Phlegm, Dampness and Chinese Medicine

Posted on

Internal Dampness & Phlegm

Dampness and phlegm are accumulations that occur in the body that may make us feel ‘phlegmy’ or just heavy and tired. When our diet is out of sync with our body, our mind is working overtime, or when the weather is very damp and humid, we tend to become stagnant with damp and phlegm.

Dampness is generally considered a thicker/heavier viscosity than phlegm, however may be less obvious in physical signs. Dampness is sensed in the heaviness of the body and fogginess of thinking, and can be seen in the tongue coat.

Phlegm is thinner and manifests in a runny nose or wet type of cough.

Symptoms of Dampness & Phlegm

· Foggy head

· Poor memory

· Difficulty waking up in the morning

· Low energy, especially after eating

· Loose Stool

· Poor concentration

· Leucorrhoea

· Wet-pustulent skin conditions

Signs of Dampness & Phlegm

· Swollen tongue with teeth marks

· White coating on tongue

· Runny nose, especially after greasy/dairy food

· Slippery pulse

One of the signs of dampness is a thick tongue coating and swelling of the tongue body. Sometimes the coating of the tongue is very thick and white, especially in people that consume a lot of dairy such as yoghurt and milk. These people often also scrape the coating of their tongue as it is so thick! This doesn’t treat the root of the damp problem, just removes one of the indicators.

Damp and phlegm accumulate for a few different reasons. We can initially break the causes down into 2 categories: Internal and External routes.

Internally damp/phlegm may accumulate due to:

1. Overthinking/stress leading to a deficiency of the spleen qi (digestive energy) which can’t cope with all the damp foods being ingested, thus leading to a sluggish digestion.

2. Poor diet. Too much dairy, greasy, oily, fatty, sweet, cold, raw and rich natured foods.

Externally damp/phlegm may accumulate due to:

1. Humid environment. Tropical weather. Air-conditioner blasting on you during a hot day for long periods of time.

2. The two weeks between each season change, and especially the end of summer which is considered the ‘late summer’ or ‘damp’ time of the year when we expect dampness to accumulate.

Chinese medicine is based on the 5 element theory. Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood.

Each element relates to a season, organ, emotion and function etc. Dampness relates most closely to earth. The earth element relates to late summer, and the organs of the spleen and stomach.

The job of the spleen and stomach is to convert food and water to energy and the rest to waste. However, sometimes when this system is run-down and can’t convert things properly, due to a rich diet for example, there is an excess residue left over that can’t be disposed of efficiently called dampness. Chinese medicine also states that when the dampness over flows from the earth element, it is contained in the metal element; this being the lungs and large intestine. This can explain why sometimes we eat greasy fish and chips or a milk shake and get a runny nose, cough or diarrhea.

Dampness is heavy and likes to drain down and out. Sometimes it can’t do this as it gets blocked and gluggy. There are a few ways we get rid of damp. First we want to reduce the foods that are adding to the problem. Then we want to use herbs and acupuncture to either open the pores of the skin to disperse through sweat, purge through the stool or drain through urination. Then we will strengthen the digestion using a bland diet, exercise, herbs and acupuncture.

Matter and Energy

A good way to explain Chinese medicine and what we call ‘digestive fire’ is through basic physics principles.

Matter and energy. The two fundamental aspects of nature are fire and water. We can refer to these 2 elements as matter (water) and energy (fire). Everything is a form of matter and energy, matter being a more condensed form with less vibration and energy as a more dispersed and insubstantial form that has highly vibrational electrons and protons.

This said, the two are interchangeable; life and nature are always moving and changing. We are made up of matter and we are driven by passion, emotion, will and love, in this case we can say this is the ‘energy’ or fire that is life. Thus, we are made up of matter, driven by energy. But what fuels this energy? Food, air and water. So we have life, or this ‘inner fire’, and we want to add fuel or wood. What kind of wood would we add to a campfire?

What burdens the digestive fire?

When we want to make a good fire, we need good, light and dry wood; like kindling. We notice when we put green sticks on the fire it smokes and dulls the fire. Likewise, if we put a large log of wet wood on the fire, we’re likely to extinguish it totally.

The spleen and stomach like dry, light food. Thus heavy, oily, greasy, raw and dense foods are not the kind of thing to strengthen an already weak digestion. It is like throwing a big heavy wet log on a small fire. Goodbye fire!

We need to start with easily digestible grains and foods that are cooked well and not overly processed. This is our kindling.

Foods to reduce dampness & return digestive fire

Cooked whole grains: Rice, Oats, Barley, Rye, Millet, Quinoa, Pearl Barley, Buckwheat, Amaranth, Corn

Veggies: Beans (if you can tolerate from the gas), celery, pumpkin, turnip, alfalfa, leafy greens

Meat/Protein: Small amounts of well cooked (even slow cooked/stewed) are good and damp draining. Beef, Lamb, Chicken.

Spices/Herbs: Ginger is great to warm the digestive fire, especially in congee. Cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, paprika, cumin and pepper are all warming to the digestion.

Foods to avoid that increase dampness & reduce digestive fire

Basically, too much raw, cold, sweet, oily or mucous-forming foods.

Too many raw fruits, vegetable, sprouts, juices, cold food from the fridge, salad, sushi in excess.

Late night eating

Over eating

Not chewing properly

Processed foods such as pastries, pork, duck, salads, wheat grass, avocados, bananas, tofu, soy milk (soy is 50% fats and oils), eggs, chocolate, ice cream, smoothies, iced water, lassies, dairy.

A raw food or salad diet sounds great and cleansing but may not be beneficial for everyone. A person who is very hot, red faced with a strong constitution will benefit a lot, however a skinny, pale, tired person will become worse. This is all due to their condition, digestive fire, and diet.

Further improving digestion and reducing excess weight

When the digestive fire is reduced and we put in more of the wrong foods, we get a left over residue. This is what we call dampness. This dampness is energy that has become more substantial, matter. This left over matter may be deposited as fat or turn into more solid matter such as cysts.

The way to reduce this occurring is:

Reducing damp accumulating foods

Restoring digestive fire

Become active and exercise daily

Clearing your mind with meditation and relaxation breathing

Chris Eddy Dr of Chinese Medicine