In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), health is defined as being in harmony or in balance. If a body is healthy, it is able to resist pathogens, or those agents that produce disease. When the flow of qi, one’s life force or energy, is unimpeded, there is harmony, balance, and good health.
When there are qi blockages — too much or too little qi — there is an imbalance, which can lead to disharmony and disease.
TCM has identified six pathogenic factors, also called the Six Pernicious Influences, the Six Excesses, and the Six Evils, that cause disharmony in the body. And boy, are they doozies.
Personally, it looks like there are four main ones (the lovely dualities of Cold and Heat, and Dampness and Dryness), with two add-ons (Summer Heat and Wind), but that’s just me.
When hypothermia hits a skier or a mountain climber, muscle control fades, motion becomes slow and awkward, fatigue sets in, the body shuts down. That’s the same effect that the Cold Pernicious Influence has — it saps the body’s energy and makes movements cumbersome. The tongue becomes pale; the pulse is slow. A person may develop a fear of cold and feel like sleeping in a curled up position. Cold is yin and when it invades the body it chills all or part of it. If there’s pain, it’s eased by warmth.
When External Cold attacks the body, acute illness may develop, along with chills, fever and body aches. When the External C old moves inward and becomes an Interior disharmony it is associated with a chronic condition that produces a pale face, lethargy and grogginess, a craving for heat and sleeping for longer than usual periods of time.
Heat disorders feel like you’ve been playing tennis for two hours in the blazing sun. You’re weary and at the same time, strangely cranked up. You can’t stop talking about the game, but your words stick in your mouth. You don’t feel like yourself again until you cool down and quench your thirst.
Heat disorders cause overactive yang functions or insufficient yin functions. They are generally associated with bodily heat, a red face, hyperactivity and talkativeness, fever, and thirst for cold liquids and a rapid pulse. Symptoms include carbuncles and boils, dry mouth and thirst. Confused speech and delirium arise when Heat attacks the Shen.
Think about what happens to your backyard when it rains for two days — it becomes soggy and water collects in stagnant pools. That is how Dampness affects the body. Damp pain is heavy and expansive. Dampness blocks the flow of life energy and causes a stuffy chest and abdomen. When External Dampness invades, it enters the Channels and causes stiff joints and heavy limbs. Interior Dampness — caused by either the penetration of External Dampness to the Interior or by a breakdown in the Spleen’s transformation of fluids — is associated with mucous, which in Chinese medicine is more than simply bodily secretions. It is produced when the Spleen or Kidney is beset with disharmony and can cause obstructions and produce tumors, coughing, and if it invades the Shen, can lead to erratic behavior and insanity. Once Dampness has taken root, it is hard to displace.
Dryness is a frequent partner with Heat; just think about the cracked bottom of a dried up riverbed. But where Heat creates redness and warmth, Dryness creates evaporation and dehydration. External Dryness invading the body may create respiratory problems such as asthmatic breathing and a dry cough, acute pain and fever.
Summer Heat feels like the humid, oppressive weather that creates the Dog Days of August. It attacks the body after exposure to extreme heat and causes a sudden high fever and total lethargy. It is always an External influence and often arises along with Dampness.
Wind animates the body, stirring it from repose into motion just as wind moves the leaves of a tree. When Wind enters the body, it is usually joined to another influence such as Cold. If the body is infiltrated by Wind, the first symptoms usually appear on the skin, in the lungs, or on the face. Tics, twitches, fear of drafts, headaches and a stuffed-up nose are symptoms. When External Wind invades the body more deeply, it can cause seizures, ringing in the ears and dizziness.
See, I Told You They Were Evil
And then they can gang up with one another, as they have with me. For example, I have Damp Heat. (And let me tell you, I’m really looking forward to that “erratic behavior and insanity” part.) It may be that someday I can rid myself of it, but for now I have to look at it as a chronic condition. I take herbs and receive acupuncture for it. I should exercise a lot more than I do. And I need to follow a better diet, one that minimizes and even reverses Damp Heat, but do I listen? No, I keep being drawn to the foods that perpetuate Damp Heat. I guess all influences, even pernicious ones, seek to perpetuate themselves.
I’ve always hated Damp Heat.
I grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, which was built on a swamp. As a child we didn’t have air conditioning, so I spent miserable nights sweating in my bed, dreaming of fires just outside my room.
Then we move to the Virgin Islands, which is hotter still though marginally less damp. And there I develop a pernicious case of athlete’s foot, one so bad the doctors couldn’t treat it, one that looked like my toes were rotting. It was incredibly disgusting. I got an exception to the school’s dress code so that I could wear sandals instead of shoes and socks, which led to an overthrow of the dress code entirely. I was beloved of my classmates, and it was all because of my rotten toes—and Damp Heat.
Now I live in central Florida, where the summers last for a good eight months and are unrelentingly hot and humid. It’s like stepping into the breath of a very large panting dog. I live for air conditioning. I pay megabucks for air conditioning.
Maybe it’s the Crucible Effect. Maybe the gods just want me to deal with Damp Heat (and its concommitant problems, and the underlying emotional and spiritual connections that go along with it), really DEAL with it in some decisive way, so they put me in places where the environment itself exacerbates the symptoms. Maybe I’ll be purified by the intensity of it all. But right now it just feels like my life (and my body) is one big steam bath, and the door is locked from the outside.
I’m going to go have a glass of water now.