Splenic Disorders, and Natural Remedies for Splenic Health*
The spleen (from Greek splen) is an organ found in virtually all vertebrates. Similar in structure to a large lymph node, it acts primarily as a blood filter and has important immune properties.
In humans, the spleen is brownish in colour. It is located in the upper left quadrant of the abdomen just under the rib cage, and weighs around 200g in the average healthy adult. The spleen can be considered as two organs in one. It filters the blood and removes abnormal cells (such as old and defective red blood cells or erythrocytes) and it makes disease-fighting components of the immune system (including antibodies and lymphocytes).
The spleen holds a reserve of blood, which can be valuable in cases of haemorrhaged shock.
The spleen synthesises antibodies in its white pulp and removes antibody-coated bacteria and antibody-coated blood cells by way of blood and lymph node circulation. The spleen contains, in its reserve, half of the body's monocytes within the red pulp. These monocytes, upon moving to injured tissue (such as the heart), turn into dendritic cells and macrophages while promoting tissue healing. The spleen is a centre of activity of the mononuclear phagocyte system, and can be considered analogous to a large lymph node.
Since the spleen is involved in so many bodily functions, it is vulnerable to a wide range of disorders. However, the human body adapts well to life without this organ, so surgically removing a diseased or damaged spleen is possible without causing any serious harm to the person.
Structure of the Spleen
The body of the spleen appears red and pulpy, surrounded by a tough capsule. The red pulp consists of blood vessels interwoven with connective tissue. The red pulp filters the blood and removes old and defective erythrocytes or red blood cells. The white pulp is inside the red pulp, and consists of little lumps of lymphoid tissue and is part of the immune system. Antibodies are made inside the white pulp. Similar to other organs of the lymphatic system, particular immune cells (B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes) and blood cells are either made or matured inside the spleen.
Blood enters the spleen via the splenic artery, which subdivides into many tiny branches. Each branch is encased in a clump of lymphocytes, which means every drop of blood is filtered for foreign particles as it enters the spleen. Blood leaves the spleen through the splenic vein, which drains onto a larger vein, the portal vein, which carries the blood to the liver.
Disorders of the Spleen
Some of the disorders that can affect the spleen include:
A variety of disorders can cause the spleen to enlarge, sometimes to 2kg or more. Any condition that causes a rapid breakdown of blood cells, such as haemolytic anaemias, can place great strain on the spleen and make it enlarge. Other causes of splenomegaly include infections (such as glandular fever), liver disease and some cancers (such as Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia and lymphoma). For more information, see below.
The two characteristic features of hypersplenism are splenomegaly and a deficiency of one or more blood components. It seems that an enlarged spleen is sometimes overactive and will destroy more blood cells than necessary. Symptoms depend on which blood component is lacking. For example, if red blood cells are deficient, anaemia will be the result (with symptoms including fatigue and pallor). Most cases of hypersplenism are caused by disorders somewhere else in the body, such as cirrhosis of the liver.
· Splenic rupture
Certain disorders, including glandular fever, can occasionally make the enlarged spleen delicate enough to spontaneously rupture. A sudden blow to the abdomen can split the outer capsule of the spleen and cause bleeding into the abdominal cavity. There are various degrees of splenic rupture. When bleeding is life threatening, surgery to remove the spleen (splenectomy) is needed. Trauma, such as can occur in motor vehicle accidents, is the most common cause of splenic rupture leading to removal of the organ, mainly to control the bleeding.
Diagnosis of Splenic Disorders
Depending on the condition under investigation, disorders of the spleen can be diagnosed by physical examination, blood tests, ultrasound, CT scan, and bone narrow biopsy, as well as other tests for underlying disorders.
Treatment of Splenic Disorders
Treatment depends on the disorder and its specific cause. For example:
· If the splenomegaly is caused by particular cancers (including Hodgkin’s disease, leukaemia or lymphoma), then treatment will focus on eliminating or controlling the primary disease.
· Hypersplenism triggered by cirrhosis of the liver can be treated with abstinence from alcohol and special dietary modifications.
· A severely ruptured spleen is usually surgically removed.
A number of infections and diseases can contribute to an enlarged spleen. These include:
· Viral infections, such as infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever (Epstein-Barr virus)
· Bacterial infections such as syphilis and endocarditis
· Parasitic infections, such as malaria and toxoplasmosis
· Cirrhosis and other diseases of the liver
· Various types of haemolytic anaemia
· Blood cancers such as leukaemia and lymphomas, such as Hodgkin's disease
· Metabolic disorders, such as Gaucher's disease and Niemann-Pick disease
· Pressure of the veins in the spleen or liver or a blood clot in these veins.
An enlarged spleen can affect all of the functions of the spleen.
The enlarged spleen is usually detected during the physical examination.
Complications of splenomegaly include:
· Infection. The enlarged spleen can result in a reduction of the number of healthy red cells, platelets and white cells in the blood stream, resulting in frequent infections
· Increased bleeding.
· Splenic rupture. This can result in life threatening bleeding into the abdominal cavity.
If the cause of the enlarged spleen can be identified, the treatment focuses on the underlying problem.
When the spleen is removed, the body loses some of its ability to produce protective antibodies and to remove unwanted microorganisms from the blood. As a result, the body's ability to fight infections is impaired. People who do not have a spleen are at particularly high risk of infections because of the spleen's role in fighting certain kinds of bacteria.
Despite these problems, however, the spleen is not critical to survival. Other organs (primarily the liver) compensate for the loss by increasing their infection-fighting ability and by monitoring for, and removing, red blood cells that are abnormal, too old, or damaged.
Natural Remedies for Splenic Health
Good nutrition and a positive lifestyle are essential for general health, including health of the spleen.
Several herbal remedies have historically been used in treating splenic problems, especially splenomegaly. These include dandelion, barberry, iris, white oak acorn kernels and yellow leaf cup.
Treatments for conditions of the spleen involve elimination of infection and reduction of inflammation in the body. A healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise etc) contributes to lymphatic and splenic health. Nutritional supplements can also assist in maintaining a healthy lymphatic (including spleen) system. Blackstrap molasses, ginger and vitamin C are among the most common treatment options.
· Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of the sugar refining process. This molasses is a nutrient-dense syrup containing vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and a range of antioxidants. Taken daily, this molasses can help restore and maintain the health of the spleen and the entire lymphatic system.
· Ginger is considered a virtual “medicine chest” by many, as it has so many healthful benefits. In treating issues of the spleen, ginger can improve the absorption of essential nutrients in the body. Ginger also relieves inflammation and can reduce the size of an enlarged spleen.
· Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant and immune-booster. Taken daily, vitamin C helps eliminate free radicals and other toxins in the system that may be contributing to spleen conditions. Vitamin C also improves immune health, which helps restore the lymphatic system and replenish general health.
*Copyright 2015: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
Back to the list Print friendly version