By Hayley Stobbs R.Ac, CNC
Internal dampness is a common TCM syndrome pattern. According to Chinese medicine damp accumulates in the body and obstructs functioning due to deficient spleen energy being unable to regulate water passageways and transform moisture. Additional zang-fu organs that play a role in moisture metabolism disorders include the kidney, and lung, as well as the san jiao meridian. Damp is related to the Earth five element phase and late summer.
Metaphorically, the pathogenesis of dampness is akin to a wet rag hanging out to dry in rainy, cool, cloudy weather. With conditions as these the wet rag will remain damp as it requires sunshine and air (think exercise) to dry! It’s energetic nature is to sink, stagnate, accumulate, and obstruct. Reflect to a still humid climate where the air is motionless, heavy, sticky, and where swampy water is still and stagnant.
Note: In western medicine terms the function of the spleen is similar to the pancreas and digestion.
”When a person exhibits internal response patterns analogous to external climatic conditions, Chinese medicine postulates that a person has that condition: that climate exists internally.” - Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold, L.Ac., O.M.D.
Damp signs & symptoms:
Bloating and indigestion.
Feeling of congestion in or just below the chest.
Lack of appetite.
Borborygmous and stool inconsistency.
Difficulty passing urine.
Heaviness in the head, abdomen, and/or limbs.
Fatigue and mental fogginess.
Cysts and masses.
Mucous and phlegm production.
Dull achey joints.
Vaginal itching and/or discharge.
Swollen lymph nodes.
Predisposition to worry, rumination, and over-thinking.
Worsening of symptoms during rainy and/or humid weather.
Western medicine diagnoses that contain elements of damp:
Chronic fatigue syndrome.
CIRS (chronic inflammatory response syndrome)
IBS and SIBO
Chronic sinus congestion or recurring sinus infection.
Ulcers with pus or fluid
Oozing, itching boils
Neurological disorders: seizures, strokes
What Causes Dampness and How to Transform it
When assessing the causes and manifestation of damp we look at our inseparable relationship to environment, diet, emotions, and lifestyle. When spleen deficiency is present, coupled with a damp environment (rain, high humidity, cool weather, mould exposure), the syndrome can become exacerbated and increasingly difficult to resolve. Furthermore, a chronic or extreme state of worrying, ruminating, or over-thinking can ‘knot the digestive system’ and predispose the physical body to being susceptible to damp.
Most commonly, dietary and eating habits are primary causes of the condition, which is why a damp-draining and spleen strengthening diet has been clinically proven over 1000’s of years to be so successful at reversing symptoms. However, if unresolved emotional imbalances, food or substance addiction, or a mouldy living environment are a part of the pathogenesis and are not addressed, then healing can stall or altogether come to a stop. If factors as these are primary causes of the internal manifestation, then the following foods as medicine may give more clarity and energy to resolve predisposing factors yet will not be the sole healing force.
Changing one's external environment isn't always an option however adapting to consistent dietary changes as enhanced by exercise, emotional balancing, acupuncture, and moxibustion, is highly effective. Your acupuncturist will work on strengthening the spleen while draining damp, moving qi, and tonifying kidney, lung, and yang energy.
How long it takes to heal typically ranges from 1 - 6 months. The estimated timeline depends on how long you've had the symptoms for and if your constitution is prone to damp or not. Ask your acupuncturist for further guidance.
Damp-forming Foods & Dietary Habits
The following dietary guideline is presented as a food as medicine guide so that you may explore the ancient wisdom of dietary energetics for dampness and feel the positive effects. Over time and with practice you will gain greater mental clarity as your internal mind-body ecosystem clears and you will notice a reduction or complete reversal of symptoms.
My wish is that you may utilize the foods as an opportunity to learn and to creatively play with new delicious recipes. The key to success is to be mentally aware of avoiding the mental trap of “good versus bad foods'“, or “all or nothing”, and rather to do what you can with reducing damp foods while focusing on damp-resolving and organ strengthening foods. You will discover throughout the phases that combining energetic elements to offset and enhance desired qualities is sustainably preferred over strict long-term elimination. To explain, small amounts of damp foods may be tolerated if combined with drying foods that are bitter and/or pungent, for example, damp avocado with pungent black pepper and drying toast. With this point crossed it’s critical to take into account that our uniqueness trumps suggestion. For example, someone who is constitutionally very prone to damp may have to avoid extremely damp forming foods such as refined sugar and cow dairy, for most of their life.
Chew on this: “One extreme turns to the opposite.” Chinese medicine looks at emotional, diet, and lifestyle extremes as indicators of imbalance. Often, to gain equilibrium an opposite force is used short-term as a therapeutic remedy in tandem with inspiring goals for a middle path to practice.
Keep in mind the following is not intended to create feelings of unhappiness, guilt, shame, control, nor are they a quick fix. Ultimately, enjoyment, attitude, and happiness supports production of digestive juices and processes that transform food into nourishment.
”When we eat, the question is not so much whether a particular food is good for us but rather how strong and skilled our Spleen is at extracting the nourishment from it.” - Daverick Leggett
It’s important to work with a skilled acupuncturist so that they may modify your plan as aligned to your individual constitution and needs. Equally important is to understand that a diet-only approach will rarely produce long-lasting results. As mentioned, diet must be combined with mental-emotional-spiritual and lifestyle shifts in order to be truly effective. This protocol is not meant for those with a past history of eating disorders or for those with serious medical conditions. Guidelines are meant to supplement and not to substitute professional, individualized guidance.
The list below may seem daunting to begin with. Start slow and be gentle with yourself; the elimination of processed foods, dairy, and sugar are the first to adapt to.
Deep fried foods
Foods naturally high in moulds: mushrooms, sprouts, yeast, conventional corn, peanuts, conventional pork, aged meat and fish, dried fruit, conventional coffee and chocolate, alcohol, bread, grains (except white rice), beans, citric acid, and leftovers. *Quality matters! Fresh organic food that travels a shorter distance and proper drying and storage protects against mould.
Foods that you are uniquely sensitive to (including any listed on the foods to focus on list). An inflammatory response results in fluid release to afflicted cells, causing tissue swelling and abdominal bloating.
Excessive intake of sweet and sour flavours, including natural sweet flavours such as fruit.
Too many yin nourishing foods.
Raw, cold, and frozen food.
Excess fermented foods and vinegar.
Banana, orange, tomato, zucchini, and overly ripe avocado.
Roasted and salted nuts, nut and seed butters.
Conventional dried herbs and spices that are over 3 months old.
High doses of vitamin C (over 1000 mg).
Over-consumption of fluids (especially if cold).
Lack of mindful eating.
Food for thought: Overthinking, over-working, and worrying can impair the spleen's function. What we think conditions the ability of our body to receive, digest, and absorb food.
Damp-resolving foods & habits to focus on:
Pungent and bitter vegetables: asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, caper, carrot, celery, radish, leek, onion, parsnip, scallion, chives, turnip, kohlrabi, winter squash, oyster mushroom, parsnip, plantain, pumpkin, winter squash (especially kabocha aka Japanese pumpkin), and seaweed.
Fruits: blueberries, cranberries, citrus peel.
Aromatic herbs & spices: basil, cilantro, parsley, horseradish, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, dill, ginger, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, pepper, and cardamom.
Protein: Turkey (white meat), small amounts of organ meat, duck, quail, and mackerel.
Bitter and pungent tea: corn silk, pu'er, hibiscus, green tea, lavender, nettle, marshmallow, red clover, raspberry leaf, and dandelion root.
Warm and cooked foods.
Cheese alternative: Zucchini Cheese (veggie pate)
Local, seasonal foods. Organic when possible.
Sweeteners, to be used rarely: stewed fruits (see above), dates, raw clear honey, green leaf stevia powder, and monk fruit sweetener.
Other: emotional expression, sunshine, exercise, good air ventilation, and moxibustion.
Note: Talk to your acupuncturist about a damp-resolving plan. There is such a thing as too many damp-resolving foods for certain constitutions. For example, bitter and pungent food flavours which help to resolve damp, when eaten in excess, can deplete qi, blood, and body fluid.
Herbal Latte's for Every Season
Herbal latte's are an ideal 'smoothie' option for those who are struggling with damp accumulation. Teas are an ideal beverage due to bitter and/or pungent astringent properties, their physical warmth, and medicinal nature. For example, the pungent flavour of chai tea is drying and warming, which makes it an excellent attuning choice for the cool and damp environment of my home, Victoria, BC.
Why don't smoothies and spleen deficiency mix? Smoothies are typically ice-cold, which have the tendency to put out digestive fire. Typical smoothie ingredients are also fairly cooling and damp, such as banana, avocado, coconut, protein powders, dairy, and nut butters. When consumed, the transformative action of metabolizing food into energy and to regulate water passageways becomes less efficient.
Note: Science confirms the effect of cold affecting digestion as cold drinks immobilize immune cells on the walls of digestive track. For example, A study reported in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that the majority of children with milk allergy tolerate heated milk.
The following recipes help to increase energy in the morning; aim to enjoy a herbal latte 30 minutes before breakfast. Western nutrition benefits include brain and hormone balancing antioxidants, essential fatty acids, amino acids (12 g protein), nourishing minerals, and fibre. Enjoy!
2 tablespoons full fat coconut milk or non-dairy milk of choice
1 1/2 tablespoons collagen powder
Raw honey, dark maple syrup, green leaf stevia, or monk fruit extract to sweeten
Optional add-ins: L-glutamine, acacia fiber, herbal powders (as recommended by your herbalist), 1/2 tsp. ginger root powder
Other Tea suggestions
Fall: White peony tea
Winter: Chai or ginger tea
Spring: Nettle + green rooibos
Summer: a) Dandy blend or decaf coffee + reishi powder,
b) Holy basil or green tea + peppermint
Late Summer (Indian Summer): Rooibos or turmeric tea
Bring water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the matcha powder and whisk.
*For loose leaf tea, turn off heat, add tea, cover, and steep until desired strength is reached. For example green tea takes a minimum of 4 minutes while holy basil takes 10. *Add the tea that takes longer to steep first. If you are making decaf coffee, follow Aeropress or coffee maker instructions.
Pour 1/4 cup of the matcha, steeped tea, or coffee into a protein shaker cup with the coconut milk and collagen and shake to combine.
Pour the mixture into the remaining tea or coffee and enjoy.
I hope my post has given you insight today. If you’re interested in acupuncture I’d be happy to guide you along. Please visit www.vcaspa.com to book online. To learn more about my acupuncture practice, follow @hayley_stobbs on Instagram.
In health & happiness,
Hayley Stobbs R.Ac, CNC
Leggett, Daverick. Helping Ourselves: A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics. Totnes, England: Meridian Press, 1994.