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Dampness: That Special Muzzy Feeling

A patient came in the other day and wrote this down on her intake: Head full of soggy cotton balls.

Head full of soggy cotton balls? Yep. I  knew exactly what she was talking about. It’s that muzzy, tired feeling, as if your head is full of heavy rain clouds. When it’s happened to me in the past, I’d feel tired,  grouchy, and want only one thing: a nap. Eventually the clouds would pass and I’d feel better. These days, I don’t wait for it to pass. Instead, I get acupuncture and start taking herbs and those nimbostratus clouds pass over quite quickly.

When I asked my patient to tell me about about the sogginess in her head, she looked at me sheepishly, as if she expected me to call her crazy.

“Do you feel waterlogged and super duper tired?” I asked her.

“Yes!” she said, brightening up. “I do!” Storm sky, rainy clouds over horizon.

Quickly, before I move on. Do you know what’s totally awesome about being an acupuncturist? Being able to work with the metaphors that we use to understand our lived experience, including how we experience our own bodies. I mean, really. Tell ten conventional medical doctors that you are suffering from a head full of waterlogged cotton balls, and at least five of them will look at you like you’ve got some screws loose up there, rather than a mash of wet cotton.

The other cool thing about being an acupuncturist?

Being able to offer relief.  That particular patient, after a 45 minute treatment, left feeling clearer, lighter, and more awake. All praise The Traditional Chinese Medicine!!!!

So, where does this feeling come from, anyway?  And how do you treat it? The answer lies within Traditional Chinese Medicine, which again proves to be a system of medicine that can answer the hundreds of strange medical questions that you’ve probably tucked away in a brain wrinkle, assuming that you’d never find the answers.

As to the etiology of this particular complaint? Excess dampness.

Dampness, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

Take the humidity, lose the beauty. Now put in your body. That's what dampness feels like.
Take the humidity, lose the beauty. Now put in your body. That’s what dampness feels like.

What the hell is dampness? 

My mom said this to me once after we split a whole bag of salt and vinegar chips on a humid summer afternoon. I muttered something about impending dampness, and that was her response. Hey mom – read this!

The easiest way to conceptualize dampness is to imagine a state of high humidity in the body. Dampness can show up alone, or it can combine with heat, cold, or wind.

Hot damp? Imagine a tropical climate in the your bowels.

Cold damp? Imagine spending two winters in Portland, Oregon, living an apartment that has leaky windows and a mild mold problem. Now pretend that house is located in your brain.

Wind dampness? Imagine a damp and windy day at the beach and imagine that all you have is a bikini and a book of poetry and for whatever awful reason you have to sit on that cold windy beach for 60 minutes with no cover from the wind or cold. Now imagine that this takes place in your knees.

If these metaphors aren’t working for you, and now you think I’m crazy, here is Daverick Leggett’s description of Dampness in his book “Recipes for Self Healing”

Dampness refers to the accumulation of fluid, mucus, and phlegm in the body. As its name suggests, its nature is heavy, sticky and obstructive. Some of the most stubborn Western ailments including candida, allergies, thrush, eczema, asthma, arthritis, tumors and being overweight are frequently seen as involving patterns of Dampness in Chinese medicine. Usually, a person will already be predisposed to Dampness and this tendency is aggravated by factors such as a heavy, fatty and sweet diet; lack of exercise; the use of certain drugs – in particular antibiotics, steroids, birth control pills; and exposure to Damp environments.

When dampness predominates, the world can seem to lose its edges. Everything can seem sticky and blurry, including your body. Dampness is often at the root of feelings of mild to severe depression, since it can greatly affect the spirit/emotions. People often report feeling sluggish or weighted down; they’ll often report feelings of apathy, numbness, and lack of motivation.

Dampness can show up in the physical body as well – the limbs may feel heavy, achy, or numb. Joints may be painful, tight, and swollen. Digestive complaints include difficulty digesting food, lack of appetite, bloating, diarrhea, and sticky stool that is difficult to void. Gynecological conditions may arise, like excessive vaginal discharge and ovarian cysts. There could be swelling in the ankles, belly, and face (especially around the eyelids). Weight seems to be gained easily, regardless of the caloric intake. There may be difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, and severe fatigue after meals.

Emotions/feelings associated with Dampness include persistent negative self-talk as well as chronic worry, which can affect the transporting and transforming function of the Spleen and lead to an imbalance in fluid metabolism. To read more about the Spleen’s role in the accumulation of Dampness, click here).

The Origins of Dampness

Again, from Leggett’s Recipes for Self-Healing:

Dampness is the result of the body’s failure to burn off or transform moisture. A sedentary lifestyle and overconsumption are primary causes. Poorly digested food that is eaten hastily and not chewed well also contributes to the build up of Dampness. Too much nutrition, especially in the form of fats, starchy or glutinous foods and sugars, will overburden the system…A strong digestive system can transform most foods, providing we don’t chronically overeat. Much is also due to combining foods poorly, either by making meals too heavy or too complex, or by combining foods that tend to ferment together. Eating large meals late in the evening will also tend to cause congestion; and overwhelming a meal by drinking too much water with it will also aggravate Dampness. Poor quality food such as synthetic, chemically grown food, food which is stale, food which is overcooked and food which is old and reheated more than once will contribute somewhat to the perpetuation of Dampness.

So, yeah. If you resonate with the above descriptions of excess Dampness, the first thing you can do is take a good look at your diet and make some modifications – some as simple as chewing your food more thoroughly. However, know that Dampness isn’t always an issue of overeating, or of poor quality food. Certain medications (see above), some viral and bacterial infections, or time spent living in a house with mold or moisture problems can generate Dampness. Environmental dampness (i.e days of high humidity) can greatly exacerbate health conditions that involve dampness at their root. Spleen qi deficiency is almost always implicated in the accumulation of dampness, therefore, taking care of your Spleen will be beneficial.

So, a head full of wet cottonballs is not that uncommon, really. And according to Traditional Chinese Medicine it can be treated with acupuncture, herbs, and dietary modifications. Read on for some practical advice on how to deal with dampness.