Treating digestive disorders using Chinese medicine, Part 2 : The role of the Lung and Spleen

digestive problems chinese medicine

Thank you for reading along with me and my investigation of treating digestive disorders with Chinese Medicine (CM). Last week talked in very broad strokes about digestive disorders — how many people are affected, what happens in diagnosis and treatment from a western perspective, and where Chinese medicine can be of incredible use in the diagnosis and treatment of digestive disorders.

We introduced an important idea – Chinese medicine making contact with specific places in the body and how this becomes an integral part to successful and long-lasting treatment. Today we will be talking about a few of the specific places that Chinese medicine makes contact within the body to heal digestive disorders — namely the Lung and Spleen.

In any medical study there are always varying levels of concepts and ideas that are critical to understanding the ongoing of the body at any given moment.

This is especially true with regard to understanding gastrointestinal disorders. You can already recognize this in reading the title. As you do so, you may find yourself thinking, “How do the Lung and/or the Spleen tie in to my digestion?” In order to explain this clearly (and hopefully succinctly) I am going to dive into a little bit of CM theory to start.

First, understand that when I am discussing the Lung and Spleen from the perspective of Chinese medicine, I am referencing something more than the simple anatomical organs we have come to know in the western biomedical science. In fact, we really think of them as “organ networks.” Organ networks within the context of Chinese medicine theory do include the anatomical organ, but also include various functions in the body that may not be located in the anatomical organ. There are energies, emotions, connections and other information embedded in organ networks that you won’t find in the common biomedical sense.

This introduces us to an important point. Chinese medicine is a medicine of relationship!

CM practitioners are always thinking about the interaction – and never really about anything (organs, pathology, signs, symptoms) in isolation. This will hopefully make more sense as we go – stay with me. Each Organ Network has an elemental association, (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal or Water); the Lung is Metal and the Spleen is Earth. Metal is associated with downward movement, letting go, releasing. The Spleen is associated with rising, upward, and maybe even more accurately “the middle” as a direction.

Earth is associated with transformation, stability, fecundity, ripening, maturing. It’s possible that just by looking at those words and associations you can start to understand how the Lung and the Spleen play a role in our digestive health – we can see how a transforming and at the same time a downward movement would be very important throughout what we could term, the digestive process.

We have just been introduced to one lens through which we must understand the digestive process in terms of CM. We will now discuss another that builds on the first.

digestive problems chinese medicine

The Lung and Spleen are a part of the a system of diagnosis we call the Twelve Organ Networks – those twelve, combine in pairs of two, and become a system of diagnosis known as the Six, or the Six Conformations. Now, without getting too hung up on these titles, and names, what is important to see here – is that I am still talking about relationship – nothing in isolation! The Lung and Spleen are a pairing that make up one of “The Six” I refer to above. Together they are in charge of working with another pair of organ systems, the Large Intestine and the Stomach, to balance dryness and dampness in the body.

Let’s pause here for a moment and realize that students of CM spend years and years studying and attempting to understand these concepts. I am not expecting this all to make sense immediately – but, if you have made it this far, keep going – you are almost there!

The Lung needs to be able to let go, to release, to move downward, sounds a bit like defecation, right? We want to be able to have a smooth and normal, easy to pass, bowel movement. The Lung (organ network) affects the body’s ability to do this. These organ systems we are discussing share an energy, a certain flow, a set of functions in the body.

Each organ network is injured by particular emotions — remember when we talked about the connection between the emotions and digestive disorders last week?

The Lung is injured by grief (which can also be referred to often as sadness, or even pain) – have you ever noticed that when things are stressful, or sad, and you’re not able to take the time to process you can become constipated, experience sluggish digestion, or have trouble feeling like your bowel movement was complete?

The Spleen is injured by worry, repetitive thoughts and thought patterns that play over and over in our minds. I’m sure nobody reading this has any idea about that, right? Without a calm unfettered mind, the Spleen’s ability to hold itself upright, or enact its quality of lifting in the body is impaired. This can create an inability to transform, inability to lift, or hold, and instead, too quickly passing through, which sounds a lot like diarrhea to me — have you ever had a stressful situation that created a sense of urgency to evacuate your bowels?

A clear parallel of these two examples are presented in the western biomedical diagnosis categories of Irritable Bowel Syndrome – which are divided into three, IBS – Constipation, IBS – Diarrhea, IBS – Mixed Patterns. These patterns are often also referred to as “stress mediated,” meaning, these syndromes flare up in times of duress.

So, how does Chinese medicine make contact with a specific place in the body to help treat disease?

Thanks to the incredibly detailed, thorough examination, and diagnosis process — we are able to listen to your body tell us exactly where we need to go.

digestive disorders chinese medicineWe believe the patient is the only resident expert in their experience. We’re not the experts — so we listen. There are specific patterns we listen for, these patterns are associated with the Lung, and Spleen, (and all other organs as well). We use acupuncture meridians and herbal medicine to make contact with, enliven, and ultimately heal – those specific organ networks and therefore – functions in the body!

Earlier I said that in CM we never think about anything in isolation. I also said that CM has the ability to make contact with specific places in the body – that treat the manifestation or the root of disease rather than simply ameliorating the symptom. Upon reflection, those things could seem like they contradict themselves. They don’t.

In Chinese medical diagnosis and treatment, we are able to recognize patterns that point us toward specific places in the body and the relationship that each one has in its (critical) role of creating the signs and symptoms of disease. We use that pattern differentiation to touch back into that very place where disease is rooted. This is how we work toward making contact with a specific place in the body, and healing the all important inner relationships at the same time.

If you’re enjoying this exploration of digestive diseases and Chinese medicine and think you might benefit from talking with a practitioner, you can get onto my schedule conveniently online. I’ll be looking forward to talking with you. Watch next week for another article exploring yet another aspect of how acupuncture and Chinese herbs can treat serious digestive disorders. If you’re not already on the newsletter, please sign up to get notifications of our latest content and all the clinic news.

Written by Melinda Wheeler, LAc


My care is personalized and tailored to each individual. Through my studies and training, I have developed many techniques and tools to treat anyone, no matter their ailment or injury. Whether you have identified symptoms of physical pain, emotional instability, or you aren’t quite able to put your finger on any form of dis-ease, but you want to try acupuncture and/or Chinese medicine, come and see what we can accomplish together for the betterment and evolution of your well being!