Traditional Wisdom

Why Worry Affects Your Digestion

In Eastern medicine, the body and mind are closely tied
BY Emma Suttie TIMEFebruary 10, 2022 PRINT

Anyone who is a chronic worrier can tell you where they feel it in their bodies. Always in the stomach. If you have ever had a challenging presentation at work, a major paper due at school, or perhaps a root canal appointment, you know where those feelings of stress manifest—in the gut. And the more intense the feelings of worry, the more of your digestive system is affected, from eating all the way to elimination.

In a clinic, problems with digestion are commonplace. Most patients I’ve seen in past clinical work have digestive concerns, but interestingly, that wasn’t the reason they came to get treated. It’s surprising how many people live with digestive issues when they can be improved with a little awareness, nutritional therapy, and a change in behavior.

The Spleen in the Eastern View

When digestive issues are present in Eastern medicine, there’s always one organ involved, the spleen. It sounds odd to us in the West, I mean who talks about the spleen? The spleen is rarely discussed in Western medicine, and most people aren’t even sure what it does. So let’s start there.

The spleen is part of the immune system and the largest organ in the lymphatic system. The spleen is where red blood cells are recycled and white blood cells, or leukocytes, are stored. It’s possible to live without a spleen, and some people have to have theirs removed. Removal of the spleen usually happens because it ruptures or has been lacerated due to an accident or severe injury. The removal procedure is called a splenectomy. Living without a spleen makes a person more susceptible to infections because of its connection to the immune system. Thankfully, most other functions are politely taken over by the other organs so that a person can live quite well without a spleen.

So what, you may wonder, does worry have to do with the spleen? To understand that, you need a little background in Eastern medicine. Having a healthy and balanced emotional life is vital to having a healthy body and being a happy human. As a holistic system, Eastern medicine looks at the entirety of the human experience and knows that each part is essential to our health and well-being. While Western medicine is still coming to terms with the interplay between mind and body, Eastern medicine has long delved into this union. In the Eastern tradition, many organs are associated with an emotion, which works in two ways. The feeling affects its associated organ, which can affect its corresponding emotion. And the emotion of the spleen is worry and overthinking.

Worry and the Spleen

The spleen is directly related to our capacity for thinking. The spleen’s strength depends on how well we manage our thoughts, concentrate, exercise discernment, and form intentions. Excessive worry and overthinking damage the spleen, and a deficient spleen can weaken the mind and our capacity to think clearly and focus, leaving us susceptible to worry.

Overstimulation is a major issue for modern people. We’re bombarded with information, and even our food, with all its complex additives and processing, is more stimulating and complicated. All this stimulus input can overwhelm the spleen and weaken digestion.

Our culture also values doing many things at once, and many of us are involved in long days engaging in heavy cognitive work. We tend to overload our brains because we have so much on our proverbial plates, and worry is a natural byproduct.

This is hard on the spleen because, in Eastern medicine, the spleen, paired with the stomach, are the body’s digestive organs. The difference, though, is in addition to digesting and extracting nutrients from what we eat and drink, they are responsible for processing stimuli—everything coming in from the outside world. And that is a massive job, as you can imagine. The more information we take in, the more the spleen has to work, and inevitably, digestion suffers.

It’s interesting to look at digestive problems with a different lens and see them in a new way. When I explain this to patients, they’re usually elated, as they can see the connections right away between what they’re doing and their digestive upsets. And this is the part I love, bringing a practical application to people in the real world drawn from thousands of years of deep wisdom. I am continually humbled by it.

In that vein, here are some simple ways to improve digestive upsets with this new knowledge of the spleen and what it does.

Practical Things to Help the Spleen

There are many things you can do to make sure your spleen can do its job well.

Avoid Ice and Cold Foods

The spleen is responsible for digestive work, which is fueled by heat or “digestive fire.” Therefore, the spleen loathes cold, which extinguishes the heat needed to do its job. This concept may sound strange. If so, it may help to remember that Western science first came to understand the energy value of food by burning it to measure its output. This was a practical and accurate way to measure a food’s energy impact (calories) in the body.

We can help maintain that “fire” by not putting ice in our drinks or eating cold foods, especially ones that come directly out of the freezer, like ice cream. Many raw foods are also considered cooling in Chinese medicine. When we eat cold foods, the spleen has to work harder to warm itself up again, enabling its essential work of digesting and processing.

Chew Your Food Well

This one is simple yet incredibly impactful. When we eat, especially when we’re distracted or in a hurry, we tend not to chew our food thoroughly. Chewing breaks our food down into smaller, more manageable pieces and releases enzymes that further break it down, meaning the spleen needs less energy to digest. This step goes hand in hand with being mindful.

Be Mindful

The first step and probably the most important thing you can do to improve your digestion is simply to be aware. Just an awareness that the spleen is doing all that work and that we can do something to decrease its burden is an excellent start. But the other thing is to do one thing at a time and do that thing with mindful intention.

For example, we often do many things at once without even realizing it. Start with eating. When you eat, just eat. Don’t eat while reading, watching TV, or working. That’s taking in more information and making your spleen work a lot harder than it has to. When possible, take time out for meals. Prepare them yourself, infuse them with your good energy and intention, and sit down and enjoy feeding your body with something delicious. You’ll feel the difference.

Eat Soups

Eating soups is a great way to strengthen the spleen. Soups are warming—and the longer and slower they’re cooked, the more warming they become. Soups are cooked until soft and easy to digest, which is one of the reasons we eat them when we’re sick. Your body needs all its energy to fight invading pathogens to get you well. Eating soup means the spleen can save its energy for other things, like that presentation you have tomorrow morning.

Take Breaks

Take lots of breaks. If you think of the spleen processing the barrage of information and food we take into our bodies, it changes how we feel about things. Working fewer hours or cutting stressful activities out of our lives isn’t always possible (but is highly recommended!). Doing one thing at a time and taking frequent breaks allows the spleen some time to breathe.

From the Eastern perspective, we live in a culture that puts a heavy burden on the spleen. But when we look at digestion in this new way, we can see that there are simple things we can all do that can improve digestive difficulties. When the spleen functions optimally, a person will feel energetic; their digestion will be robust, and bowel movements will be regular and firm. Thinking will be clear, and the ability to focus and concentrate comes easily. Giving your spleen a little bit of love goes a long way, and your spleen will love you for it.


Emma Suttie
D.Ac, AP
Emma Suttie is an acupuncture physician and founder of Chinese Medicine Living—a website dedicated to sharing how to use traditional wisdom to live a healthy lifestyle in the modern world. She is a lover of the natural world, martial arts, and a good cup of tea.
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