Working out the Constitution

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First impressions & Uncertainty

Genetics largely determine what constitution a person is. Everyone is born to be one of the four constitutions and then other factors, such as upbringing, environment & nutrition, influence how far they sit towards the centre or the edge of each of the spectrums of hotter to cooler and dryer to damper.

However, no-one ever sits exactly on the centre of either spectrum. Everyone, without fail, from every race and culture, tends to be at least a little hotter or cooler, and at the same time tends to be at least a little dryer or damper. Therefore everyone has one of four constitutional archetypes that they belong to.

Sometimes, and the more you practice this, the more those sometimes will happen, it can be easy to identify a person's constitution. Their 'look', their manner of moving and speaking etc. are so characteristic, so 'constitutional', that any questions you might later ask are mainly to check if your initial impression was in fact accurate, and there really is no need to have any further 'healthy doubt'.

However, many times, you will see that people are complex and contrary and that their constitution does not seem obvious at all, especially when you get started with this. Naturally, you will feel a sense of uncertainty when this happens and I have two comments I want to make about that right at the beginning of this chapter.

The first is to not worry if this happens to you, especially when you are trying to work yourself out, which is nearly always the hardest person to be sure about! If you go through the following process of 'working it out' with yourself, or someone close to you, and you still have some doubts at the end of it, then do not despair. There is now a new eBook on the website (linked at the end of this page) that goes into this fascinating and sometimes complex subject of 'working it out' even further that is highly likely to help.

The second comment is that It has now been seen many times with the students of our college, the Southern Institute of Medical Herbalism, that the person who struggles with this the most at the beginning is often the one who ends up getting mastery with it the soonest. I see that it is precisely because they have needed to be in some doubt that they have remained so open and have therefore learned this material so rapidly and well. Their doubts have made them look more closely at themselves and others in order to see the constitutional patterns that are always there, under the surface, influencing everything. The main thing to remember is to not rush to be sure, to keep being open and to trust that, if you keep looking and taking in impresions, that you will always eventually get it.

The value of uncertainty is re-emphasised a number of times in this work, it is not something to be feared or avoided but rather it is to be embraced! Uncertainty helps us to avoid confirmation-bias's, it keeps us open, receptive and willing to learn.

When you eventually do see a person's constitution without doubt, and you have some understanding of what it means to be cooler or hotter, dryer or damper, you will see many other aspects of how these things effect who they are, their nature, and their health. It is most interesting, and helpful knowledge.


Hotter to Cooler

It can be best to start with the hotter to cooler spectrum because this is usually the easier one to work out and sometimes just one or two questions can be enough to check the validity of an earlier impression or perhaps tell you more about whether the person sits closer to the middle or the edge.

I have written out the following questions much as I tend to ask them in real life. The reason for this is to demonstrate how they need to be asked in as open manner as possible. It is very important that people answer honestly, not with what they think might be the 'right' answer that you are looking for!

Get more easily

1) "Do you feel the heat more easily or do you feel the cold more easily - is it easier for you to get too hot or too cold?"

I tend to ask the first question above in two ways like this because it gives a person a chance to consider their answer. Don't rush them, if they don't feel any pressure to answer quickly then they are more likely to consider the question openly and give you an honest, truthful answer.

No-one wants to feel too hot and certainly no-one wants to feel too cold. People like to keep their temperature within a quite narrow margin of comfort. That said, everyone sometimes gets too hot or too cold and, if they think about it, they can usually say which happens more easily and often.

Note that, the further a person sits to either side of the spectrum the more easily and emphatically they tend to answer this question. A decidedly cooler constitution may quickly exclaim 'the cold!' whereas a markedly hotter constitution can straight away say 'too hot!'

Affected more deeply

2) "What do you think troubles you more, or affects you more deeply, getting too hot or getting too cold?"

There might not be a need to ask this 2nd question if their answer to the first one was quite emphatic but, if they seemed uncertain, then it can be useful to get them to think about how they feel when they get too hot or too cold and which affects them more deeply, i.e. which they dislike more!

Remember, no-one wants to feel too hot or cold, but hotter constitutions are usually more discomforted by becoming too hot whereas cooler constitutions are usually more discomforted by becoming too cold.

Embrace Uncertainty

Before we go further, I want to say something more about uncertainty again because, right from the first one or two questions, there will be people for whom it is not clear which side they are on!

If you will learn this marvellous, ancient system, you must learn to embrace uncertainty. People are complex and so are their problems, it is ok to not always have the answers right away.

One of the main reasons you won't always get an emphatic answer is that, whilst no-one ever sits exactly in the middle, it is quite common that a person will sit closer to the middle on one of the two spectrums. Interestingly, when this happens, they always seem to be much further to one side of the other spectrum. So, for example, if they seemed quite closer to the middle of being hotter or cooler, they would likely be quite decidedly to one side or the other of being much dryer or much damper, and vice versa.

There are other reasons that some people will not be able to give definitive answers to these questions. We are talking about 'nature' when we are looking at constitutions, but there is an equally profound effect on a person from their 'nurture'.

A person's nurture, their upbringing, their environment, their culture, can all deeply affect how they experience things like temperature, how they dress, even how they take their tea as we talk about in a moment!

If you know this and can be comfortable with the complexity that all this entails, you will soon find that you absorb information at all kinds of levels to help you gauge whether a person is innately hotter or cooler, dryer or damper because, truly, everyone is more one or the other.


Dressing up or down

3) "Imagine you are at an outdoor gathering where it's casual dress, comparing yourself to other people there, would you be likely to be wearing more layers of clothing than average or less layers of clothing than average?"

Keeping in mind cultural differences or things like how a person might feel about their body, this can be a useful question for picking out the cooler constitutions who may be well aware that they need to have extra layers to keep comfortable and have often looked at others in short sleeves, open shoes etc. on cooler days and wondered how they can do it!

Hotter constitutions are usually less aware of their need for extra layers so may look a bit vague when asked this question, unless they are further out to the edge of the spectrum and have heard a few comments about how hot-blooded they must be to only need to dress so lightly.

This question can also be morphed into how a person compares themselves to others in their home or work environment because, if they are a 'hottie', then they may be the one who often wants to open windows, turn off heaters, throw off bed-covers etc. but if they are a cooler constitution they may be the one who is more likely to want to shut the windows, turn up the heat, add blankets etc.

Sipping style

4) "When you get a hot drink of something, do you prefer to sip it whilst it's still hot, or do you prefer to let it somewhat cool down first?"

As mentioned above, this kind of 'how do you take your tea?' question one can be much influenced by habit and upbringing but, it can still be a useful question to ask, because there's often a correlation with the cooler constitutions naturally wanting to sip their drinks while they are still hot, whereas the hotter constitutions don't need the extra heat and are more likely to let their drinks cool down somewhat before they want to have them.

Two of Four

There are more ways to assess the hotter to cooler spectrum when we get to the section on 'observable patterns' so do not be concerned if you still feel quite uncertain, that is very ok.

However, if you have already clearly identified yourself or the person you are assessing as being a hotter constitution, then you or they are going to be either an Eagle or a Tiger, whereas if you clearly identify yourself or the person you are assessing as being a cooler constitution then you or they are going to be either a Bear or an EB (Elephant/Butterfly).

How you know which of the two hotter or cooler constitutions you or they are is then determined by where they sit on the second spectrum; dryer to damper.


Dryer to Damper

The dryer to damper spectrum can be trickier to work out in some people but it will be patently obvious in others. Remember to ask the questions of yourself or the person you are doing this with in an open way and be willing to take an overall impression if there are any uncertainties.

Hard or easy (to sweat)

5) "Do you think that you sweat quite easily, or does it take a lot to get you to perspire?"

Naturally, the answer to this question will be affected by the person's level of fitness and the kind of climate they are in but there is usually an association with dryer constitutions taking more to perspire.

A person who is markedly dryer on this spectrum may say that it is quite hard for them to get a sweat going and that they need to be working out or being active outdoors in hot weather for them to sweat at all.

Conversely, a person who is on the damper side of the scale will usually sweat more easily, and at the further edge of the spectrum may perspire quite generously in normal everyday life, as the need to change shirts, sheets and pillows more frequently might attest.

Skin type

6) "Generally speaking, would you say that overall your skin tends to be more oily or more dry?

I imagine the reason for this question is quite obvious. Dryer constitutions have dryer skin and damper constitutions have oilier skin and it can certainly be useful to know that the further a person is towards the edges of the spectrum, either dryer or damper, the more dry or oily their skin is likely to be.

However, even though this can still be a good question to ask, people aren't always the best at gauging themselves. They tend to think about the skin they treat with skin-products, or shave, and this can change it considerably from its natural state.

In practice, I may simply observe their skin dryness vs. oiliness for myself. I can see their face and neck, I will see some of the skin on their chest if I listen to their heart, I will feel their hand and wrist when I take their pulse.

Keep embracing uncertainty!

I'm coming back to this again because there are only two questions left and you may still be feeling uncertainty on many of the questions, perhaps on all of them!

One of the biggest conditionings that go into our 'nurture' is our education and, whatever system we've been through, one of its lasting effects can be that we can feel very uncomfortable when we don't know the 'right' answer to a question.

Again, this really is ok, please trust that getting any of this right is not a matter being clever or especially perceptive, rather it is about remaining open and continuing to take in impressions until the uncertainty dissolves by itself and it all becomes clear.



7) "Now I want to ask you about mucus! The 'goo' that we can make in our mouth, nose, throat, even our ears. Do you think that you are quite a generous mucus producer, or would you say that you are a fairly scanty mucus producer?"

This question, and the next one about bowels, are naturally a little gross for some people. If I still need to ask them by this stage, and many times I will because I may not be completely certain yet and I want to keep getting more information, I usually ask in quite a light-hearted way with a smile. No-one seems to mind, and they can usually say 'generous' or 'scanty' without any or much embarrassment.

This can be a particularly useful question to bring out the damper constitutions because, whilst a dryer person may not be much aware of making much mucus, and so give you a kind of blank look or a half-hearted response, the damper a person is the more they know they produce plenty of bodily fluids.

That said, you must be careful not to be thrown by a dryer person with some kind of environmental allergy or chronic infection that is giving them some congestion because they always find mucus particularly uncomfortable and if even a little bit of it is there they will emphasise its presence when asked.

The mucus the dryer constitutions produce is quite scanty, but it is also prone to getting lodged and stuck, whereas damper constitutions make mucus that is usually much runnier and easier to pass. If in doubt you can ask, 'when you do get mucus does it tend to be quite runny and easy to get rid of or does it tend to get thicker and hard to get rid of?'


8) "Ok, so now I'm going from mucus to bowels! If we said that a normal bowel motion was like a soft, ripe banana, would you say that you were usually like that or that you tend to go somewhat softer and looser or somewhat harder and dryer?"

Again, asked with a smile, no-one has any trouble saying, 'ripe banana' or 'softer and looser' or 'harder and dryer'. People who tend markedly to the dryer side of the spectrum are often prone to getting dryer stools and may even suffer from constipation, whereas people on the damper side quite commonly get looser motions.

This can be a useful question however, this depends greatly on the diet and health of the bowel so don't be thrown if the answer to this one seems in contrast to the general pattern.

Two of Four

There are still further ways to assess the dryer to damper spectrum when we get to the section on 'observable patterns' so do not be concerned if you still feel uncertain.

However, If you or the person you are assessing has clearly identified with being a damper constitution, then you or they will be a Tiger or a Bear, whereas if you or they clearly identify with being a dryer constitution, then you or they are going to be an Eagle or an EB (Elephant/Butterfly).

One of Four

Again, don't worry if you still aren't sure because there is more information to come. However, if you or the person you are assessing can be clearly seen to be towards one side of the hotter to cooler spectrum and, at the same time, you or they can be clearly seen to be one side of the dryer to damper spectrum then you may now know which one you or they are. The blue links below take you into the detailed article on each of the individual constitutions.

~ If you are both hotter and damper then you are a Tiger
~ If you are both hotter and dryer then you are an Eagle
~ If you are both cooler & dryer then you are an EB (Elephant/Butterfly)
~ If you are both cooler & damper then you are a Bear

~ Tigers: Hotter & Damper

~ Eagles: Hotter & Dryer

~ Elephant/Butterflies: Cooler & Dryer

~ Bears: Cooler & Damper


Observable patterns

It is most interesting, and very helpful, to use your senses to deepen your impression of the constitution by observing the complexion, the voice, the hands, the tongue and the pulse.

The Complexion

On average, the further a person tends towards the hotter side of the spectrum the ruddier will be their complexion and, vice versa, the more a person tends to the cool side of the spectrum the paler they will typically appear.

You must be aware that other factors can influence this though, the level of sun-exposure obviously, but also things like anaemia that can cause paleness or a chronic inflammatory condition that can cause the skin to flush.

It can also often be visibly apparent as to whether a person has a more dry or oilier skin and so you can get an immediate impression as to whether they are likely to be more on the drier or damper side of the spectrum.

The Voice

A person's voice is as unique as their fingerprints but there are observable patterns amongst the constitutions. On average, the hotter constitutions tend to speak a little more loudly and 'heatedly' whereas the further a person goes to the cooler side of the spectrum the quieter their natural speaking voice tends to be. Of course, this can also be much affected by factors such as how confident they feel with whom they are talking as well as how they feel about what is being said!

The dryer to damper spectrum shows up in the voice in more subtle ways - dryer constitutions tend to have an airier 'timbre' to their voice whereas damper constitutions have more density in their tone. This is a hard thing to describe but if you tune into I'm sure you will start to hear what I mean in some cases.

The 'Quicks' & the Nails

Under the nail is a rich bed of blood vessels that is easy to observe by simply looking at an unpainted nail- this is called the 'quick'. Hotter constitutions typically have redder 'quicks' whereas the cooler a person is the paler their 'quicks' tend to be.

Dryer constitutions will often have dry skin around the edges of their nails and may have some visible brittleness in the nails themselves. Damper constitutions often have an untreated 'sheen' to their nail whilst the skin around it may start to look a little puffy if they become overly congested.

Tongue & Pulse Diagnosis

A person can gain immediate insights into whether a person has a constitutional nature to be cooler or hotter, dryer or damper, along with many other useful indicators, by simply looking at their tongue and learning how to feel their pulse.

This subject is much too complex to be easily summarised so, for students or practitioners of natural medicine, or for those who have a deep interest in this subject for their own reasons, there is an in-depth article on the ancient art of pulse and tongue diagnosis, where there are many further references and associations to the constitutional patterns, it's found here


The Weather

In cold weather, it can be easy to spot the constitutional types who sit further to either side of the cooler to hotter spectrum. On the exact same day, you may see 'cooler' constitutions well wrapped up with extra layers and boots whilst 'hotter constitutions can be walking around in short sleeves and open shoes.

Not so visible, but certainly notable, is that dryer constitutions tend to express relief when, after a dry spell, the rain finally comes whereas damper constitutions can feel rather oppressed by a run of wet weather and feel much better when the clouds lift, and things start drying out.

The weather is of at least some interest to everyone, and the older we get the more it seems to matter! What follows are some small snippets of how the different constitutions tend to experience the weather, but these should not be taken as diagnostic signs. People have a range of preferences, especially according to what they grew up with and what they are used to, and there will be many exceptions to these examples.


By virtue of already being hotter and damper, most Tigers feel quite out of sorts in muggy, humid weather and get much relief when it cools down, or the humidity is released by the rain.

Some Tigers can struggle with getting too hot at night, which can then wreak havoc on their sleep. They may be wise to cool themselves down before they retire for the night by, for example, running cold water over their feet for a while, or having an 'air-bath' to get their body temperature down before sleep.

Most Tigers can handle the cold better than most and they also don't tend to mind strong dry heat. In fact, many Tigers are quite comfortable and drawn to climates where they can get nice and hot, so long as they can sweat it out!


Probably not a good idea to gauge Eagles by their weather preferences. Many Eagles have high metabolisms so they don't much feel the cold however plenty, especially if they are rather thin or sensitive natured, can really hate to be cold and may mistakenly give the impression of being a cooler constitution unless other signs and factors are taken into account.

What can be seen is that many Eagles are instinctively drawn to live near water or to at least have water around them. They may not thrive in arid climates or excessively dry weather and can feel much better when there is at least some humidity in the air or in nearby water.


Many EBs feel the cold quite badly and will notice that it effects their joints and circulation. They may also find that arid climates or overly long dry spells leave them out of sorts and can feel much better when the weather moistens up, many find themselves to be natural lovers of clouds!

EBs dislike cold winds as much as anyone or more but, equally, if there is no movement in the air they can start to crave the moisture that fresh-air brings and may feel compelled to open windows regardless of the external air-temperature.


Most Bears start to feel oppressed or out of sorts from too much cold or rainy weather and do much better when things properly heat up and dry out.

If the sky is blue and the sun is shining, they can do well to literally dry out in the sun. Or, the next best thing for them to dry out can be to get near a fire.

Of all the constitutions, it is the Bear that is the most likely to look confused when you ask them 'is it easier for you to get too hot or too cold? Many could go either way on this one and, depending on the time of year or their home or work environment, they may give a different answer. That's ok, other information will make the picture clear and it says something useful about Bears, how they need to take care not to get too cold or hot and, as with other areas of life, need to find that happy place in the middle.

Free eBook on Constitutional Complexity

Written especially for students of holistic medicine as well as others who have their own good reasons to delve deeply into these subjects, in September 2022 a new and free eBook was released called Constitutional Complexity. It is divided into four parts, the first being all about the quirks and challenges of working out the constitution - more here

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!




© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd