Key Learning Points
Phlegm can be the cause of many diseases in Chinese medicine, some of them serious.
Unfortunately, it is easy to get and hard to clear.
Here’s what you need to know, and the first thing to realise is that the ‘gunk’, ‘goo’, – thick stuff – you have to cough or hawk up is indeed nearly always ‘Phlegm’ with a capital P.
But not always!
For example, thick, white stuff could be due just to Heat.
By the way, many internet sites suggest ways for clear it. They have good ideas, but they haven’t sorted them into how to deal with the different kinds of mucus.
I’ve written a book on this, with suggestions for the FIVE MAIN different kinds of gunk.
It explains how your body gets it and what to do about it. It goes into much more detail than this page, covering herbs for each kind and then, taking the suggestions you find elsewhere on the web, explaining which work for your kind of the stuff!
As far as I’ve seen, no other website explains how different kinds of phlegm need different solutions!
Available for Kindle and in softback from Amazon.
Phlegm is also lots of other things in Chinese medicine, including nodules, lumps and bumps under the skin, swellings and soft masses in the abdomen, dry powdery stuff you see in the cracks in people’s tongues and at the corners of their mouths.
Worse, it can obstruct free movement of Qi in the Heart, leading to all sorts of serious Western medically-defined diseases.
Of course, it’s also the result of other processes malfunctioning and of other syndromes.
Technically to be Phlegm (capital P), there should be:
Nearly everyone agrees that the Spleen is most to ‘blame’ for Phlegm formation. Almost equally important, at least to my mind, are the Lungs and the Kidneys.
In fact, a Lung or Kidney syndrome can be the prime cause. The poor old Spleen tags along, unable to clear the mess the other has left.
Having pointed blame at the Spleen, do be aware that it is mainly YOUR fault if your Spleen isn’t functioning well!
You’ve been eating all wrong, so read on.
Your Spleen energy is a bit like Cinderella, never quite able to keep up with the demands of her older sisters, but vital for keeping the house tidy.
When Cinderella fails to clear up their mess, you get decaying piles of old food, mildew and dust in the corners, smelly unwashed garments, untidy beds and an air of subdued complaint and desperation. (Go right out and buy yourself a good recording of Rossini’s interpretation of the Cinderella story. It’s funny, witty and full of good tunes.)
In Chinese medicine, the Spleen is supposed to ‘transform and transport’.
‘Transforming’ means turn something into something else (like the Fairy Godmother in many tales of Cinderella).
In this context it means both
By the way … Who wants fat? Everyone! It’s probably our best form of insulation, energy and energy reserves, and our forefathers burned it up through physical effort and manual labour. We make it by eating too much food that turns into sugar in our blood which we don’t burn up because we take little exercise. Of course our genes play a part in this too, but I doubt if they can be blamed for more than a small proportion of overweight humanity.
Anyway, you guessed it, excess fat is a form of Phlegm!
By ‘Transporting’, is meant clearing stuff away from where it has lost its usefulness, which means keeping the highways and byways of your body clear.
When Phlegm builds up, things don’t move so smoothly, and everything becomes an effort, like wading through glue.
So far, so good.
Now it gets tricky, because there are lots of sub-categories of Phlegm and each has different causes and different treatments. Here are some of them. It’s possible to have more than one of the following at the same time.
As you read on down, you may get a bit mesmerised by all the reasoning, and other syndromes to which there are links (click on the words in colour and underlined).
If this concentrated mass of information is a bit much for you, my book Yuck! Phlegm! should make it easier. I think, as it is, this page reaches about the limit of information that most people can take in a sitting. I’ve just re-read it and even my mind began to wander! (Nothing new there, of course.)
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Phlegm in the Lungs disturbs and blocks the proper flow of Lung Qi which should be downwards: the result is coughing as Lung Qi ‘escapes’ upwards.
It also stops Lung Qi dispersing effectively and the result can be dyspnoea (meaning an awareness of breathing difficulty when you wouldn’t expect it) and/or mucus expectoration.
It’s good to be able to expectorate mucus from the Lungs, but some people find it hard to raise, including children, so its absence doesn’t mean there is no Phlegm, if other symptoms suggest it.
NB If you have thick white mucus, this may or may not be Phlegm! It could be due to Heat, which has ‘cooked’ the natural colourless mucus. In this case, treatment to clear Phlegm wouldn’t work: you would also have to clear the Heat.
Phlegm here causes:
Phlegm here may not be in a visible form, but is still ‘assumed’ to be present, blocking the free flow of Heart Qi. The technical name for it is ‘blocking the orifices of the Heart’.
A bit like someone with vital life or death decisions to make for his family, who can’t see or hear what’s going on, let alone communicate properly, and who gets very upset and disturbed, with blocked Heart’s orifices you get:
Over time, heat dries fluids and creates first phlegm then stones. Kidney and Gallbladder stones are intensely painful end-products.
Phlegm here causes:
Jingluo is the name given to all the interconnecting paths and passageways that Qi takes just under the surface of the body.
Here we get into the area of ‘theoretical’ Phlegm. When you get areas of numbness for which there is no other obvious cause, the default suspect is Phlegm. Elderly people are prone to this.
Mainly caused by Spleen deficiency and appears as Lung syndromes:
Commonly appears in syndromes of Stomach or Lungs:
Mainly occurs in syndromes of the Lungs, Stomach or Heart:
Mostly affects the Lungs:
This syndrome is mainly associated with Liver Qi stagnation.
Various kinds of Phlegm-Fluids occur, in the hypochondrium, stomach, the limbs and the diaphragm, each with different symptoms, but nearly all have
This syndrome occurs with a serious and acute condition called, in Chinese medicine, Wind-Stroke, which has a close relationship to ‘stroke’ and ‘epileptiform’ conditions.
What can you do to improve the chance of successful treatment – see below?
Poor eating habits include:
Given that Phlegm comes into existence when fluids either
and you’ll realise that there’s not much point just trying to wave it away unless you also deal with the underlying cause (Qi Stagnation, Cold or Heat).
If the cause is Qi Stagnation, you must do something about it! Unless you do, the problem will return.
Later, that probably means your acupuncturist will need to treat your Liver at some point, but other Zangfu may be involved depending on underlying emotional factors. (… not that emotional factors are the only causes of Qi stagnation, see my book, below.)
Then, because the Spleen has been unable to free up the passage of fluids, meaning that Phlegm has accumulated, you must treat the Spleen.
If the Lungs, which tend to store the Phlegm, are involved, then treatment must assist them.
Finally, Kidney Qi, which supports all the other zangfu, helps Spleen Yang to transform Phlegm and is particularly relevant for the warmth of the body, must be supported.
Lots! For example if an external pathogenic factor – a bug/bacteria/virus – is Hot and is blocking your Lung Qi from disseminating fluids, you get a thick, sticky or green ‘gloop’ that is often smelly.
If the invading pathogen has produced a Cold reaction, then the phlegm is clear, more runny and odourless.
In both cases, the body may clear the invader but be unable to clear the Phlegm. Sometimes the invader appears to remain. During treatment, symptoms of the original invasion may then recur before the body can eliminate both invader and Phlegm.
Sometimes the patient gets repeated attacks of what seems to be Wind-Cold when actually it is not a deficient immune system but Phlegm blocking the passageways and preventing ‘Wei Qi’ – your immune force – being circulated to the exterior. In this case, trying to strengthen Wei Qi wouldn’t work until Phlegm had been cleared.
And there’s another problem. Once Phlegm gets into the system, especially if it’s that of an older, weaker person with a system that can’t clear it, it becomes self-perpetuating and slows everything down, causing more fluids to stagnate leading to more Phlegm.
This is common where someone eats a poor diet, not recognising which foods to avoid. Dairy foods are often better avoided if you have Phlegm – but there are other causes too, see above.
However, Western medically trained doctors, not trained in energetic-type medicine, typically use medications that prevent the body making the repairs needed. For instance
As you see, although not deeply complicated, there are many ways in which Phlegm can compromise the body. Making the right diagnosis and then treatment is not always easy.
For example, if the cause has been, say Heat invasion, but there is also an underlying Yin deficiency, Kidney Yang exhaustion (as can happen with the elderly) and a history of bad diet, picking one’s way through the treatment process can take time.
Here the weak Kidney Yang cannot transform fluids, which then overflow upwards and stagnate. Guess what happens? Those fluids transform back into Phlegm!
So … I hope you’ll agree that Chinese medicine has given Phlegm a considerable amount of thought over the millennia. It’s a sometimes deep and often complicated subject.
You CAN do a lot to help yourself, however, and in my book I’ve summarised many successful strategies, treatments and herbs you can use once you understand your kind of phlegm, and its cause.
Of course, both acupuncture and herbs have been used to clear Phlegm for millennia. If you are receiving treatment, be patient!
Yin Excess is more common than Yang Excess because it lasts longer. In its own way however, it’s almost as bad.
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