understanding traditional Chinese medicine and the role that ‘damp’ plays
the spleen and damp
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) looks at the digestion in a way quite unlike western medicine. Their approach, based on thousands of years of observation of the body and symptoms, encapsulates an inherent health philosophy of balance and flow.
Although this approach is very different from the anatomy and physiology taught in medical schools, we can learn a lot from the tried and tested practical approaches to food in the Chinese system. These choices are mirrored in many other traditional medicines established over thousands of years, including Ayurveda (an Indian approach to health and wellbeing).
From the perspective of TCM, food is initially processed by the stomach and is then broken down into two constituent parts: ‘pure’ (useful) and ‘waste’ (not useful). The pure parts move to what they refer to as the ‘spleen’ (this, again, is different from our medical understanding of the anatomical spleen. In TCM, it is a looser term, to explain a concept of digestion), while the waste is sent to the small and large intestine for excretion.
The TCM spleen is easily damaged by over-worry (stress, not enough sleep or rest and too much work) or overindulgence of food. The TCM spleen is responsible for transforming this ‘pure’ part of our food into Qi (energy), blood and body fluids. When the TCM spleen is damaged or weakened, we can suffer from bloating, digestive issues, loose stool and low energy. Most digestive problems in TCM are seen as a disharmony of the spleen or stomach. When the spleen is damaged, it can lead to the build up of ‘damp’.
Damp is a central TCM concept in digestive upsets. Damp is seen as a ‘pathogen’ that can invade the body from outside (this includes the weather of damp or humid climates – with our average rainfall, much of the UK would be considered to be ‘damp’). Damp can also be generated by a damaged spleen or stomach and a poor diet.
Foods that block the digestion are ‘damp’ foods like milk products (except yoghurt), sugar and sweets, white flour, refined starch and highly processed foods. Too many cold drinks and raw fruit, vegetables and salad can also cause damp.
Symptoms of damp include sensations of heaviness, low energy, easy weight gain, puffiness, water retention, joint pain, a ‘heavy/ muzzy’ head, loose bowels, easy bruising, worrying and possibly phlegm or mucus discharges. Damp can combine with heat or cold to form damp-heat or damp-cold.
how can this help you?
While it might sound like an outdated concept, following the ancient TCM food principles for damp and spleen support can have a big impact on digestive symptoms.
In practice, Dr Jess and Xandra have both seen the benefits of following Chinese wisdom in thousands of patients who have been plagued with digestive issues. We encourage people to try to follow our tips and to listen to their body and their symptoms. Although no change suits everyone, this common ancient wisdom can suit many.
TCM food therapy encourages the below tips for digestive health to support the spleen and reduce damp.
cook as much of your food as possible (avoid raw food)
This sounds counterintuitive, as most of us believe that salads are super-healthy, but if you are struggling with a weak digestion, or experiencing lots of digestive symptoms, be careful of taking in too much raw food. Salads are hard to break down and are a ‘cold’ food. TCM considers lettuce to be one of the ‘dampest’ culprits, which can cause stomach upset.
When it’s hot in summer, or you’re in a warm dry climate, raw food is less of an issue, as the damp is balanced out. In winter and during rainy periods, eating lots of gut-nourishing soups (using bone broth as a base) and stews can take a lot of the pressure off your digestion and make food easier to digest. Slow cooking is one of the best ways to maximise nutrients and make food easy on your stomach. Roasting and steaming can also be good, but keep fried food to a minimum, or consume with other digestive supports.
reduce damp foods
Sugar and refined starches, including white flours, too much sweet fruit, syrups or honey should be reduced if you are looking to improve your gut health or relive any symptoms you may be experiencing. A small amount of natural sweet support (see spleen supports) can help, but our high-sugar Western diet is not balanced and frequently is the cause of digestive upset.
Glutinous grains like wheat, barley and bulgar wheat are also damp-forming in TCM. Avoiding or reducing gluten-containing grains is a good strategy for reducing damp and taking the pressure off your digestion. While oats don’t contain gluten, they are often grown as a companion crop with wheat, so they can occasionally cause digestive upset if you are suffering from gluten intolerance or coeliac disease (unless you buy gluten-free oats).
TCM views ‘dairy’ as mostly referring to cow’s milk, cream or cheese. Lactose intolerance is surprisingly high around the world, particularly for Asian or Carribean races, as it is a relatively new introduction to their diet and was not commonly eaten in the past. TCM does, however, view yoghurt and kefir as good choices and not included in their description of ‘dairy’. Although TCM would typically include butter on the ‘bad dairy’ list, we would argue that butter rarely aggravates people and organic, grass-fed butter (raw if possible!) has a lot of health benefits.
Iced or cold drinks or foods can damage the stomach. Drinking fluids that are either warm or at room temperature is the gold standard, and it’s advised to stay away from frozen treats, like ice cream.
too spicy or heating
Strong spicy dishes like hot curries, chilli peppers or even too much garlic or onion can also be damaging to the stomach, as can consuming alcohol or smoking, which are seen as heat pathogens in TCM. Turn down the heat by lowering the amount of chilli and hot spices you consume and observe how your body tolerates garlic and onion, removing them if they aggravate symptoms.
consume spleen-nourishing foods
It’s really simple to consume some delicious and healthy TCM spleen-nourishing foods. Our favourites are sweet potato and butternut squash – delicious! See our sweet potato and miso soup recipe and butternut squash soup recipe (both made from a bone broth base). Cooked vegetables (especially steamed or slow cooked) of multiple varieties, nuts, coconut milk, spices including cinnamon, ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric and nutmeg are all great for your spleen in a TCM diet. Herbs like basil, rosemary and parsley are all also great.
Porridge and rice in small amounts can also help to support the spleen, as can proteins like chicken, lamb, beef, game, seafood, fish and eggs. Butter is often added to our list of spleen-nourishing foods. If you have a cows milk protein allergy, we suggest avoiding butter. If you are lactose intolerant, you could consider using grass-fed, organic ghee as a lactose and casein-free alternative.
Bearing in mind that the Chinese spleen is damaged by over-worry and stress, it becomes even more important when eating (the main time you are using your spleen) to avoid eating in a rush or when working. Try to enjoy the process of eating and take your time, chewing your food well to aid the transformation of nutrients. Avoid stress and anger when eating, as these indirectly weaken the spleen. If you’re exhausted, you may find it hard to digest meals, so keep them light. Try something that is easy to digest like a soup or some vegetables. Eat slowly and mindfully until just before you feel full, to try to avoid over-eating and putting strain on the spleen.
In the principle of damp, a sauna is the opposite – dry and hot. The many health benefits of saunas include detoxification and preventing chronic health problem1, but many people with digestive issues feel much better with regular (10-15 minutes twice a week) sauna sessions.
Has this helped you look at your food differently? Why not try to embrace some changes, such as eating more soups and stews (which run through so many cultures to nourish health)? If you have a gym membership, why not try using the sauna for 10 minutes at the end of a workout?
1: Crinnion WJ. Sauna as a valuable clinical tool for cardiovascular, autoimmune, toxicant- induced and other chronic health problems Altern Med Rev. 2011 Sep;16(3):215-25. PMID: 21951023.