Blood is blood is blood, right?

Nope…Asian medicine’s definition of Blood is a bit different than that of Western medicine’s of blood (I’ll use the lower case b when speaking of blood from a Western medicine perspective).  Yes, it’s the red stuff in the veins that nourishes the organs, circulates, warms, and heals, but it has a few more properties in Asian medicine terms. Blood is enlivened with Qi, which moves the Blood through the body so it can nourish every aspect of our body from the skin and muscles to the brain and deep organs. It doesn’t just nourish the physical body it also anchors our Shen – but I’m jumping ahead.

It’s not just quantity, but the quality of Blood circulating through your system that helps give us vitality, focus and rosy cheeks. When Blood is abundant you feel alive, nourished and well connected in mind and spirit.  We allow joy and laughter into our lives and build and maintain meaningful relationships. When Blood is deficient a person will feel weak, tired, have a pale complexion or become anemic, they may feel anxious or easily startled, have breathlessness and palpitations. Fortunately there are many ways to nourish Blood, but let’s look first at Blood’s job.

The Asian Functions of Blood

Nourishes and Moistens – Blood, a very dense Yin form of Qi, nourishes and moistens all aspects of the body.  It flows everywhere and circulates constantly.  Blood also requires Qi to move it, so if the body lacks Qi….the Blood won’t flow. It is Blood’s job to take nourishment and moisten to our organs, limbs, tissues – everywhere in the body.   We also say,  “Where the Qi goes, the Blood flows,”  so if either one is lacking, the other will be depleted or start to deplete as well. Blood must be abundant for us to have energy and vitality, to have strength, to grow, build and heal. It is required by all organs and all processes in the body.  If it is weak the dominoes start falling quickly.

Houses the Mind (Shen) – The Shen is one of 5 souls that Asian medicine corresponds to the Yin organs.  Each soul has influences and has responsibilities over our thoughts and emotions and together they encompass the entirety of our mental and spiritual life.  Here’s a quick list of the souls and where they reside.  

When our Shen, nicely snuggled up and housed in our Heart, is nourished with abundant Blood we respond appropriately to our environment.  It allows us to build meaningful relationships, be calm, experience joy and to feel rooted and to be able to adapt.  When the Shen is unsettled or not anchored with Blood emotional problems arise. Symptoms may include: anxiety, nervousness, dream disturbed sleep, mood swings, depression, sensation of floating out of the body, inability to root or ground, speech disturbances like stuttering, palpitations or irregular heart rates, breathlessness, exhaustion, insomnia and an inability to form rewarding relationships. In extreme cases there may be irrational behavior, hysteria, insanity, manic disorder and delirium. We definitely want our Shen anchored.

How Blood is made

To understand Blood a bit better, lets see how it’s made in Asian medicine terms. It’s a bit of trip and many different organs are involved, so hang on.

The food and drink that we take in are transformed in the digestive organs under the supervision of the Spleen to make Ku Qi (Qi of Food). The Spleen then sends the Ku Qi upwards to the Lungs where it is mingled with Ta Qi (the refined Qi of Air).  This combination gives us Nutrient Qi that is then moved to the Heart, where Jing (Essence) from the Kidneys are added and Blood is formed.  Yes, the physical manufacture of the red stuff (blood) is done by bone marrow which is ruled by the Kidneys in Asian medicine, but this function is done under the supervision of Heart which can only do so if it received adequate Nutrient Qi from the Lungs and the Spleen.  There’s so much to transform…to recap.

The Spleen – Provides Ku Qi (Qi of Grain) basis of Blood from our food and drink. My students called it the Blood batter–the basis for your Blood. You simply cannot build Blood if you do not eat food, do not eat quality food or have problems digesting it. I’ve seen a significant increase in Blood deficiency and anemia over the years due to extremely compromised digestive systems and people’s relationships to food, especially inappropriate fasting or radical dietary changes. 

The Lungs – Provides refined Qi of air (Ta Qi) to mingle with Ku Qi and create Nutrient Qi. 

The Heart – Uses Nutrient Qi and adds in Jing to make the Blood.

The Kidneys – Provide Jing (Essence) and Yuan Qi, a catalyst that sparks all transformative processes in the body.

If all of these organs are functioning properly and are given adequate supplies, we create Blood. If any of these organs are weak or lacking in their required substances, deficiency will arise.

Great, we’ve made Blood!  Now it needs to be managed.  

The Heart – The Heart is the ruler of the Blood. It physically pumps the Blood and enlivens it with Qi, and uses it to house the mind (Shen), keeping us warm physically and emotionally, and we are calm and clear.

The Lungs – Move the Blood through their descending and dispersing function. Each breath you take helps to regulate your Heart’s beating and to move Qi, Blood and Fluids to organs and the extremities. Need better circulation? Practice breathing exercise like Qigong, Yoga or T’ai Chi and move your body. 

The Liver – Regulates the volume of Blood circulating at any given time in the body.  During exercise or times of need, it releases more. During times of rest, it pulls it back in to cleanse the Blood.  If it’s deficient, the Liver will not have adequate amounts of Blood to move and this may lead to stagnation.  Deficiency of Liver Blood will also mean the skin, hair and nails aren’t nourished and moistens or will fail to thrive.

The Spleen – Holds the Blood.  Eh?  One of the Spleen’s major functions is to hold things in their place. When it comes to Blood, the Spleen holds the blood in the vessels. A failing of this function can mean easy bruising, prolapse, incontinence and varicosities.

As you can see, it is quite the refined system and if at any given time an organ system chooses to not play its part, and Blood becomes deficient, the system will start to tumble and problems will start to manifest.

Although there is no direct translation of Blood deficiency in Western terms, we can describe many patterns that may arise from, or are a part of, Blood deficiency. Like other patterns Blood deficiency exists on a continuum from mild to extreme.  A healthy woman may experience a little Blood deficiency right after her menstrual cycle.  This may leave her feeling a little weak, cold and maybe a little pale in her complexion.  In health, with a little rest and the right foods, she would recover from this quickly, whereas deficiencies that have been allowed to perpetuate or become extreme, like anemia, may take months to fully rebuild from.

Symptoms of Blood deficiency

  • anemia
  • anorexia
  • anxiety
  • blood loss
  • brittle and dry nail, hair and skin
  • cold limbs
  • depression
  • dream disturbed or restless sleep
  • dryness
  • easily awakened
  • easily startled – boo!
  • exhaustion
  • feeling of weakness in the limbs and muscles
  • irritability
  • lack of warmth – both physically and emotionally
  • mood swings
  • nervousness
  • nervous laughter and laughter at inappropriate times
  • numbness, tingling, limbs and extremities ‘going to sleep’
  • pale complexion
  • pale nails
  • palpitations
  • sadness
  • scanty or absent periods
  • sensation of cold
  • skin conditions – some eczema and vitilago patterns, and dry skin
  • slow growing hair and nails
  • slow healing and recover
  • slow mental thought
  • weak immune system

Asian medicine practitioners look will look for a tongue that is pale on the edges or pale overall in more severe cases.  The pulses will be weak and fine, especially on the Liver position.

Why do we become Blood deficient? 

Here’s a quick look at the reasons we might become Blood deficient

  • Irregular eating habits
  • Lack of adequate rest or sleep
  • Constitutional (born with it) factors such as weak Heart, Kidney, Lungs or Spleen
  • Malnourishment
  • Excessive blood loss including excessive menstrual flows
  • Pregnancy, labor and nursing
  • Weak digestive system
  • Excessive mental and emotional overwork or stress
  • Excessive physical labor

Tips for building Blood

Eat food – I know, it sounds silly to say, but I’ve actually often have to say this to clients. You cannot build Blood if you do not eat. The basis for Blood is the refined Qi of food.  The higher the quality of food and better your eating behavior, the faster the recovery will be.

Eat with joy – Part of nourishing Blood is the willingness to be open to receive nourishment and to feed yourself well.  Although supplementation may be called for in some cases, it is not the same thing as actually enjoying meals where you taste the food and allow it to replenish you. This is key in patterns where there are Shen (spirit) disturbances.

Improve your digestion – The basis of Blood is food, but even if you eat well and beautifully, you will have problems building Blood if your digestion is weak.   It might be that you need prebiotic and probiotic foods or to eliminate some foods like gluten that can slow or hinder the system.  Seek out guidance from your nutritionist to understand how to improve your digestion.

Eat regular meals and avoid fasting – The energy that you use today, should ideally come from the foods you are putting into your system last night and today…not your store houses.  Those are to be there for times of need–which, if you are Blood deficient it is likely that your storehouses are empty.  With Blood deficiency it is very important to not skip meals. Please, please, be careful with fad diets! Many of them eliminate particular foods or are too restrictive when it comes to rebuilding Blood. With Blood deficient clients I want them to eat within an hour of waking and to eat every 2 1/2 to 3 hours, small meals for a steady rebuild. 

Nourish Blood after times of blood loss  – Rebuild after any type of blood loss, including menses.  I recommend women learn to include specifically building foods after their cycle to rebuild so you don’t feel exhausted. A life time of bleeding or child bearing without proper rebuilding can lead to serious problems later.

Take a nap – Proper rest is important for nourishing and rebuilding Blood and Qi. Napping in the early afternoon is particularly beneficial, giving your Liver and Spleen a chance to revitalize the Blood.

Avoid foods that deplete Blood – Sugar, excess salt, fatty foods, processed and refined foods, chemical laden foods–you know…junk and manufactured foods.

Cook in cast iron – a simple way to increase your iron intake.

Use Blood building foods – Any food will help, but some are very specific to building Blood.  Like begets like.  Foods that are dark, red like Blood, are big builders.

Eat animal, broths or blood foods – If you do eat animal products, they can build Blood fast. However, please make wise choices with sustainably raised, GMO and hormone free. Animal protein and fish will quickly build Blood too, so add a little in if you choose to.  What’s a little?  3-5 oz. 3-5 x a week–yep, that’s all.  Darker meats and organ meats are the most building – but use only clean, GMO and hormone free meats that have been sustain ably raised.  Time for a little paté?

Bone broth – Marrow stock is deeply nourishing and quickly builds the Blood, Qi, Yang and Fluids.  I sometimes toss in egg shells into the stock pot (incredible for ligaments and Blood).

Eat blood foods – No, I’m not asking you to become a vampire, but blood builds Blood.  Most traditional culture foods have dishes that utilize blood – the Irish have blood pudding, the Korean’s have congealed blood soup, there’s blood sausages – the list goes on.  Although they are not favorites of mine, you might have been raised eating blood sausage that could benefit you now.  Again, know your source and keep your meat and blood free of GMOs and hormones.

Eat chlorophyll rich foods – This category is huge, with good reason, we are meant to eat a lot of chlorophyll rich foods and they build the blood quickly. Chlorophyll rich foods include dark leafy greens (kale, chard, dandelion, etc.),  macro-algaes (seaweeds), micro-algaes (spirulina, etc.), nettles and cereal grass (wheat and barley grass).  Eat it if it’s naturally green.

Use a blood/iron builder – Plant based liquid forms of iron are excellent. My favorite is Plant Force, which we have available at Pulse.  For those who are very deficient use 2 capfuls a day. Others may need a capful 1 x a day or for a just a few days after menses or times of extreme fatigue and stress.

Take Vitamin C – it aids the body’s ability to absorb iron.

More Blood building foods – 

  • all animal proteins including organ meats
  • apricots
  • berries
  • black beans
  • Blackstrap molasses one of my favorite ways to rebuild quickly. 1 tsp of blackstrap, 2 x a day with vitamin C.
  • cherries
  • dates
  • eggs
  • figs
  • lentils and legumes – they are high in protein, B vitamins, folic acid and fiber
  • grapes
  • whole grains

Here’s to rosier cheeks and a more energetic you.

Be well,