Chinese Medicine and Environmental Changes (The Six Environmental Evils)

The wacky weather patterns we have experienced so far in the Midwest during this winter of 2018-2019 have led to some interesting observations in the clinic. Many patients have been experiencing changes in their bodies that are likely related to the swings in weather conditions, and we’ve had a lot of discussion with them (and amongst ourselves as Acupuncturists) about the subject. It therefore seemed like a good idea to put out some info on this phenomenon so that our patients could build a better understanding of how environment affects the human body.

Ancient China was already a pretty big place. It covered a wide variety of ecosystems and weather zones, and that is reflected in Chinese Medicine’s understanding of how the human body functions in a wide variety of climates. They ended up settling on six major environmental conditions (or evils) that negatively affect the human body. These Evils can occur alone or in combinations to create disease or discomfort with exposure to them. Let’s take a brief look at each of them.

Cold – Cold is the first evil that comes to mind this time of year. When we think about what cold does to the body it is helpful to picture what it does to other things, like water or plants. Cold causes things to tighten, contract and stagnate. In the body it can cause immobility or stiffness. Contracture can cause pain to increase in the musculoskeletal system. Blood and other fluids “stagnate” causing increase in pain, swelling or edema.

The best way to deal with cold is to warm the body. Warming food and drink (cooked meals, hot beverages and avoiding cold or raw foods),  spices and herbs help limber up the body and increase it’s ability to flow and move. Some acupuncture points actually increase the body’s natural ability to produce enough warmth to offset the effects of severe cold environments naturally.

Heat – As with cold, its easiest to picture what heat does in materials like water, solid object and plants to picture it effect on us. Heat causes expansion, rapid movement, evaporation and limpness. As creatures who’s bodies are a high percentage water, the stirring up and drying out activities of heat are what are most often felt by persons exposed to a great deal of it. A little bit of heat actually feels pretty good, but too much can cause fluid loss, dizziness, weakness, or a feeling of one’s heart racing.

When over heated, it is important to think of things that gently cool and moisten the body. Room temperature fluids do a great job of providing the fluids needed for the body’s own cooling systems, but icy fluids actually can be shocking to a heated up body and cause more discomfort. Foods like watermelon, apples, pears, and greens are just some that can aid the organ systems in cooling down. Placing a cool, damp cloth at the spot where the back of the neck meets the spine helps activate cooling in the body. Of course, removing oneself from heat sources like direct sun and finding slightly cooler areas of shade help a great deal. Adding an electrolyte mix to your water will help your overheated cells absorb the fluids you intake even faster. Acupuncture can aid the body to open up and release built up heat from the internal organs, making one more adaptable to warm weather.

Wind – The Chinese called wind “the mother of a thousand diseases”. It’s a term used to describe both the environmental factor and a group of illnesses that usually fall into the viral category in Western Medicine. In the body there are two further distinctions: external and internal wind. For now we will discuss external wind, as it is the one more commonly related to weather.

The idea of wind in Chinese Medicine is that it drives other evils into the body. It can combine with any of the others to make their negative effects stronger on the body. Being exposed on a cold, windy day almost always feels much worse than a merely cold day. We are urged to dress to protect our vunerable areas from the weather to prevent Wind Evils from driving in and causing disease. The area of the neck and upper back, as well as our lower back are particularly susceptible to the effects of wind. It’s all too easy to skip the scarf or not wear the long, bulky coat on windy days, but that is precisely what protects one from the wind making other factor have more negative effects on us. When we were told to bundle up to avoid the cold or flu as kids, it was great advice!

Dampness – Dampness in the environment easily causes dampness in the human body. Prolonged exposure can create feelings of heaviness or dullness in most people. Other common symptoms of dampness are swelling or edema, poor digestion or lack of appetite, and foggy headedness. Some people have a tendency towards dampness because of constitutional factors and become more sensitive to this type of weather. Damp in the body, left untreated can cause phlegm to form. For more on this, see the previous blog on our site all about phlegm and stuck fluids in the body.

Avoiding cold and damp foods like dairy, sugar and sweeteners, and raw foods can help with this issue. Acupuncture and herbal treatments can help with dampness in a two-pronged approach. First, aiding the body in releasing and ridding itself of unnecessary fluids and second, by strengthening the organs involved in proper fluid metabolism and usage in the body (mainly Spleen, Lungs and Kidneys), we can resolve weather related damp feeling sand prevent them from occurring again when the weather turns wet.

Dry – A dry environment can quickly cause negative effects on the water and fluid rich human body. All materials for the cells, waste products from the cells and signal or instructive chemicals travel in fluid (mainly our blood and lymph) outside the cells and in the fluid within the cells themselves. Life as we know it does not thrive without some water. Dry weather creates evaporation of fluids from the body and dries it out. Think of how an overcooked steak is tough, leathery and unbending versus a moist one. Or, think of a drying up river; how sludgy, thick and dirty it seems versus a briskly flowing stream. Mild to moderate dehydration is all too common in a busy society where it’s hard to find time to drink enough water, let alone the time to use the bathroom after it has done its work for us. This leaves a lot of folks vulnerable to the effects of really dry air.

Proper hydration is the best defense. Room temp water, moist light foods like steamed vegetables, juicy fruits, and soups build up the reserves needed to combat dryness. Electrolytes help our cells absorb and use more of the water we ingest, getting its maximum benefit. Acupuncture can help to invigorate the absorption of fluids, move them around the body more effectively, and prevent unnecessary or excessive loss through too much sweating, urination or diarrhea.

Summer Heat – This one is a bit of a “combo” concept. It traditionally speaks of high heat and humidity combined and presents a lot like the modern idea of heat stroke. Nausea, faintness, dizziness, diarrhea and heavy dull headaches are common symptoms. This is seen more in hot, tropical and subtropical climates or in the late summer months in more temperate climates. It is often encountered by people who travel from a cooler area to a very warm and muggy one very quickly.

In this case cooling the body but also supporting the proper retention of fluids is key. It’s different because we usually see heat causing dryness and damp causing excessive fluid build up. In this specific combination fluid support is even more key because internal organs are causing even more water loss than usual heat conditions do. Treatment strategies must control nausea and diarrhea to support proper hydration as well as properly vent excessive heat and protect the organs.

What the weather means for you

Like the unique Evil called Summer Heat, the other environmental factors can mix and match creating things like Damp Cold or Damp Heat. Wind works its evil in combination with everything else. This is why it’s a good idea to consult with a qualified Oriental Medicine Professional to help you decipher the effects weather changes have on your body. Once understood, a complete treatment strategy can be created; including things like Acupuncture, herbs, dietary changes and lifestyle recommendations; to create the constitutional strength needed to make you resilient to whatever Mother Nature decides to throw your way.