Blood Deficiency

The Concept of Blood in TCM

Blood and qi. Inseparable, yet different.
Blood and qi. Inseparable, yet different.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of blood is equally important to the concept of qi. Blood can be thought of as a “denser” form of qi. Its movement through the vessels and meridians is powered by qi, while at the same time, blood reinforces the strength of qi. In other words, if you experience blood deficiency, you are, in essence, experiencing qi deficiency.  And vice versa. According to TCM, blood is (mostly) derived from the food we eat. The quality and amount of blood we have is dependent on the Spleen, since the Spleen is a key player in transforming the food we eat into nourishment. Blood deficiency is often closely related to poor absorption and congestion (dampness) that results from low-quality food choices and rushed eating (see my post on The Spleen for more information). Chronic stress, chronic worry, overwork, long term illness, heavy menstrual periods, childbirth, traumatic events, and acute blood loss can also cause blood deficiency. But here’s the good news. Treating blood deficiency can be wicked fun!

Got Blood?

In TCM, blood is the substance that soothes consciousness and sleep. Sounds awesome, right? Having “enough blood” means that you feel present in your body, and the experience of this crazy, unpredictable world is somewhat softened…which is exactly why a person with blood deficiency can feel like the world, in all it’s unpredictability, is absolutely terrifying, and might stay up at night counting tragedies instead of sheep. When there isn’t enough blood to soothe and soften the experience of Life, then things like anxiety, insomnia, and muscular/emotional tension begin popping up. The world starts to feel like a precarious place  – which is why it drives me crazy when people toss around overly-simplified pieces of advice like Just let go! and Just relax!  These aren’t helpful suggestions when blood deficiency is the underlying cause of imbalance, and the insistence that a person “just relax” is likely to make those blood deficient peeps feel crazy when they find that they’re having a difficult time simply dropping their shoulders from their ears.

Blood Deficiency and Bodies With Uteruses

If you can remember one thing about this post, let it be this: If there ain’t enough blood in the body, it’s gonna be real hard to relax. I can’t tell you how many patients (often those who menstruate, those who have given birth, and those who are perimenopausal) I’ve seen in the clinic who wonder why they struggle with an inability to relax. They worry that they are “freaking out” about nothing. They wonder why they spent last Saturday on the beach trapped inside their head rather than in the water – and while everyone else built sand castles, they sat on their blanket making lists and preparing for a host of potential obstacles that might come their way. Even a riveting novel and a iPod full of good music isn’t shutting down the ol’ brain – and  is that child DROWNING or simply splashing about?

Menstruation, Gestation, and Lactation

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), menstruation, gestation, and lactation all depend on blood, and all have the potential to leave you drained of it. Some of the most blood deficient patients I’ve seen are people with a history of heavy or prolonged menstrual periods and (almost all) postpartum moms.  Countless new moms have come to the clinic, riddled with anxiety and wondering what the heck is wrong with them. Ever since having this little miracle, they feel…well, miserable. Though they express feeling blessed that the Little Beastling has finally arrived, they are absolutely whacked out and ready to cry or scream or punch a wall at the drop of a hat.

In fact, since having Little Beastling, their anxiety has skyrocketed, their sleep is disrupted, they’re exhausted and fearful, and they are trying, more than anything, to escape the pressing claws of… yes, postpartum depression. Ya’ know what I say to that? OF COURSE you have postpartum depression! Because “postpartum depression,” from a TCM perspective, is most often an issue of moderate to serious blood deficiency. And we’ve already established that blood deficiency isn’t a ride in the park.

Because of the simple fact that (most) people with uteruses menstruate, most of these people have a tendency to blood deficiency. Even if you’re not menstruating heavily, there’s a good chance that you’re still deficient. Combine this tendency toward blood deficiency with damaging expectations around gender roles, unattainable and obnoxious beauty standards, and a pitiful level of respect for maternity leave (i.e. recovery for those who decide to have biological children or adopt). Then, of course, there’s the reality that unless you have the resources (including the time, the money, the access, and the information), preparing truly nourishing meals and sitting down to enjoy them isn’t super easy to pull off. (In some households, though Mom may work all day, in or out of the house, it’s still expected that she make the meals because some people hang on tightly to 1923.)

Bun in the Oven?

Consider the process of gestation, in which the developing fetus is dependent on the mother’s blood. If mom gives birth she will lose blood  (in some cases, extreme amounts of blood). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, breast milk is also formed from the mom’s “blood,” so if the she chooses to breastfeed, then she’s at risk of becoming even more deficient without proper rest and nutrition.

The most ironic thing about all of this? It’s after having the child that a new mom/new family needs the most care, not before! The reverse Cinderella syndrome recognizes the phenomenon that a ton of support is directed at expecting moms; there are baby showers, back rubs, nursery-painting parties – all meant to help the transition into parenthood. All of this is thoughtful and sweet, but it’s the newly postpartum moms that are in need of all that extra support and love. This also applies to families who adopt; adding a new member to the family can be very stressful, whether or not you’re a bio-parent.

The Oven, Post-Bun

Feel free to cook her dinner every now and then. Being a new mom is really tough work. Trying to balance a career with parenthood is like hiking Everest on roller skates. Weeeeee!!!!
Feel free to cook her dinner every now and then. Being a new mom is really tough work. Trying to balance a career with parenthood is like descending Everest on roller skates. Weeeeee!!!! Ohhhhhh crap! Ahhhhhh! Ughhh. Ugh.

In many circles, the importance of postpartum-love is acknowledged. It’s considered essential to take care of new moms for at least 6 months after birthing the baby; in fact, it’s called “mothering the mother.” Personally, I don’t care what it’s called. You could “father the mother”, “father the father,” “friendie the friend”  – the term implies that those who have added a new member to the family could use some extra help.

But this doesn’t happen in our culture. After baby is born, many moms stay home, often alone, trying their best to care for this new creature that needs constant attention, and she often puts her own recovery on the back burner. It’s easy to instantly forget about yourself when you have a wrinkled newborn in front of you, gazing cross-eyed at your hovering face and smiling ever-so-slightly before spitting up milk everywhere.

So, yeah. Lots of people (most often moms) put their own recovery on the back burner, and sometimes accidentally leave it there forever.

Let’s just put it this way. One of the best ways to help a person dealing with blood deficiency would be to visit with healthy meals – see my post on how to treat blood deficiency with some ideas.

If you have 11 thumbs in the kitchen and want to help in another way, take that sweet little parasite from her arms every now and then so she can nap without the baby. I, for one, remember every single nap I took sans baby in my first year of being a parent.  I remember them because I woke up feeling oddly…restored.