In Traditional Chinese Medicine, “Dampness” stands out as a significant culprit behind poor digestion and compromised gut health. Below, TCM Practitioner Maeve O’Sullivan elaborates on the implications of this issue for your digestive system, offering expert insights and practical tips for fostering a healthier gut through Chinese Medicine. These include dietary adjustments, lifestyle changes, and potential in-clinic treatments.

What does the term ‘dampness’ mean and what are the primary causes of dampness in the body?

It represents a condition existing within the body that is a reflection of dampness as it occurs in nature i.e. an excess of water. Dampness in TCM arises from the body being affected in several ways. It can be due to either a problem arising from the inability of the digestive system to transport fluids or from the body being overwhelmed by external dampness from the environment (including rain, humidity, damp living conditions and even damp producing foods). It can also arise as a response to an illness, or from the overuse of medication, such as certain antibiotics. If your body is suffering from an excess of dampness in the body it can lead to sluggish digestion, heaviness, fatigue, congestion and phlegm. 

Are there different ‘types’ of dampness?

There are two types of dampness in TCM. Internal dampness is the most common and easily combined with heat or cold to cause damp-heat or damp-cold. Symptoms usually include a feeling of heaviness, puffiness of the skin, swelling or water retention, distended abdomen, phlegm discharge, nodular masses, loose bowels etc. People with this dampness condition will also often have sluggish energy and/or easily gain weight. The other type is known as external dampness, and it is a condition of prolonged high humidity that usually occurs in late summer/early autumn or during long-lasting rainy weather. People with this version often complain of dizziness, a heavy sensation in the head and body, and joint soreness and pain. 

How does dampness impede the digestive system?

In TCM dampness is the most common byproduct of a poor diet, and eating foods that create blockages in the digestive system.  Foods can impair digestion, yield food stagnation and interfere with the spleen contributing to the development of internal dampness. Internal dampness causes blockages or stagnations that can then lead to pain and disease. Symptoms of accumulated dampness include bad gut health, mucus, loose stools or constipation, excess weight gain and swollen joints. Chronic allergies and arthritis are two Western medicine diseases that are very closely linked to dampness.

How should our diet be adjusted to balance dampness and dryness in the body? 

There is a saying in Chinese Medicine “the earth element (the stomach & spleen) creates dampness and the metal element (lungs & large intestine) stores it”. If you are suffering from excessive dampness in the body then there are several things that should be avoided in the TCM diet to balance dampness, and symptoms accumulated with it. Avoiding excessive amounts of the following food that contribute to promoting dampness will help balance you:   

  • Dairy products: milk, cheese, ice cream and all foods that contain high amounts of dairy products such as dairy milk chocolate. It is important to read food labels as some food (such as muesli) may contain high levels of milk powder.  Sheep and goat products are regarded as much better alternatives.
  • Pork and rich fatty meats
  • Roasted peanuts, including peanut butter
  • Concentrated fruit juices: especially orange and tomato juice
  • Excess refined wheat products
  • Bananas
  • Sugar and sweeteners
  • Saturated fats, especially deep-fried foods

The other thing to do is to nourish the Spleen which means that consumption of raw, cold and processed sugary or fatty foods need to be limited to aid the Spleen’s essential digestive functions. The Spleen represents the entire digestive process and forms “our middle”. If we have a strong Spleen-Qi, the food we eat gets completely transformed into everything our body needs to feel energetic and healthy and not sluggish, overburdened and tired. These are a few of our top recommendations to incorporate into your diet: 

Foods to resolve dampness, and that you should incorporate in your diet include:

  • Grains: Corn, barley, basmati rice
  • Vegetables: Alfalfa sprout, button mushroom, caper, corn, pumpkin, radish, turnip, 
  • Fruit: Papaya, lemon, umeboshi plum
  • Beans: Aduki, lentils
  • Fish: Eel, tuna
  • Herbs & Spices: Aniseed, garlic, horseradish, marjoram, nettle, parsley, white pepper 
  • Beverages: Green tea, raspberry leaf tea, jasmine tea

Foods to consume that resolve dampness in the bladder: 

  • Cranberry: this is best taken in tablet form as the juices often contain sugar.
  • Barley: barley water can be made by pouring 1 litre of water over 30 grams of barley grains. Simmer until the liquid has reduced to half a litre. Add lemon juice, strain through a sieve and drink at least four cups per day.

If your symptoms are phlegm then we recommend the following: 

  • Phlegm in General? Opt for Thyme: this makes a useful herbal bath to help resolve phlegm and reduce coughing (especially at night). Simply take a handful of fresh garden thyme, crush slightly between your hands and seep in a litre of water that has just boiled while you run a warm, deep bath. Close all the windows and doors, add the thyme water into the bath and take a bath for at least 20 minutes.
  • Phlegm Colds? 
    • Ginger tea: grate some fresh ginger (about the size of your thumbnail), into a cup, steep in boiling water for five minutes, add a little brown sugar to taste and drink warm.
    • Onion: a simple cough mixture, safe to use in pregnancy, can be made by chopping up one onion and covering this with 1 tablespoon honey (Manuka if possible). Leave overnight or for several hours before taking the juice 2 –3 teaspoons at a time, as needed.

Is a ‘damp reducing’ diet something that should always be followed or just until we obtain balance?

This depends on your body’s individual constitution. If you are frequently prone to dampness then we would recommend choosing a diet that avoids excessive amounts of foods that will contribute to promoting dampness in the body as this will keep symptoms away and keep your body, and digestive system happy. 

Besides our diet, what other courses of action can we take to rid ourselves of dampness and get our digestive system working well again?

Chinese medicine can diagnose your pattern of disharmony and tailor your treatment plan that is just right for you. Acupuncture and other treatment modalities can help to reset altered pathways and bring the body back to healthy functioning with the aim of making you feel strong, resilient and healthy. Once the problem has been reset, the treatment can have a long lasting effect. For reducing damp within the body, we would usually recommend the following treatment: 

  • Cupping Therapy: Cupping therapy can be used to remove coldness, open the meridians, eliminate stasis, help promote qi and blood circulation, reduce swelling and pain, promote detoxification, bring balance to yin and yang, relieve fatigue, and enhance the body’s function.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture can help us eliminate the dampness in the body by helping promote circulation as well as supporting the body’s digestion centre (spleen and stomach in Chinese medicine). 
  • Moxibustion: The heat from moxibustion can also help. As the tip burns the moxa stick releases heat energy and a warm, smoky, spicy odour, which facilitates the expulsion of cold and dampness when held close to body channel points. 

Expert Quotes by Escapada Health Co-Founder & TCM Practitioner, Maeve O’Sullivan