In Chinese medicine, we view the body as a complex ecosystem and, as in any ecosystem, health is characterized by dynamic balance. A healthy human body is characterized by balanced quantities and distribution of warmth/coolness and dryness/moisture. The first goal of the practitioner of Chinese medicine is to identify, through careful questioning and physical examination, any disruption of this complex balance so that treatment can be deployed to restore harmony and health.
As a result of poor diet, not enough exercise, and mental overwork (among numerous other factors), Americans suffer virtually universally from “accumulation of dampness”. A detailed explanation of how this disharmony develops is beyond the scope of this article, but the bottom line is that when a disruption of fluid metabolism is combined with stagnation, the result is damp accumulation. Damp accumulation has the potential to affect every system in the body, leading to a wide variety of problems.
Check out the lists of physical and mental/emotional signs and symptoms of dampness below and tabulate the number that are applicable to you — if you are like most Americans, it will be at least two or three.
Physical signs of dampness
- Atherosclerosis, high cholesterol, type II diabetes
- Bloating, loose stool, alternating constipation/diarrhea, bowel movements that require lots of wiping afterward
- Water retention/edema (affecting any part of the body but most commonly the lower legs and ankles)
- Puffiness (affecting any part of the body but most commonly the face and hands)
- Stiff joints, swollen joints
- Heavy sensation in the legs
- Fibroids, ovarian cysts, endometriosis
- Prostatic hypertrophy or prostatitis
- Frequent urinary tract infections
- Blurry vision, cataracts, glaucoma
- Sinus problems, post nasal drip, chronic cough
- Vertigo, ear congestion, certain types of hearing loss
- Yeast infections, candidiasis, toenail fungus, athlete’s foot, dandruff
- Allergies (food or environmental)
- Fatigue after meals
Mental/emotional signs of dampness
- Brain fog
- Sluggishness, lethargy
- Difficulty waking in the morning, non-restorative sleep
- Worry, rumination, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, impulsiveness
- Inertia, procrastination
- Feeling “swamped”, “stuck”, or overwhelmed
- Tendency to accumulate clutter
Diagnostic signs for damp accumulation include
- A fat, swollen tongue with or without scalloped edges (the tongue is too large to fit in the mouth and so its side press on the teeth, forming imprints)
- A thick and/or sticky tongue coating (may be white or yellow)
- A lack of physical sensation of thirst
- Any of the conditions listed above (the more condition that are present, the more severe the dampness)
WHAT CAUSES DAMP ACCUMULATION?
Improper diet is a primary cause of damp accumulation. At the most basic level, dampness accumulates when digestion cannot keep up with what we are eating. Specifically, damp accumulation is caused by:
- Constant snacking or grazing
- Not chewing food adequately
- “Sticky foods”: Dairy, sugar, gluten, and “junk fats” like those found in packaged and fried foods cause dampness directly.
- Irritating food/drink: Spicy foods, excessive quantities of onions and garlic, coffee, alcohol, nightshade vegetables, and any food an individual is allergic to or sensitive to cause dampness when the body responds with irritation in the gut.
- Stagnation in the digestive tract: Not responding to bowel movement cues, chronic constipation, or conditions like gastroparesis
- Poorly combined foods: Especially proteins combined with starches or breads or fruit combined with any other food.
Other causes of damp accumulation
- Physical inactivity
- Damp and/or moldy living or work environments
- Excessive thought, worry, and/or study
- Excessive use of antibiotics
- Oral or inhaled steroids
- Exposure to plastics
Like dampness, female hormones are yin substances. When these hormones become deficient during perimenopause and menopause, the body will tend to hold onto whatever yin substances it can manage to gather, including pathological dampness, in a misguided attempt to resolve this deficiency. The effort on the part of the body to replace the missing healthy yin substances (hormones) often takes the form of cravings for sugar, bread, or dairy and results in weight gain (unhealthy yin) that resists even very consistent and disciplined efforts to get rid of it.
When a person does not feel secure physically and/or emotionally, the body will tend to hold onto dampness in a misguided attempt to protect itself against threats. This is similar to the way that the body forms mucus (a form of dampness) in response to exposure to exposure to allergens (a type of threat).
WHAT TO DO ABOUT DAMP ACCUMULATION?
- Avoid sugar, dairy, and gluten
- Avoid foods that are cold in temperature (iced drinks, ice cream, smoothies, etc.) or cold in energy (salads, fruits, etc.)
- Avoid excessive consumption of irritating or stimulating foods such spicy foods, onions, garlic, nightshade vegetables)
- Emphasize cooked, easy to digest, and hydrating meals such as soups, stews, and wet breakfasts (congee, porridge, etc.)
- Include aromatic spices in cooking such as ginger, scallions, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel seed, mint, parsley, cilantro, or citrus peel.
- Eat meals at regular intervals, do not snack between meals, and do not eat after dinner
- Stop short of eating until you are completely full
- Chew food thoroughly
- Avoid eating while distracted or upset
- Respond to the urge to move your bowels as soon as it occurs
- Increase physical activity. Rebounding on a small trampoline is especially beneficial because it promotes lymph circulation (lymph stagnation and damp accumulation form a vicious cycle in which damp accumulation causes lymph stagnation and lymph stagnation causes damp accumulation)
- Use a sauna or participate in an activity that induces copious sweat (for example hot yoga) on at least a weekly basis
- Dry brush daily
- Consult with a board-certified herbalist (look for the Dipl. OM or Dipl. CH designation) for a customized herbal prescription to resolve dampness