In my clinic in Herne Bay, Kent dampness and phlegm is one of the most common causes of a range of conditions I see frequently. This is short description of what dampness and phlegm is in relation to Chinese medicine and how it affects our body. This article also explains how it can develop from fluid separation and diffusion. This is just an introduction and should not used for self diagnosis. Chinese medicine is complex, if you would like to know more then speak to your local TCM acupuncturist or herbalist.


What has dampness and phlegm got to do with health and well-being?


These concepts do not have a western equivalent and applies exclusively to Chinese medicine.

Body fluid is needed to help regulate the body for example sweat cools the body and saliva helps digest food and fluids moisten tissue in the skin, hair, tendons, internal organs and muscles.


During the digestive process the body separates murky or impure fluids, that are excreted through urination, to clear or pure fluids. The stomach is the first organ to start this process and it is referred to as the origin of fluids.


“Fluid enters the stomach. It is then extracted as a fluid essence, which is processed by the spleen. The spleen then separates the pure from the turbid. Within the pure, there are jin and ye, which are transported to the lungs. The lungs, in their function of regulating water passages, distribute the purified fluids to the entire body via channels...” Neijing Chapter 21. The fluid distribution flows to the internal organs.


When this process in not working efficiently dampness or phlegm is formed and deposited. This affects the body differently depending on where in body on in how dampness or phlegm manifests.


Dampness is

  • Stickyheavy

  • Slows down movement

  • Turbid

  • Clogging

  • Obstructs

For example

  • Heaviness or muzziness of the head

  • Eyes oozing or styes

  • Mouth ulcers

  • The feeling of fullness after eating

  • Sticky taste

  • Poor appetite

  • Excessive vaginal discharge

  • Greasy sweating

  • Swollen painful joints

  • Numbness

  • Some forms of rheumatoid arthritis

Phlegm is usually accompanied with heat. It is congealed fluids that have been distributed through the triple burner (san jiao) and block the pathway creating internal heat.

Non Substantial

  • Under the skin

  • Lumps under the skin

  • Swelling of lymph nodes or the thyroid

  • Numbness

  • Some types of mental illness (phlegm misting the mind)

  • Gall bladder stones or kidney stones (this can also be damp heat (in some case)

If there is internal dampness or phlegm then it can get worse if the body is exposed to a damp environment or if  the weather is hot and humid or cold and damp.


  • Dairy

  • Greasy

  • Fried

They are all phlegm and damp building foods that will take time for the body to remove.

Other damp and phlegm building foods are

  • Peanuts

  • Bananas

  • Sugar

  • Pork

  • Fatty meat

Food to eat

  • Millet

  • Rice

  • Pear

  • Cherries

  • Grapes

  • Ginger

  • Flax seed

  • Radish

How fluid separation works and impairment of this process affects the body


The spleen


The spleen controls the transformation and separation of pure and impure fluids so it is the most important of the organs in relation to fluids. If the spleen is not functioning efficiently then the rising of the pure fluids and descending of impure will not separate correctly leading to illnesses.


If spleen qi is deficient, then qi does not ascend affecting the movement of fluids throughout the body causing phlegm. Phlegm can lodge in the centre of the torso obstructing the diaphragm.


Spleen Qi deficiency signs and symptoms


  • Tired and bloated after eating

  • Loose stools

  • Spontaneous sweating

  • Poor appetite

  • Weakness of limbs

  • Desire to lie down

  • Possible obese


The lungs


The lungs control the diffusing of pure fluids by further separation impure fluids descend to the kidneys and bladder. The lungs diffuse fluids in all directions after being received by the spleen with the help of the kidneys that distill the fluids sending the rest to the lungs. There is saying in Chinese medicine, the spleen creates phlegm and the lungs store it, this is why it is common to find the lungs storing phlegm.


The kidneys


For the fluids to rise by kidney yang steaming the fluids to be received by the lungs for moistening the lungs. The kidneys assist the small intestine, bladder and spleen with fluid separation. The kidneys assists the spleen by giving the heat needed to transform body fluids.


If the kidneys are involved in the accumulation of fluids then is usually built up gradually and takes longer to treat. The warming kidney yang that comes from the ministerial fire overacts boiling the fluids into phlegm


The small intestine and bladder


The role that the small intestine takes is controlled by the action of kidney yang. The impure is excreted through the bladder via the intestines and the pure is heated and transported upwards.


The triple burner / san jiao


The san jiao is the pathway for transformed fluids and it is like an irrigation system linking all the organs together. It is divided into three sections of the body and also in the spaces between skin and muscle, the spaces and crevices. This is where sweat is found it is at a level in the body where defensive (wei) qi found.


The upper heater fluids are like mist and internal organs related are

  • Heart and pericardium

  • Lungs, throat and head


The middle burner is the maceration chamber because of its relationship with the first stage of digestion (ripening and rotting). Internal organs related are

  • Stomach

  • Spleen

  • Gall bladder


The lower burner is the drainage ditch because the is where the turbid qi is excreted.

The organs related the lower burner are

  • Liver

  • Kidneys

  • Intestines

  • Bladder