When I enquire about a patients diet in my practise at Joy of Change, my patients are often quick to reply that they have a healthy diet. On further inspection however, this is not always the case. A banana, or yoghurt with fruit, coffee or a protein shake. Perhaps skipping breakfast altogether. Salads and green smoothies for lunch, and rich creamy sauces with dinner.
Let's have a look at the Chinese concept of Dampness.
Note - In this article I will capitalise words like Spleen, Cold, and Damp when they refer to Chinese medicine concepts. I will Italicise key Chinese medicine phrases like Qi or Transform and Transport.
The Qi Mechanism - We will keep this brief
Since Chinese medicine physiology is different to western medicine physiology we will have a brief look at how the food we eat is processed by the body
In Chinese medicine we consider the Stomach and the Spleen to be the organs primarily involved in digesting food. Together, they extract the nutrients and essences to be refined into Qi, blood and body fluids, which energise, nourish and lubricate our bodies. The Spleen and Stomach are a Yin and Yang pair and belong to the Earth element.
The Stomachs job is to receive food and to rot and ripen it. The Spleens job is to transform that food which the stomach has processed into Gu (nutritive) Qi. This Gu Qi which has been extracted from the food is then Transported to the Upper Jiao, a term which denotes the thoracic cavity, the heart and lungs, or simply the chest. Here, Gu Qi is combined with air and is further refined into the various vital substances in the body. The Spleen is also responsible for transforming and transporting body fluids. Qi is distributed around the body by the action of the lungs. Blood, the other main product of the Qi differentiation that happens in the Upper Jiao, is pumped around the body by the heart. It is this physiological mechanism that generates all of our Qi, blood and various body fluids, which nourish our bodies and minds. This earns the earth element organs the generous title of the "root of post-heaven Qi".
The Spleen and Stomach.
The Stomach Receives, Rots and Ripens.
The Spleen Transforms the food into Gu Qi and Transports the Qi upward. It also transforms and transports body fluids.
What is Dampness?
The concept of "Dampness" in Chinese medicine can be a little tricky to get your head around at first. Damp is one of the sixexternal evils along with Cold, Heat, Dryness, Wind and Fire. Each of these external evils can be found in the environment around us. With prolonged exposure, they can invade our bodies and cause illness. However, these pathogenic factors can also be generated internally as a product of lifestyle, diet, and our habitual emotional responses.
Dampness is the condition or substance that occurs or accumulates when the Spleen isn't able to transform and transport body fluids and Qi effectively. Ironically, along with Cold, Damp in our environments and in our diets is one of the primary causes of impaired spleen function. Dampness can be both the cause and the outcome!
The Spleen and Stomach are delicate organs which can easily be thrown out of balance. The Stomach is said to be vulnerable to Heat and Fire. Similarly, Cold and Damp are considered to be the two pathogenic factorsthat most affect the Spleen. While Cold and Damp can often be found in the environment around us (especially here in Sweden), it is probably more common that they enter the body as a part of our diets.
Other things that damage the spleen are over-eating, over-thinking or “heavy” conversation while eating, eating irregularly, eating late at night, stress and anxiety, excessive exercise over-working yourself and shift work, especially especially working overnight for extended periods.
When the Spleen is affected by Cold and Damp it fails to properly perform its role to transform food into Qi and to transportQi upwards to the chest. When food is not transformed properly it tends to stagnate in the Stomach causing you to feel bloated. This food stagnation can become a blockage that stops the normal flow of Qi in the digestive system. Qi that is obstructed and isn't moving freely, stagnates and stops the Spleen from properly transforming and transporting body fluids allowing them to accumulate and transform into Dampness. When the spleen isn't functioning properly, it can't transport Gu Qi upwards to the chest. The Qi begins to sink downwards. This sinking Qi is not properly transformed, and is considered turbid, dirty or impure. This turbid Qi causes loose, poorly formed and sometimes frequent stools and also abdominal bloating or pain.
Sinus congestion and chronic infections. Allergies. Respiratory problems. Digestive problems. Skin conditions. Lethargy or heaviness of the body. Edema. Yeast infections. Cysts. Arthritic conditions. Headaches or absence of mental clarity.
How do we avoid dampness?
As stated previously, Cold (which injures the spleen and leads to dampness) and Dampness come from two primary sources; Externally in our environment and from internal sources. Examples of external sources might be damp in the home or workplace (basements, bathrooms, working outdoors in winter etc.) or even wearing improperly dried damp laundry. Internally generated Dampness is most often a product of lifestyle and diet. The main culprits are refined sugars and high carbohydrate foods like white bread and pasta. Rich and greasy foods like peanut butter, pizza and burgers are also very Damp forming. Raw, Cold foods such as fruit (especially bananas, avocado and mango) fruit juice, green smoothies and salads all contribute to poor digestive function due to their Cold energy injuring the Spleen. Perhaps most common, especially in Sweden, are dairy foods. Milk, cheese, yoghurt, cream, filmjölk and especially ice-cream, contribute to Dampness because they are often both Cold and Damp in nature. This isn't to say that dairy is always bad. However, a traditional Chinese medicine diet incorporates dairy very sparingly. It was used mostly to treat very under nourished people. Those of us that are well fed will typically find dairy to be Damp-forming and a hindrance to our digestion.
Dampness can be expressed in many ways in the body. Tiredness and fatigue, feeling bloated or tired after eating, a poor appetite and a feeling of heaviness in the body, especially the arms and legs. Having muddled unclear thinking or a poor memory. Cloudy urine. Loose stools that might be sticky, greasy and poorly formed or contains mucus. Woman may have excessive thick, sticky white vaginal discharge. As more and more Dampness accumulates in the body it tends to become more "solid". Examples of this are swollen joints, fluid collecting at the ankles or waist, thighs and buttocks, and conditions such as gout or rheumatoid arthritis.
The best way to avoid accumulation of Damp (other than drying out your basement) is to avoid Damp-forming foods and to strengthen the Spleen and Stomach. The Spleen likes warmth and dryness. It loves regular meal times, so try to eat at the same time each day. Eat in a calm environment and don't rush through your meals. Try not to have heavy conversations during meals, remember, over-thinking damages the spleen. Regular light exercise is important but remember not to over do it, too much exercise can also damage the Spleen.
If you suspect you already have some Damp accumulating, switch out some of the 'bad' foods (no food in Chinese medicine is ever really considered to be bad) for foods that support and strengthen the Spleen and Stomach and drain Dampness. While it might seem contradictory, a healthy intake of water is important. Drinking water promotes urination, which lets your body get rid of the dirty or “turbid” fluids and replaces them with clean fluids. Just make sure the water isn't cold. Let your tap water come to room temperature before you drink it. 7:00 - 9:00 in the morning is considered the Stomachs time. This is the best time to eat breakfast. 9:00 - 11:00 is the Spleens time. This is the best time for clear thinking, working and being active.
Foods that fight Damp
Here are some suggested foods to incorporate into your diet to help drain the Damp.
Grains: corn, barley, basmati rice, oats
Vegetables: alfalfa sprout, mushroom, caper, pumpkin, radish, turnip, parsley, lettuce, celery, asparagus, white fungus, onion, mustard leaf, spring onion and leek, dandelion leaf.
Fruit: papaya, lemon
Beans: adzuki, lentils, kidney
Fish: eel, tuna, mackerel, anchovy
Herbs, spices: aniseed, garlic, ginger, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, nettle, parsley, basil, turmeric, white and black pepper
Drinks: green tea, raspberry leaf tea, jasmine tea, licorice tea, water (room temperature or warm).
There are a lot of good Chinese medicine food blogs online. Sarah George, The Wellness Ninja, an old Lecturer of mine is particularly good.
Here is a simple recipe for a rice porridge (congee or jook) that will help to expel dampness and strengthen the Stomach and Spleen function. It makes an excellent breakfast, especially when followed by green tea or licorice tea
6 cups water
1 cup long-grain white rice
4 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds bone-in chicken legs or thighs, skin removed and trimmed of excess fat
1-inch fresh ginger with skin on, sliced into 4 pieces
1/2 cup adzuki beans
2 teaspoons salt (river/pink/Himalaya)
Pinch freshly ground white pepper.
Coarsely chopped fresh coriander, for garnish
Thinly sliced spring onion, for garnish
Place all ingredients except the coriander and spring onions in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low and cook at a brisk simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rice has broken down and turned creamy, about 1 hour.
Turn off the heat and remove the chicken to a cutting board. When it’s cool enough to handle, shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces, discarding the cartilage and bones. Return the chicken pieces to the congee. Taste, and season with additional salt and pepper as needed. Garnish with coriander and spring onions.