What's That Smell?

In Chinese medicine, we have several ways of gathering information about patients. The most common ways are asking, observing, and palpation. During the intake, the questions we ask provide most of the information needed to form a diagnosis. We might also palpate areas on the abdomen, or along the areas of pain, to learn more. Simply looking at the patient can tell us a lot about the patient's diagnosis, as well. Colors in the face, body shape, and details of the facial features can reveal imbalances and issues within the system...but I will discuss that further in the next blog entry. One less commonly used way to learn about patients is through smell. Yes, your stench can give us hints as to what your underlying issues are. I have a feeling that this method was much easier to utilize before the days of regular hygienic maintenance. In these days of Axe and deodorant and fluffy creams and lotions from Victoria's Secret, it is rare to catch a whiff of any natural aromas of patients. In theory, though, an unbathed patient would emit an odor according to which organ system is out of whack.

Now, bear in mind that these scents are subtle, and not easily detected. Someone with a Liver imbalance, or who has a Liver constitution, would smell rancid. Heart imbalances can lead to a scorched smell. Someone with a Spleen issue would have a sweet or fragrant aroma. People with Lung issues smell rotten, and Kidney imbalances lead to a putrid smell.

This does NOT mean that I will start sniffing you like a beagle when you come into my office. I have very rarely smelled any of these odors coming from a patient, and they are not really a part of my diagnostic process. If I do get a whiff of one of these odors, I simply file it away in the back of my mind to help confirm my diagnosis in the end. Smell-wise, the important info is about the odors of bodily secretions.

Halitosis (aka "bad breath") is usually a sign of Heat in the Stomach, or Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine. Actually, strong and foul smells of any area are generally a sign of excess Heat, and a lack of odor signifies excess Cold. A sour breath smell can indicate that food is not being processed correctly, and is sitting around rather than digesting. If the patient is coughing up foul-smelling phlegm, it is a sign of Heat in the Lungs. Non-smelling phlegm=Cold in the Lungs.

When going au-naturale, most people don't exactly smell like roses...but if the sweat is particularly strong and offensive, it could be a sign of Damp-Heat in the system. If the sweat is putrid-smelling, it could be indicative of lung, kidney, or liver disease.

Most women have issues with excessive vaginal discharge occasionally. If this discharge smells like leather, it can lead to a diagnosis of Damp-Heat; if it smells fishy, it is probably Damp-Cold. As previously stated, when a smell is strong, it is usually due to a Heat pattern; so if the odor of the discharge is very noticeable, it is probably a symptom of excess Heat. If the odor is slight, or not detectable at all, think Cold.

Especially foul-smelling stools? It could be either Heat or Damp-Heat in the Intestines. If the bowel movement lacks a smell, and is paired with a pattern of irregularity, it could be interior Cold. And while we're on the topic of stools, let's talk about gas: again, foul smells are likely Damp-Heat in the Large Intestine. If the lovely odor of rotten eggs is pervading the room, there could be some Toxic Heat in your Intestines. And if there is no smell at all, it is a sign of Spleen-Qi Deficiency.