What ‘Damp’ Does to You: Dampness in the Body

Understanding ‘Damp’ in Chinese Medicine helps you overcome many nasty symptoms and then improve your life overall.
Soggy path in the woods

Key Learning Points

  • Like fog, Damp slows everything down. Hard to clear.
  • It causes Swelling …
  • … Heaviness and Lethargy
  • Easily Combines with other Problems

So … what’s Damp and Dampness in the Body?

Let me tell you about my Aunt!

I had a beautiful and contrary maiden aunt who, dissatisfied with London in her old age migrated to Hove, Sussex, (UK), by the sea.

Then she moved to Camberley in Surrey, (inland, about 50 miles North-West of Hove).

Then she returned to Hove again, and back and forth.

The trouble was that Hove was ‘too bracing’. On the other hand Camberley was ‘too damp’! 

She’d been raised in Madras, Southern India then Delhi, Northern India. Britain was very different and her elderly bones objected. What was wrong with Camberley? 

Chinese medicine has a shorthand for conditions. It uses ideas to understand health. 

These ideas are often easier to understand than the more precise and scientific definitions used in orthodox or Western medicine because Chinese medicine uses words we all use in everyday speech. 

Although in Chinese Medicine these ideas are used in a technical sense, it’s not hard to apply them to ourselves. 

It’s a problem for Western medicine, which can’t absorb or use the Chinese traditions until it finds some scientific basis for them: until then, Chinese medicine remains at best a ‘pseudoscience‘.

On the other hand, Chinese medicine quickly saw the ideas and advantages of Western medicine, and welcomed it with open arms.

What is a Damp Day like?

 

Today it’s raining: a very fine mist. Roads are covered with slippery surface water that sprays up easily. Traffic moves slowly and people heat up fast on exertion because high humidity stops easy evaporation.

Low cloud lies as fog. It makes driving hazardous. With low visibility, people get confused and there are more traffic accidents.

Clothes get quickly sodden: dampness makes them heavy and uncomfortable. Dry things engorge and become sticky and weighty.

Without good insulation, electricity lines short, requiring more power.

Clouds block the sun. If it’s cold, it stays cold. If it’s hot, it stays hot.

In the garden, in summer plants grow fast – other things being equal – especially weeds and grass.

Whereas rain washes dust and rubbish away, damp inclines it to linger. As dust and rubbish build up into piles, seeds and moulds prosper. Things grow where they aren’t wanted. Puddles remain and mosquito larvae multiply.

In winter, cold-damp disinclines gardeners to do anything. But mould still prospers.

If you make wine or beer, you need dampness for yeast to grow. In bread-making too much dampness means the yeast can’t shift flour so bread doesn’t rise properly. Too much sugar and it rises too fast and exhausts itself.

Too much ongoing weather dampness is depressing: it saps the spirit.

Like Rain and Fog, it takes Wind and Heat to clear them

You can’t shift the clouds and the mist, the rain and the fog.

You must wait for either the wind to blow them all away or for the sun to come out and burn it all dry.  This analogy shows that movement and warmth help to move damp.

 

Umbrella for a rainy day: rain often worsens Damp conditions
Photo by Bangkit Ristant on Unsplash

We all need a little dampness!

It moisturises our skins and keeps us fresh. but too much for too long is a major problem. It’s not a killer but immensely inconvenient and hard to shift.

Dampness in The Body

What happens when you get dampness in the body? If you’ve understood its effect in life, then it’s easy to apply to your body. 

Typical signs of it are:

  • swelling 
  • slowness 
  • lethargy
  • tiredness
  • confused thinking and 
  • heaviness. 

 

However, it can take on many forms so the following is only a summary (but you only a need a few of them to get a DAMP diagnosis!

Swelling and distension – signs of Damp … can appear:

  • round stings and bites
  • around the eyes
  • round sore joints 
  • in the body of the tongue 
  • after bruising 
  • before menses round the waist or in the breasts.
  • If your metabolism is slow or you eat more than you burn up in exercise, you put on weight. This concept underlies the Chinese medical attitude to being overweight.

 

Heaviness:

It makes us feel heavy and stiff, often sore. When pressed, flesh only slowly recovers its shape. 

Because we are heavy, we move more slowly and we tire faster

Often stiffness accompanies it: after rest it is sore, we can only start with slow movements and we take time to get going again. In acute Damp we must either keep moving or we stiffen up. 

In our body it leads to poor digestion, nausea, sticky or slow stools, retarded or limited urination.

 

Mould or fungus 

 

Moldy Orange
Image by adege from Pixabay

 

… such as thrush, grows on the skin or in crevices, in our armpits, our mouths, ears (wax) and around and within our genitals. Between our toes we get athlete’s foot. 

In our thinking it slows acuity. We can’t remember things; can’t concentrate; get anxious and go over things again and again; get despondent; may get weepy, preferring to be alone; talk hesitantly or reluctantly. We can’t remember things, we get confused. 

Head : It gives us a sore heavy head and headache and may combine with another Chinese concept called ‘Phlegm‘ to cause vertigo or dizziness. 

Face : swollen and stiff. Causes cracking of joints, pain (worse in the cold). Skin round lips may crack. Lips may swell eg from herpes. 

Eyelids get sticky and agglutinated; may dry and be hard to open. Eyes cry easily and we may get pustular inflammations such as conjunctivitis or blepharitis (this often occurs when there is a build-up of Heat too). 

Tongue : usually is slightly swollen, often with what look like teeth-marks along the sides, and with a white wet coating. 

Chest area: often feels full, or stuffy, may be itchy (though no sign of a rash), which makes it difficult to breath comfortably.

Damp, Appetite and Digestion

Even though the mouth may be dry there is often an aversion to drinking. Food often lies heavy in the stomach, especially cold food or drinks. The appetite is usually reduced. 

Abdomen: often sore, feels like liquids awash inside. Stools are watery or loose, but not smelly unless Heat is present. 

Female: when it invades her genital area it often causes cloudy vaginal discharges. (More coloured, ie yellow, if it combines with Heat.) Her breasts may swell before periods. 

Urine: cloudy and may be much reduced. Can make it difficult to pee, which feels like burning. 

Skin loses its flexibility. Can seem thicker. Swellings such as with glands (eg mumps), or in boils, abscesses, carbuncles, cellulitis. During eczema associated with Damp, discharges are thick and dirty. 

Limbs feel sore, bruised, heavy and stiff. Muscles may twitch. There is sometimes a feeling like something crawling on the skin, or numbness: as if something has gone to sleep. Joints ache and swell.

What makes Damp worse?

 

Wet window

 

Mainly exposure to dampness, ie wet or cold conditions or weather, but also drafts of air or becoming chilled: all these especially if you are hot or sweaty. 

Lying or sitting on wet ground can let it invade your body. 

Uncovering swollen or painful areas often makes the discomfort worse. 

After rest or at the start of motion the pain or stiffness is worse. 

TCM theory, which is the bedrock behind much of this site, would say that other forms of excess yin energy can also worsen Damp. These would include Cold, and lack of movement (which  is actually a lack of yang, although not quite yang deficiency.) A lack of movement in yin conditions like Cold eventually makes us shiver – a yang response to invasion of yin-cold.

Wet weather, or before a thunderstorm, makes the condition worse.

How I Once got Dampness in the Body!

For example, I once cycled to see a patient in London. On the way back, I was hot, and in a hurry to get back to my clinic to see another patient. There was a sudden thunderstorm on the way back which soaked me, especially my back.

On arrival, I found the patient had already arrived and was in a hurry: she pleaded for me to treat her immediately and didn’t mind that I was still wet.

The next day, when I woke up, I could hardly move. My back was very sore and I needed a long soak in a warm bath before I felt better. Later in the day, after I had been sitting down for 20 minutes whilst thinking over the treatment for someone, I realised the stiff soreness had returned.

Only by keeping moving could I keep it at bay.

This was a classic case of external invasion of damp.

If you wonder how I got myself better, I used a homoeopathic remedy, which worked in a few minutes. But this was an acute invasion of Damp (ie it was External Damp, see below), not chronic Damp, which would have required more extensive treatment, whether from Chinese medicine, acupuncture, homoeopathy or anything else.

 

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What makes Dampness better, ie improves it?

Apart from having treatment to clear it from the body, the following can improve dampness conditions in the body.

However, they don’t usually cure it: they just palliate it. 

  • Warmth: like a warm bath, warm dry weather or a warm climate; warm wraps.
  • Continued movement, including stretching the limbs 
  • Rubbing (or massage, for example round a joint that has swollen up; very light stroking over a bruise can ameliorate the pain: NB massage over a bruise is not recommended.)
  • In some kinds of dampness, losing some blood may help, such as a nosebleed (this applies more to damp-heat).
  • Supporting or holding up the affected part. (Hold it very gently, however: don’t grip too firmly!) 
  • Moving your position regularly may help
  • Avoiding factors that make it worse also helps! See above.
  • Sometimes a long holiday in a warm country whilst avoiding the factors that produced it can get you better.

 

What are the causes of Damp in the first place?

What produces it in the body?

In Chinese medicine there are two potential sources: external and internal

External

External damp comes from the factors described above together with, for example, sprains, blows, accidents, and jarring; but also living in moist conditions, such as in a wet basement, or camping out in very wet weather.

Wet conditions could also come from wearing wet clothes or standing in a wet place too long (fishing, for example, even if your skin is protected from the water) or working in wet fields. Kneeling on cold damp ground can do it too. Some professional or frequent swimmers develop it.

 

Man fishing - sometimes a cause of Dampness in the Body.
Photo by Greysen Johnson

With externally caused Damp, the pulse is what is called ‘slippery’ and ‘full’ and the tongue‘s coating is thick and sticky. 

Internal

Internal Damp can be exacerbated by External Damp factors, but arises also where Spleen qi is weak. Sometimes Spleen qi is weak because Kidney qi is weak. 

With internally caused Damp, the pulse is ‘slippery’ and ‘fine’, or ‘floating’ and ‘weak’, and the tongue’s coating is sticky and thinner. 

When Spleen qi is weak, it can’t move things around your body properly, so ‘puddles’ of Dampness build up.

 

Bad food or eating habits lead to Damp formation

Bad diet can cause internal Dampness. This would include too much sweet food, or cold, iced or chilled food (or drink), or indigestible food. Bad eating habits also contribute, like eating too fast, or eating too much junk food, or not chewing properly. 

In susceptible people, too many Cold foods produce Cold-Damp symptoms. Likewise, too many Hot foods can produce Damp-Heat symptoms in people predisposed that way.

For more about this, click Nutrition and Foods that Cause Damp.

Internal Dampness is also caused by continued worry, or obsessions, or anxiety and by long periods of intense mental work or study. All these emotional and mental factors weaken the Spleen Qi. 

In someone with weak Spleen qi, the side lain on or hanging down or kept immobile for a long period (such as sitting for long periods without moving), may acquire symptoms of damp, such as swelling. That swelling can then cause further problems, preventing the free flow of Qi and Blood.

In some situations, this produces what is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT), one possible consequence of Blood Stasis.

Injections can create Damp

Injections of more-or-less anything are, obviously, something wet being pushed inside you! So they can cause damp. 

This is all the more likely to happen if you already have a weak Spleen, or already have other signs of damp.

What sort of injections might these be?

  • Immunisations and vaccinations even if given for the best of reasons. Damp arising from this (soreness, heaviness, possibly a mild fever) is usually short-lived in young healthy people. In older people, the injection can weigh you down for quite some time. So, preferably don’t let your child be vaccinated while he or she is constipated!
  • Prescribed medication injected into you. If it causes damp in you, you will probably notice symptoms starting fairly soon after the injection. Depending on the medicine the symptoms may be local (eg soreness round the site of the injection) or generalised (you feel slow, heavy, tired, foggy-minded and your body loses its bounce).
  • Insulin. For many, this is still a necessary injection if you are diabetic. But if your Spleen tends to weakness you will develop signs of Damp. And you may put on weight (another sign of Damp, even of Phlegm.)
  • Injection of social or recreational drugs. The effect depends on the drug. Stimulants may not initially cause signs of Damp – they are more likely to produce signs of Yang excess and Yin deficiency. Depressants (aimed to calm you down) and hallucinogens (make you happy or sometimes crazy) are more likely to cause early symptoms of Damp, but it depends on your underlying constitutional weakness. 

How does it damage your body’s health?

Damp is what is called a Yin-type pathogenic factor. (Pathogenic means ‘illness-causing’.) It is a form of excess Yin.

Being Yin in nature, it lacks movement in itself and inhibits movement in you. It combines easily with Cold and Heat. With the latter it produces symptoms of Damp-Heat.

In the UK we are very familiar with how it combines with Cold to create Cold-Damp conditions such as Spleen Cold Damp

It sticks around! It’s hard to get rid of. Like water, it flows downwards easily, so it affects lower parts of the body and limbs more often than upper parts, or may start in an upper area and seep downwards.

However, if it starts in the legs, it may creep up to the abdomen, just like rising damp from a basement, when moisture rises in the walls. 

 

Boot in the water. Working in these conditions increases the likelihood of Damp illnesses
Photo by jonathan Ford on Unsplash

 

Dampness, being Yin, gets in the way of Yang, and slows it down. Normally clear Yang rises to the head enabling us to think clearly and act decisively. If Dampness invades, this clear Yang doesn’t reach the head so we feel confused, heavy-headed, depressed and unable to take decisions. 

Acting as an obstruction to the free flow of qi, it causes swelling, and the swellings further impede the movement of qi. Where qi doesn’t move smoothly, there is pain and discomfort, and with Dampness this feels like stiffness, fullness and heaviness.

How Do You Treat Damp in the body?

Various ways: although this is a site devoted to acupuncture, I have had considerable success treating Dampness with Homoeopathic remedies – but you must find the right remedy for your particular symptoms, which can take experience and time. 

Herbs in Chinese medicine come in various categories, one of which aims specifically to clear dampness. One or more herbs from this category would be used in a formula with other herbs to moderate, enhance or direct the principal herb’s actions. 

Acupuncture points to treat Damp include mainly points that stimulate Spleen qi. Some of these lie on the Spleen meridian, for example, Spleen 3, 6 and 9. But please don’t start poking yourself at these points if you don’t know what you’re doing! Also, there are many other points, on other meridians, that act powerfully to clear Dampness in the Body.

 

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If you have Dampness in the Body, what can YOU do to reduce it?

 

Water Buckets
Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
 
  • Bear in mind that this syndrome is hard to shift. You almost certainly will need treatment. On your own, once established, it’s very hard to clear. All sorts of larvae (including mosquitoes) love warm moist places and it’s the same in your body.
  • Avoid circumstances that cause it – see above under Causes.
  • Avoid foods that weaken Spleen qi. These include sweet, or sweet-tasting food, raw, cold food, (eg salads and cold vegetables) iced or chilled food, uncooked food and most kinds of fruit, especially watery fruit like melons, fruit juices and soda drinks, like smoothies. In other words, food and drinks that you probably eat in warm summer-time may hurt the Spleen. 
  • The paragraph above doesn’t mean the foods mentioned are always bad for you! – although there’s probably not much good to say about fruit juices, soda drinks and smoothies. You must remember that when you’re ill, the rules change: they’re different to when you are well.
  • Include Ginger in your diet: eg in stir-fried dishes and in teas.
  • Eat foods that the Spleen energy likes, which include well-cooked meat, many spices and pepper. But cooked green vegetables too.
  • Make sure the food and drinks you take are warm

 

Which Foods are BAD for – ie they produce – Dampness in the Body?

Bad diet can cause Dampness in the body. This would include too much sweet food, or cold, iced or chilled food (or drink), or indigestible food. 

Bad eating habits also contribute, like eating too fast, or eating too much junk food, or not chewing properly. Don’t skip over this matter. It’s so important that this is its second mention on the page! It really is more important than you think! Eat slowly and in relaxed surroundings. Otherwise, even with good food you may produce Dampness in the Body!

In susceptible people, too many 

 

For more about this, click Nutrition.

Herbs for Damp?

Regular use of the following herbs may reduce Damp:

 

Cup of ginger tea amy help Damp
Photo by Dominik Martin on Unsplash
    • Ginger root
    • Turmeric
    • Cumin
    • Cardamon
    • Fennel Seed
    • Cinnamon
    • Rosemary
    • Marjoram

 

Foods for Damp?

Food works more slowly than herbs, which usually work more slowly than medication from your doctor.

With food, the first thing is to stop foods (see above) that make the situation worse.

Only then increase foods that help, such as – cooked, of course:

  • scallion
  • leeks
  • bean sprouts (but always cook beansprouts before eating them because when taken raw they have a Cold energy)
  • barley
  • millet
  • grain of paradise

CHEW WELL!

  • Chew your food well. Eat regularly and not excessively. Eating too little injures the Spleen, as does over-eating. Your Spleen energy turns food you eat into blood and flesh so make sure you eat enough protein. If you eat very little protein, your Spleen can’t do its job.
  • Avoid foods that increase the likelihood of damp or phlegm in your body, like dairy foods, sweet, raw and cold foods. It’s amazing how few people notice a connection between the chocolate ice-cream they’ve just eaten and the phlegm they soon get in their throat and nose.
  • And chew well. (Did I say that already? OK, but I’ll repeat it! CHEW WELL.)
  • Meditate or learn to relax, perhaps with Yoga or simple physical stretching exercises. Don’t overwork mentally.
  • Tai Qi (often spelled Tai Chi) was developed in China as a way of exercising all the joints in a gentle but strengthening way. It is good exercise and harder work than it looks. It helps most people mentally as well as physically. However, it is better to learn it before you get diagnosed with Damp.
  • Keep warm.

Other types

Cold-damp

This arises from living not merely in damp conditions, but cold and damp conditions in general, or from getting cold and damp after exercise when one was warm and sweaty. What are the symptoms?

Cold foods can produce it and will worsen it.

  • Symptoms of Dampness, as above. Plus:
  • a sense of coldness in the upper abdomen which is better for warmth; very loose stools without much odour,
  • thirstlessness or thirst but no desire to drink.
  • Tongue: thick, sticky, white coating 
  • Pulse: slow and slippery 

Other forms of Damp and Damp-Cold include

  • Spleen Damp-Cold
  • Bladder Damp
  • Gallbladder Damp
  • Large Intestine Damp
  • Lung Damp
  • Uterus Damp

Damp can combine with Phlegm:

Damp-heat

Some people respond to either internal or external causes of Damp not with Cold-Damp symptoms but with Damp-Heat.

This is also more likely after

  • eating dirty or contaminated food.
  • Hot foods, which can produce it and will worsen it. (By hot foods I don’t mean heated foods, warm or hot to the touch when eaten. Click the link to see what is meant.)

 

With Damp-Heat, in addition to or in variation of the above general symptoms of Dampness,

  • if there is thirst, the patient prefers to drink in small quantities, or sips.
  • Not merely nausea, but possibly vomiting too: what comes up has a very offensive odour.
  • Stools are still runny, but are urgent and with a strong smell.
  • The anal area burns, and urine is dark-yellow.
  • Vaginal discharges may be yellow and smelly. The discharge may itch or burn.
  • There may a slight low-grade fever all day, and headache.
  • The tongue coating is not merely sticky but also a bit yellow.
  • The pulse is rapid as well as slippery.
  • Hangovers are often due to Damp and Damp-Heat

 

Other forms of Damp-Heat include:

 

Summary of Damp

On this page we’ve covered:

  • What Damp is and what it feels like to have Dampness in the Body
  • Typical symptoms of Damp
  • How it affects your digestion
  • What makes it worse
  • What makes it better
  • Typical causes of Damp
  • Several ways to treat it
  • How YOU can help yourself
  • Foods and herbs to consider
  • How to help your digestion
  • Various other kinds of Dampness in the Body

 

From this page on Damp, click here to get to Acupuncture Theory.

For how other Zangfu are affected when Heat is also present, click on Liver or Gallbladder.

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