Traditional Chinese Medicine: Weight Management
By Dr. William S. W. Hong
Being overweight can cause many negative health conditions, especially for those middle-aged or older. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 2013/2014, more than 2 in 3 adults were overweight or obese, and about 1 in 6 children and adolescents ages 2 to 19 were considered obese.
America’s love of sweets contributes a lot to weight problems and other related diseases. However, resisting sweet foods is very difficult. Humans crave sweet and fatty foods as an evolutionary instinct.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, sweet foods are important elements that provide energy or qi. Unfortunately, overconsumption of sweets can easily damage the stomach and spleen. Both organs have special functions in TCM including the production of energy, blood and fluids for the body. Everything we eat and drink passes through our stomach and spleen where they’re digested and used for metabolism. From there, the digested food separates to clear extracted materials and turbid residues after extraction. Clear substances are the source of energy, blood and other necessary ingredients for the body and turbid substances are wastes to be excreted.
Sweet, sugary foods can easily hamper the creation and distribution of qi. If our bodies cannot separate the food and drink we ingest, a sticky by-product called dampness is generated. Dampness is a sticky, greasy, turbid substance like the dirty water left after washing dishes in a sink. Once formed, it is difficult to remove. It permeates every part of our bodies including our internal organs, abdominal membranes, muscles, tendons, blood vessels, skin and joints. The dampness could be understood in Western paradigms as fat, cholesterol or undissolved sugar, and can cause many problems in different parts of the body.
Dampness is the main cause of being overweight. Excessive lipids, cholesterol and other turbid substances accumulate in the form of dampness, which directly contributes to body fat. As dampness is generated by the spleen, it is initially accumulated around the belly and waist area where the spleen is located. Dampness is heavy and liquid by nature and tends to flow downwards, gradually accumulating in the buttocks and thighs. Accumulation of excessive fat eventually leads to obesity.
Due to its turbid, sticky and stubborn nature, dampness easily combines with heat from our body. Just like stagnant, dirty, warm water easily contaminates the surfaces around it, stagnated dampness could cause bodily inflammation. Many autoimmune diseases are a result of the pathological process of dampness interacting with internal body heat. Leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, interstitial cystitis and other conditions could eventually be caused by this process.
Because it is so sticky, dampness slows down blood flow and could cause cardiovascular diseases. Like cholesterol and lipids, dampness thickens the blood and body fluids and generates deposits in the blood vessels. This also explains why obesity is closely related to cardiovascular diseases.
Dampness could be the excessive sugar which is not absorbed by the body and can thus lead to diabetes. In TCM, the pancreas takes part in the function of the spleen. According to the Mayo Clinic website, the main risk factors for diabetes are obesity and fat distribution around the abdomen, thigh and hip area. This condition is a precise matchfor thesymptoms of dampness within the body.
Finally, dampness may settle in the joints and cause discomfort. As sticky, turbid dampness gathers in the joints, it disrupts proper blood circulation, which could eventually lead to arthritis.
It takes time for dampness problems to manifest. If we continue to keep feeding ourselves excessive amounts of sweets, starting from when we are young, it will be difficult to avoid dampness problems later in life. Of course, individual bodies may differ in degrees. Therefore, overconsumption of sweets may affect people differently based on other factors, such as constitution, exercise and dietary habits. Still, the chances of negative health conditions will be higher from the consequences of sweet and sugary food overconsumption.
There are many weight control methods available to choose from. TCM is one of the healthiest ways to help manage weight gain because it focuses on understanding the root causes of a person being overweight. With that understanding, a TCM practitioner can provide counseling that can gradually strengthen the functioning of the stomach and spleen so that weight problems can be managed and overcome in a healthy way.
Dr. Hong, DAOM, LAc, is a TCM instructor and acupuncture director at Texas Health and Science University, Austin campus. For more information, visit THSU.edu.