I’m a big fan of the Twin Cities Marathon, which is run through both cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. As a runner, I’ve run the race a few times and like to spectate every year. The race is run the first weekend in October, and here in Minnesota, that means that the weather during the race could be freezing. However, about fifteen years ago, the day of the race dawned cloudless and warm, about 60 degrees. Clearly it was going to warm up over the course of the morning and the runners were in danger of overheating. The race volunteers were ready with plenty of fluids at each aid station, which were located about every three miles on the 26.2-mile race course. Despite the preparation, the weather took its toll on runners that day.
The news the next day told of the carnage brought about by the high temperatures. The First Aid tent was overflowing with overheated and dehydrated runners, some of whom ended up in the hospital. However, the runners in the worst condition were those who had drunk too much. It’s true—there were some runners that day who followed commonsense advice of drinking lots but got into real trouble because they were grossly over hydrated.
How could that happen? Well, drinking too much water can cause an electrolyte imbalance in which the dilution of sodium in your body becomes life threatening. Marathon runners sweat heavily over the course of a 26-mile race, and lose both water and electrolytes. When a dehydrated runner drinks too much water without supplementing the necessary electrolytes, water intoxication, or hyponatremia, can occur. The symptoms of water intoxication aren’t pretty. The electrolyte imbalance causes tissue swelling, which in serious cases can lead to an irregular heartbeat, fluid in the lungs, pressure on the brain, seizures, coma, and death. The good news is, if it’s treated before the swelling causes too much damage, a water intoxicated athlete can fully recover within a couple of days.
So what does this story have to do with Chinese medicine? Well, in the past year or so, I’ve seen several patients in my clinic who in one way or another have been over hydrating. While they weren’t dangerously ill, their water consumption was enough to have a negative impact on their health.
In one instance, a woman in her early 40’s, named Jane, had what felt like a chronic bladder infection that was not responding to Western or Chinese medical treatments. Finally, she went to a clinic specializing in bladder health, and the doctor determined that her bladder was healthy, but inordinately large. Now if you’re a regular beer drinker, that may be a good problem to have, but in Jane’s case, it was causing her discomfort. On questioning, Jane reported that she drinks several 32 oz bottles of water every day. Essentially, the doctor said that drinking so much water had enlarged her bladder to the point of discomfort. Her course of treatment is to drink a lot less.
A second example of so-called water damage has occurred in a number of patients I’ve seen who struggle with chronic diarrhea—the kind that’s life-altering. Most of these patients are having episodes several times a day and can’t eat a meal without having to hit the bathroom shortly afterward. In almost every case, when I ask about water consumption, I find that these patients are drinking a lot–sometimes several liters a day. This causes their digestion to be so waterlogged that it almost completely shuts down. The course of treatment is to drink less, especially with meals, and to switch to room temperature or warm drinks. Through acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dialing back the water, these patients have seen their diarrhea go away completly or be greatly reduced.
In Chinese medicine, these are both cases of something called dampness, in which your body is unable to metabolize water effectively. In both of these instances the dampness was brought about by drinking too much water. Dampness is almost always a digestive issue, in which your Chinese Spleen gets bogged down and can’t make good use of the fluids in your body. Dampness can be the cause of a number of symptoms including diarrhea, bladder infections, yeast, poor energy, joint pain, headaches, and a feeling of heaviness. In addition, that excess roll of fat around your middle or on your thighs is also considered to be damp tissue—it’s moist and heavy—a little bit like wet sand.
There are a number of reasons you become damp. The most common include drinking too much, eating too much, eating the wrong foods (sweet, rich, greasy), stress, and living in a damp place, like England or a basement. Dampness is a drag, because like wet sand, it tends to take a long time to dry out.
The best way to deal with dampness is to not become damp in the first place. This means eating good food in moderation; getting a little exercise; saying hydrated, but not over drinking; and maintaining your weight. Being proactive against dampness also means paying attention to your digestion. Some simple ways to improve the digestive process include sitting at the table when you eat, chewing your food well, and drinking small amounts of room temperature water or hot tea with your meals.
While symptoms caused by dampness, and dampness itself can be a challenge in the acupuncture clinic, it can be resolved. Through the use of acupuncture, drying or draining herbs, Chinese food therapy, and some lifestyle tweaks, dampness can be something you talk about in the past tense.