In the same way the blood draws gases from the air, the blood draws its nutrient supply from the Earth. All our important blood nutrients come from the Earth’s bounty, as the food we ingest is processed in the intestinal tract. Nutrients are absorbed from the intestines into the portal vein system, and then move directly into the liver, which is responsible for cleaning our blood through filtration and detoxification processes. For this and other reasons already discussed, the quality of the air and food is critical to keeping the blood healthy.
We can compare the blood to a trucking company carrying oxygen and nutrients to the tissues and cells, and carrying away waste products for elimination. To accomplish these parallel tasks, the body uses its many vessels and ducts, an enclosed system which function like a road system for the serum “nutrient trucks,” red blood cell “ oxygen trucks,” and immune system “debris removers.” Additionally, the lymph system ducts draws away more fluid wastes. If the blood is pure and full of nutrients and oxygen, and the processes of waste removal and circulation are operating efficiently, the cells will remain healthy.
There are tiny grooves inside blood vessels, and as the blood is pumped through the heart (picture the hand squeezing the knot) it swirls outward, creating a centrifugal force that helps propel the blood cells into the tissues. As early as 1932, scientists photographed blood flow in embryos. In the embryonic stages before the heart developed, they demonstrated that the blood circulated in two separate, self-propelled spiral streams (Bremer, 1932). If the arteries and blood vessels become congested with inflammation and plaque buildup, it creates turbulence that defeats this mechanism leading to selective starvation or over-feeding of tissues. This can lead to critical problems before there is a full blockage leading to a stroke or heart attack.
Blood Circulation— Natural Diagnosis and Treatment
All herbal traditions put a great emphasis on the crucial processes of regulating and improving blood circulation. Many destructive changes to the heart, liver and all other tissues can be avoided if we keep the blood healthy. Some herbalists have gone so far as to say that if the blood is clean and healthy there will be little or no disease. There are several herbal approaches to blood circulation that can be applied to treat a large number of health disorders. The protocol you select will depend on your treatment goals. These basic goals are:
• To nourish the blood
• To improve poor circulation
• To move the blood
• To reduce blood congestion and stasis
• To remove excess blood fats
• To cleanse the blood of inflammation
Blood Deficiency—Diagnosis and Treatment
The herbalist’s concept of blood deficiency takes on greater significance when you consider the predominance of nutrient deficiency in the general population today. According to Naturopath and best-selling author Michael Murray, N.D., comprehensive studies sponsored by the U.S. Government have revealed marginal nutrient deficiencies in a substantial proportion of the U.S. population (approximately 50%). More than 80 percent of certain age groups consume less than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of select nutrients (reported in Murray, 1996).
The first step in correcting blood deficiency is making sure nutrition and digestion are as optimal as possible. We can then use herbs to tonify the blood directly, many of which are listed in the blood-nourishing group. The Western idea of anemia is similar to, though more limited than, the TCM and TAM concepts of blood deficiency. We can diagnose and treat blood deficiency with herbs even when blood tests indicate sufficient red blood cells or other blood parameters. The major symptoms of blood deficiency include a pale tongue, weak thin pulse, dryness (especially skin), fatigue, coldness, vertigo, drowsiness, general malaise, heart palpitations, poor digestion, and loss of libido. This is more important than it sounds. Long term problems with poor blood circulation can contribute to many, many disease processes, especially those related to what Western medicine terms “autoimmunity.” The reason for this is that the immune system will release inflammatory cytokines in respose to various blood imbalances. In such cases, just using antiinflammatories will prove insufficient.
To nourish and build the blood, I use a variety of herbs from the blood nourishing group, but especially dang gui root, alfalfa, shou wu root, yellow dock root tincture (Rumex crispus) and white peony root (many of these are contained in the formula called sheng fa). Algae such as spirulina (S. platensis) or chlorella are also valuable. Ayurvedic doctors also extensively use shilajatu, as well as mandura bhasma, a form of iron ore oxide, which is purified by cooking with various herbs. Herbs which nourish the blood are usually prescribed by traditional doctors along with digestive herbs such as white atractylodes or trikatu to ensure absorption.
In severe cases of blood deficiency there may be blood loss or bone marrow deficiency (from chemotherapy or advanced age). In these cases I use stronger tonics, concentrating on strengthening the bone marrow with deer antler.
When the white blood cells are low, they can be increased by combining herbs from the blood nourishing group and the immune system group, such as ginseng root, dang gui root, maitake mushroom, millettia stem, astragalus root and shou wu root. We will discuss this more in the sections on the immune system, where I break down the effects of herbs on specific white blood cells and immune system chemicals.