processes I’ve just discussed, we can get to the purpose of this article—stop drinking iced beverages! Here’s the thing, your Spleen and Stomach are closely related and work in tandem together. If your Stomach is not functioning properly, your Spleen cannot do its extremely important job of regulating your metabolism, energy, and healing. Your Stomach is responsible for digesting—i.e. breaking down—any food we eat. In the Chinese medical model, the Stomach breaks down the food and then sends it to the Spleen (remember the energetic system, not the anatomical organ) to be transformed into the nutrients we need and then transported to the other organs and tissues in need of the nutrients. In order for the Stomach to do this important function, the stomach itself needs to have a healthy dose of stomach acid and Ph balance. This is true in both Western and Chinese medical models.
Think of the Stomach as a cauldron of stew sitting on a low flame. Because it’s been on this low flame for long enough, when you put new ingredients into the stew they immediately warm up and become part of the stew. Now, imagine you threw a bucket of cold water on that cauldron and blew out the flame. What do you think would happen? Now you have to wait for the flame to return and take its time warming up the whole stew once again—meanwhile all those new ingredients thrown in are not cooking, but instead floating and congealing in the pot. This analogy is very similar to what is actually happening in your body. When you throw iced or cold foods into your stomach you are dousing out the “flame” (technically the Ph balance), and forcing the stomach to work much harder to “cook” the foods. You can feel this phenomenon when you eat foods that don’t agree with you and the stomach has to produce more acid than usual to break it down—it’s called “heart burn”.
This doesn’t mean you can never have cold beverages again. But your Stomach likes it warm to do its job properly, so every time you drink or eat something cold you are playing with fire (pun intended). If you already have a digestive disorder, this is essential for you. Try drinking warm water with lemon juice in the Spring or some ginger in the Fall; and do your best to avoid cold foods all together while trying to repair your digestive system. This even includes salads or raw veggies. Lightly cook everything you eat to make it easier on your stomach to digest, and drink warm nourishing liquids. If it’s hot outside and the idea of hot water really turns you off, use room temperature water with cucumbers or lemon. This makes it refreshing and cool without damaging your Spleen and Stomach.
Hope this article helps clear up some of the confusion when we Acupuncturists tell you strange things like “you have Spleen Qi deficiency.”