As a runner, I’ve always finished any race I’ve started, with the exception of one. I’ve been a runner for decades; and while I haven’t done any lately, I used to run in races of varying distances from 5K’s (3.1 miles) to marathons (26.2 ugly miles). About fifteen years ago, I trained and registered for the Twin Cities Marathon, which is run through both cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I’d run the race before, but this particular day was different.
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, that year when I left my house at 6 a.m. for the start, the temperature was already in the 60’s. Clearly it was going to warm up over the course of the morning and the runners were going to be toast. We runners had been advised to drink lots to avoid dehydration, and I was well-hydrated at the start. However, once the race was under way, I knew within the first mile or so that this day was not going to be mine. I knew that getting to the finish line wasn’t going to happen. I plodded along feeling pretty much like road kill, and at the 17-mile mark, I stopped. I licked my wounds and went home.
The news later that day and the next 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. Say what? It’s true—there were some runners that day who followed commonsense advice 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 recover fully within a couple of days.
So what does this story have to do with Chinese medicine? Well, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen a couple of 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.
The first was a woman in her early 40’s, named Jane, who had been struggling with metabolic and weight issues for the better part of a year. Lately, she had been complaining about 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.
The second case of so-called water damage occurred in a patient that I’ve been seeing for a month or so. Diane came to me because she was struggling with chronic diarrhea—the kind that’s life-altering. She was having episodes several times a day, and couldn’t eat a meal without having to hit the bathroom shortly afterward. At first, I believed that Diane’s problem was a case of a Liver and Spleen disharmony, in which stress was upsetting her digestion. However, early on in her treatments, she disclosed to me that she drinks about 24 oz of ice cold water with each and every meal. Plus, she drinks several bottles of water throughout the day. Diane was essentially creating a situation in which her digestion was so water logged that it had almost completely shut down. Her course of treatment was also to drink less, especially with meals, and to switch to room temperature or warm drinks. Through acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dialing back the water, Diane’s digestion is now almost completely normal.
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 cases 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. Obviously, one reason is because you’re drinking too much. We are regularly bombarded with messages about how we should drink eight or ten or twelve glasses of water each day, and that drinking lots can help you lose weight. This simply isn’t true. Being water logged has nothing to do with weight loss, and many people just don’t need to drink a half gallon of water a day.
Other reasons that may cause you to become damp include eating too much, eating the wrong foods (sweet, rich, greasy), stress, and living in a damp place, like England or a basement. In addition, 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.