A common diagnosis in the Chinese medicine clinic, particularly among menstruating women, is one of “Blood deficiency”. This may be associated with issues such as headaches, body aches, fatigue, cold extremities, poor sleep, anxiety and menstrual disorders (missing, very light, or very heavy periods, fertility issues).
This post provides information on what Blood means in Chinese medicine and simple ways to build and nourish the Blood if it’s depleted.
What is Blood in Chinese medicine?
Chinese medicine describes the basic physiological substances of the body as Qi, Blood and body fluids. Blood forms a yin-yang pairing with Qi. It is said that the Blood nourishes the Qi, and the Qi leads the Blood. Qi is the yang aspect of bodily function while Blood is the relatively yin aspect, providing substance and nourishment to the body. Blood nourishes all the body tissues and structures. Whilst it incorporates blood as we understand it in western medicine, the red substance that circulates within the vessels, Blood in Chinese medicine also relates to mental, emotional and spiritual components.
The 2000 year old Chinese medical text tells us:
‘The heart stores the vital circulation (mai) and the mai are the dwelling place of the spirits.’Lingshu chapter 8
In another classic text we read:
‘This is why to maintain (to nourish) the life of the spirits it is necessary to know the state of repletion or emaciation of the body; the rising of power or the decline of blood and qi. The blood and qi are the spirits of a human being. One cannot but pay attention to their maintenance.’Suwen chapter 26
The health of the body, the Blood and Qi, is inextricably linked with spirit and our mental-emotional wellbeing. This is why strategies to nourish and build Blood also involve lifestyle, not just dietary additions.
When Blood is sufficient and healthy, the complexion has a healthy glow, the body feels warm with clear sensation throughout. The hair is lustrous, nails are strong, the eyesight is clear, and the body is relaxed and limber. There is a feeling of being calm and grounded. Menstruation is not too heavy, not too light.
What does it look like when Blood is depleted?
When Blood is depleted there may be dryness, tension and spasms in the body, numbness or feeling cold especially in the extremities. The face, tongue and fingernail beds may appear pale. There can be spots in the visual field, thin dry hair, hair loss, prematurely greying hair, headaches (particularly following the period), for women – light or missing periods or very heavy periods, and fatigue. Sleep may be disturbed or light; it may be difficult to fall to sleep or you commonly wake at around 3am.
With insufficient Blood, someone can experience nervousness or anxiety and be less resilient to emotional waves and daily ups and downs.
There may be a western medicine diagnosis of anaemia, although this is not a one-to-one equivalent diagnosis to Blood depletion in Chinese medicine.
How does Blood become depleted?
A modern lifestyle is extremely taxing on Blood. Overworking, working late at night, emotional stress and worry all consume Blood and impact on organ systems (such as the Heart) that govern or produce Blood.
A poor diet of too much refined foods, fried foods, coffee, alcohol, sugar, prescription or recreational drugs damages the digestive system and stresses the Liver function. A healthy digestive system is needed to efficiently extract nutrients from the food and drink we consume, to produce healthy and plentiful Blood. The Liver in Chinese medicine theory “stores the Blood”, detoxes and assists its smooth flow in the body. A weak digestion and stressed Liver leads to deficient Blood.
For a woman, the monthly loss of menstrual blood means extra attention is required to ensure Blood is nourished. When periods are particularly heavy or long, Blood can easily become depleted.
Looking at screens for too long, and into the night, depletes the Blood through taxing the Liver. There is a correspondence between the Liver and the eyes in Chinese medicine.
How can Blood be rebuilt or maintained?
Lifestyle and dietary factors are equally important in maintaining or building Blood.
It is essential to maintain a healthy working digestion to produce Blood. This means eating a balanced wholefood diet, adequate hydration, eating at regular meal times, avoiding cold foods and drinks (such as straight from the fridge) and getting to know what supports your individual digestion. If your digestion is out of sorts, it can be helpful to consult a natural health practitioner to work towards a healthy digestion.
Find ways to support your mental and emotional wellbeing, and reduce stress and overwork. A meditation practice, daily supportive physical exercise (yoga, walking, swimming etc), having fun with friends, can all be helpful here.
For women, the time of menstruation is particularly important. While menstruating get plenty of rest, avoid over-exertion, and keep your body warm especially the legs and feet. You may also start to notice that if you’ve had a particularly stressful phase leading up to your period, that you get more discomfort and feel fatigued during menstruation, and the monthly migraine/headache is more likely to appear.
Nurture your emotional wellbeing. Being creative can help – dance, draw, sing, write,… whatever it is that brings joy and flow. At times you may need to deep dive and do your emotional work. In Chinese medicine, emotional blockages lead to Blood stasis and the Blood no longer flows freely carrying the spirit. To build Blood, the Blood must move. Working on clearing unresolved emotional issues frees the flow of Blood, and allows your system to make new Blood.
Get enough sleep. This means going to bed by 10pm at the latest so that you can be deeply asleep during the most regenerative yin time of the night – from 11pm to 1am.
Avoid eating late at night; finish eating dinner two to three hours before going to bed. This has to do with the energetics of the Stomach (digestion) and the Liver in Chinese medicine. We want to Liver to turn its attention to nourishing and storing Blood during the night time, however if there is food in the digestive system, the Liver Qi will be directed to the Stomach instead. Thus Blood nourishment is compromised.
From a western medicine perspective, iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 are needed to help build blood. Adequate protein is also needed. To help absorb iron, B-vitamins, copper and vitamin C are necessary.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is interesting to know that the foods that nourish Blood contain the minerals and vitamins that build the physical substance of blood. However, these foods have been recognised through their forms, colours, organ associations and energetics.
Understanding food energetics makes it easy to remember the properties of the foods, without needing to recall long lists of random food items. I like to summarise Blood-nourishing choices by recommending that people include “green and red” foods. So these include:
Red foods: beetroots, berries, grapes, pomegranates, goji berries (better digested after soaking in hot water), chinese red dates (jujube), red meat and bone broth
Green foods: green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, silverbeet), compact vegetables (broccoli, cabbage), nettles and nettle tea, seaweeds and micro-algae (spirulina, chlorella), sprouts (lightly steamed to temper their excessive cooling properties)
Other foods that are important additions for building blood include: grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Black beans, sweet potato, pumpkin and carrot.
For severe blood deficiency, animal liver is a strong blood tonic.
When a variety of whole foods are consumed, abundant nutrients and vitamins are usually available to assist iron absorption.
Sometimes we need additional support to help nourish and build our Blood. This can take the form of Chinese herbal medicine to provide stronger blood tonics than can be gained through diet alone; and acupuncture to help manage stress, alleviate emotional stagnation, and support efficient functioning of organ systems involved in building or governing Blood.
I hope you found this helpful!
Feel free to get in touch if you have questions, or you’d like to work with me in clinic.
Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash