It usually starts off with signs that fall below the radar: low-grade depression, bouts of insomnia, poor short-term memory, maybe even dry skin and hair. So we drink an extra cup of coffee to wake up, complain a bit more than usual, write things down to remember them, get a stronger conditioner for our hair, and take half an Ambien to fall asleep. Every so often you get a craving for a burger and feel better for a bit, but it never lasts long. What does it all mean?
One of the most common issues I see in the office is what's known in Asian medicine as Blood deficiency. And, yes, that's blood with a capital B because it's not the same blood we think of in biomedicine. This patient resource guide includes an explanation of Blood deficiency and suggests supplements that help build blood, food to boost nutrient absorption, and things to avoid.
Blood Deficiency Defined
Any acupuncturist will tell you that blood does more than run through veins and oxygenate cells. It lubricates joints and allows for smooth movement. It keeps our tendons, skin, and hair healthy and flexible. It sustains the mind and is considered the material basis for mental activity. Blood deficiency in Asian medicine is more than iron deficiency; it's a condition involving a lack of protein building blocks, B vitamins, folic acid, trace minerals, and other nutrients, creating a situation where there's simply not enough good quality blood to nourish the body.
When our bodies are full of strong, healthy blood, we can get a good night's sleep. Our mind is nourished, we're able to remember things easily, and we feel more grounded in our thoughts. Our mind is calm because our soul knows our body is nourished. The overall feeling of having strong blood feels like we have our act together, that we have vitality to take on the day. We feel complete – stable and grounded in our physicality. We're comfortable in the space we take up, and our presence in the world is nicely situated.
Blood deficiency in Asian medicine does not necessarily equate to anemia, though many of the same symptoms can be present in both of these conditions. Instead, it means that the blood is not nourishing important organs and systems. The reason we struggle to wrap our heads around this as Westerners is because, even with an Asian medicine diagnosis of Blood deficiency, your clinical lab work may indicate that everything is fine or just below average.
Over time, however, the signs of Blood deficiency can escalate to include vertigo, blurred vision or spots before the eyes (floaters), fatigue, lassitude, poor muscle tone, muscle tightness and cramping, numbness in the extremities, pallor, pale lips and nail beds, PMS, scanty or difficult menstrual periods, amenorrhea, a persistent feeling of cold, heart palpitations, or anxiety/nervousness. The symptoms range in intensity, and blood deficiency does not necessitate all of them.
There are a whole host of reasons we wind up like this:
- Inherited tendencies or genetic issues
- Prolonged prescription medication use
- Poor diet as a child, poor diet as an adult, history of dietary abuse such as anorexia or bulimia
- Hormonal imbalances leading to excessive menstrual blood loss
- Excessive blood loss while birthing a child or due to an accident
- Faulty digestion including malabsorption (e.g. colitis, diverticulitis, Crohn's disease)
- Mineral, trace element and vitamin deficiencies
- Abnormal gut flora
- Vegetarian or vegan diet
- Parasites (most commonly flukes pinworms, and roundworms are most common)
- Stress, grief, or prolonged situational depression
- Auto-immune disorders
- Long hours that demand our attention and energy to go beyond healthy limits
- A long habit of not caring for ourselves as much as we care about others; always giving out to others often has an imbalance in nourishing one's self.
The good news is that Blood deficiency as defined by Asian medicine can be easily corrected. When the emotions are kept in check and the body is balanced, able to assimilate nutrients, and provided with the resources needed to create blood, it can do so fairly quickly. Supplements, herbs, foods, and increased health consciousness are what will help your body start building strong blood to nourish your mind, body, and heart.
Supplements That Build Blood
When our bodies are full of healthy, strong blood - our heart feels as if it could soar.
Sometimes we need a little help from our friends. When used only when needed, supplements can do a world of good by giving your body some support to lean on. Even though I'm an herbalist by trade, I prefer to see if a simple supplement added to the diet will help before jumping to a stronger herbal prescription. These six supplements are what I commonly recommend to patients who are vegan/vegetarian, who have a history of intestinal problems such as diverticulitis, or women who tend to have heavy menstrual cycles. I usually have patients take one or two of these depending on their symptoms; if that doesn't work, individualized herbal formulas are the next step:
Floradix Iron + Herbs: This is one of the most gentle and non-constipating iron supplements on the market. It's safe for pregnant women to consume, and with regular use, I have seen it be life-altering for patients.
Stress B Complex: B vitamins are one of the most important nutrients needed to help build blood; however, the right combo is just as important. Many people prefer a simple B12, but that's often not enough – few realize that B vitamins work best when taken with a small amount of vitamin C. Blue Bonnet makes one of the better complexes on the market because it has the right mix of the right vitamins in the right amounts. Be careful when purchasing; because B vitamins tend to contain GMOs, it's important to look for non-GMO labeling on the bottle.
Buffalo Liver Pills: Nature provides what we need, and liver is one of the quickest ways to build blood. A daily dose of pâté is less than appealing for most, but freeze-dried encapsulated liver powder is a great alternative. Carlson Labs created this product using a private herd of range-fed buffalo raised on unsprayed land. This is something that generally only needs to be taken short-term.
Colostrum: Colostrum is the initial milk produced in mammals during the late stages of pregnancy and is a blood-building food. Colostrum is high in antibodies and nutrients needed by newborn mammals to build blood after birth. Most colostrum on the market is from bovines and is incredible at helping the body to build blood.
Chlorophyll: A true super-nutrient, chlorophyll is almost molecularly identical to our red blood cells, the only difference being that it has a magnesium molecule at its center instead of an iron molecule. This makes chlorophyll beneficial to our health as a powerful blood builder. Chlorophyll delivers a continuous energy transfusion into our bloodstream, replenishing and increasing red blood cell count.
Black Strap Molasses: It is well established that synthetically derived or composed mineral supplements are not as beneficial as naturally nutrient dense whole food sources. This variety of molasses contains iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and manganese – all things needed to build blood. I often recommend patients mix a tablespoon a day with a slice of raw ginger and warm water to drink as tea.
You Are What and How You Eat
A simultaneous blessing and curse to being human is that our very survival is dependent on food. You may be eating all the “right” things, but that's only half the equation. Overeating, eating too fast, preoccupations while eating, or eating at irregular times can wreak havoc on your digestion, leading to poor absorption. How you eat is just as important as what you eat.
Enjoy your food: Eating should be an absolute pleasure, even if the meal is a simple apple or bowl of oatmeal. Pleasure switches your brain into relaxation mode and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for full, healthy digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Avoid stressors or distractions: When we eat lunch in front of the computer or dinner in front of the television, we're not allowing our body to focus on digestion. The switch in your brain that turns on stress, anxiety, and fear (the sympathetic nervous system) turns off digestion and assimilation. This creates a bio-chemical mess; your body is unable to absorb the nutrients you're eating while simultaneously increasing your output of cortisol and insulin, thus sending a signal to your body to store fat.
Stop eating like your stomach has teeth: Take time to delight in your food and savor its nourishment through the simple act of chewing. You may find you don’t actually enjoy certain foods as much as you think you do, or that it doesn’t take as large of a portion to satisfy you when you slow down the pace. Take the time to chew your food instead of swallowing it in chunks. Digestion starts in the mouth!
Eat until you're about 80% full: The Japanese saying "hara hachi bunme" directly translates to "belly 80% full" and can be traced back to Confucian teachings. However, the Japanese expanded the proverb to "eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor."
Meal planning: It's human nature to eat what's at hand when hungry – including whatever is in the vending machine, at the corner deli, or the quickest Seamless web delivery. Meal planning means controlling what goes into your body when instead of shoveling down whatever’s convenient out of desperation.
Eat your colors: The more color on your plate, the healthier the meal. It takes nature a lot of work to create those colors, and the brighter the hue generally means the greater the nutritional value.
Ensure not to eat too much of any one food; variety and balance are key. Below is a list of foods in Asian medicinal food therapy prescribed to help one build blood. That being said, our ancestors in medicine didn't have GMOs, Pacific Ocean nuclear contamination, grain-fed animals pumped full of antibiotics, pesticides, or industrial chemicals in the food supply to contend with.
Eating for pleasure and nutrition = eating clean.
Animal products are one of the quickest and most surefire ways in Asian medicine to build blood, but they can also carry the greatest risk of hiding unknown industrial byproducts in them based on how they were raised. It is absolutely imperative when eating meat to eat organic, to eat animals that were fed appropriately, and to eat fish from clean waters.
Whether we like it or not, genetically modified organisms (GMO's) are in the food supply and something of which to cognizant. The Non-GMO Project is a non-profit organization committed to preserving and building the non-GMO food supply, educating consumers, and providing verified non-GMO choices. Clean eating also means eating foods that have not been sliced with animal or bacterial DNA since the jury is still out as to its effects on our personal genetics.
Eat dark-colored foods: Vitamin B12 and iron add a reddish tone to foods and darken the overall color. Dark-colored foods, like blueberries and black plums, tend to have higher levels of antioxidants.
Take care in cooking: Destruction of color through overcooking is an indication of nutrient loss. That being said, vegetables which have been lightly cooked are easier for the body to digest than raw vegetables. Boil and steam food as opposed to roasting because high levels of heat destroy many nutrients. Lower heat preparation methods preserve many nutrients.
Eat a combination of protein sources that provide different types of amino acids. Varieties of proteins provide more types of materials to your body.
Eat fermented foods: Fermented foods contain B12, and there is some suspicion that fermented foods do a better job of providing nutrition than the unfermented variations.
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Button mushrooms
- Dandelion leaf
- Dark leafy greens
- Shiitake mushroom
- Sweet Potato
- Sweet rice
Beans / Nuts / Seeds
- Black sesame
- Black soya*
- Kidney beans
From the Land
- Chicken Eggs
- Red meat
- Bone marrow
- Liver / pâté
From the Sea
Spice it Up
There are a few Asian herbs known to help build blood, which often double as pantry spices such as licorice, ginger, red dates, citrus, and cardamom. These are all easy additions to any meal and will not only give it flavor, but help your body assimilate all the amazing nourishment you're feeding it.
What to Avoid
There are a number of foods that can work against both you and your digestion. Below is a list of items to be limited and in some cases completely avoided until you're symptom-free.
Caffeine should be eliminated because it inhibits absorption of iron. It also promotes poor blood sugar regulation and cravings for simple sugars which reduce blood quality. Tea, coffee, and cocoa should not be consumed with meals since the polyphenols in these beverages inhibit the absorption of non-heme iron (found in vegetables, grains, and legumes).
Things that gunk up the works such as dairy or greasy / heavy / oily foods can inhibit digestion and nutrient assimilation. Building blood is all about giving your body access to the right materials via what you intake through the diet; therefore, anything that deters healthy digestion deters strong blood building.
Become a label reader and avoid purchasing anything when you don't understand everything on the ingredient list. Many preservatives, food coloring agents, and other chemicals added to packaged food act as hormonal disruptors, which make it difficult for the body to assimilate nutrients from food.