Dampness, Phlegm, and Body Fluids
In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), one of the most common causes of disease is an imbalance in body fluids.
More than half of the human body is made up of water, and we all know that not getting enough of this leads to dehydration and illness. However, in TCM, it is also possible for your body to become too damp, and this leads to problems of its own.
The main organs involved in the processing and transportation of fluids are the Spleen, the Lungs, and the Kidneys. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these organs and how they can be affected by too much, or too little moisture.
The Spleen is one of the primary digestive organs in TCM, along with the Stomach. It has the role of transforming nutrients and fluids from food into a form which can be used by the body, and transporting them to where they are needed.
Because of this role, the Spleen needs to be healthy in order to maintain the balance of fluids around the entire body. Unfortunately, many of us have deficient Spleens due to our diets and the tendency overwork our brains (the Spleen is responsible for digesting thoughts and ideas as well as food).
The typical western diet is rich in processed foods, fried or greasy foods, dairy products, and refined sugar, all foods which are extremely damaging for the Spleen. When the Spleen is swamped with foods it cannot digest easily, it is unable to process them as well as it should, and this leads to build up of fluids, known in TCM as dampness.
This dampness is heavy and difficult to remove. It stays in the body and can affect the Spleen directly as well as gradually invading the other organs. Dampness in the Spleen leads to a wide variety of symptoms throughout the body, including:
- Reduced appetite and thirst
- A feeling of stuffiness in the chest or abdomen
- Sensations of heaviness in the head or limbs
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loose stools
This dampness can combine with cold or heat to give a pattern of Spleen cold-dampness or Spleen damp-heat. The symptoms are similar for both conditions, but in cold-dampness the stools will be loose, thin and watery, whereas in damp-heat they will be loose and foul-smelling, possibly accompanied by anal burning or stinging.
The Lungs are responsible for circulating fluids around the body, especially under the surface of the skin. When the Lungs are healthy, the skin will be moist and our immune systems will be strong. But when the Lungs are weak, we can be left vulnerable to infections, and fluids can begin to collect in our Lungs.
In the warm environment of the body, dampness can easily become thickened and concentrated into phlegm. This is especially likely if you have excessive internal heat due to long-term emotional stress. Phlegm is thick, sticky and even more difficult to dislodge than dampness.
To make matters even worse, there are two different types of phlegm in TCM. One is known as substantial phlegm. This is easy to see with your own eyes, and is essentially the phlegm that comes up from our lungs when we have a cough. The other type of phlegm is called insubstantial phlegm. This type of phlegm stays within the body and over time, causes blockages in the channels and organs. Under the skin, it causes lumps and cysts, and in the channels it causes numbness and tingling. When phlegm invades the joints, it can cause deformities as is commonly seen in rheumatoid arthritis.
Unsurprisingly, the Lungs are badly affected by phlegm. Phlegm blocks the Lungs and obstructs their function, causing symptoms such as:
- Chronic cough
- Coughing up mucus
- Shortness of breath
- A stuffy feeling in the chest
This phlegm can combine with dampness, cold or heat. These different syndromes can be diagnosed depending on the color and texture of the phlegm itself. In cases of damp-phlegm, the phlegm will be white and sticky. In phlegm-cold, it will be white and watery, and in phlegm-heat, it will be thick, sticky, and yellow or green.
The Kidneys and Bladder
The Kidneys role in fluid balance is fairly obvious. They are responsible for filtering waste water from our bodies, and passing it on to the Bladder to be excreted as urine. When the Kidneys are not functioning well, this can lead to symptoms such as water retention and edema, especially in the legs and feet.
The Kidneys themselves are not especially prone to dampness, but their partner the Bladder is. When the Bladder is invaded by excessive dampness, this can cause symptoms such as:
- Frequent, urgent urination
- Painful or difficult urination
This dampness can combine with cold or heat, and these two syndromes can be diagnosed by the color of the urine. In Bladder cold-dampness, the urine will be cloudy but pale, and in Bladder damp-heat, it will be cloudy, dark yellow, and may contain blood.
If there is an excess of dampness in the Kidneys and Bladder for a prolonged period, this can transform into phlegm, leading to Kidney stones.
Other Organs Affected by Dampness and Phlegm
The Spleen, Lungs, and Kidneys are the three major organs involved in fluid balance, but when they are dysfunctional, this can also have a knock-on effect on the other organs.
The Large Intestine
The Large Intestine can be invaded by dampness which combines with heat to cause symptoms including:
- Abdominal pain
- Diarrhea with a foul smell
- Mucus or blood in the stools
- Burning anus
- Thirst but no desire to drink
These symptoms normally come from overconsumption of damp-forming foods, combined with heat generated by long-term worry and stress. They may also occur in cases of food poisoning.
The Liver and Gallbladder
The Liver and Gallbladder can both be affected by damp-heat from a combination of dietary and emotional factors. The main symptoms of damp-heat in the Liver and Gallbladder include:
- Dark, scanty urination
- A feeling of stuffiness in the chest or abdomen
- A bitter taste in the mouth
- Nausea and vomiting
- Genital pain or itching
Under extreme circumstances, this damp-heat can be converted into phlegm resulting in gallstones.
The Heart is seen as the seat of the emotions in TCM. It can be easily obstructed in cases of insubstantial phlegm, leading to symptoms such as:
- Mental restlessness
- Vivid dreams
- A tendency to be startled easily
- Uncontrollable laughter, crying, or shouting
In severe cases, this can even lead to an inability to speak and loss of consciousness. In children, conditions such as autism and ADHD could be attributed to phlegm obstructing the Heart, and in adults it can cause mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and even strokes.
The Effects of Dryness on the Body
Although the body is badly affected by too much fluid, too little fluid is equally harmful.
In TCM, there are two types of body fluids. The first is called jin and these fluids are thin and watery, for example tears, saliva, and sweat. They have the function of nourishing and moistening the skin and muscles. The second type is called ye. These are thicker, denser, and heavier than the jin fluids. Ye fluids are responsible for moistening the joints, brain, and bone marrow, as well as the sense organs.
Body fluids can become depleted for a number of reasons. They can be “dried up” by excess heat or mild yin deficiency. They can also be lost by excessive sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea, or from blood loss due to injury or childbirth.
A deficiency of body fluids causes dryness throughout the body. In the Lungs, it causes a dry cough, dry throat, nose, and skin. In the Large Intestine, it causes dry stools and constipation. In the Stomach, it causes a dry mouth, tongue, and lips. In the Kidneys, it causes scanty urination and a dry mouth, especially at night.
Maintaining a Healthy Fluid Balance
To keep the levels of fluid in your body balanced and prevent dampness or dryness from occurring, it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Avoid damp-forming foods which damage the Spleen over time, and keep raw, cold foods to a minimum.
Learning to manage your stress levels should help to prevent the generation of internal heat, which could cause any dampness in your body to turn into phlegm.
Drink plenty of water (warm is best), and eat more moistening foods such as pears, honey, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Moisturize your skin regularly, and consider using a humidifier if you live in a very dry climate.
By taking these simple steps, you should be able to maintain a healthy fluid balance and avoid the effects of excessive dampness or dryness in your body.