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Eat To Heal: Qi Stagnation & Blood Stasis

Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis Explained

“Stagnant qi” is something we treat every single day in the clinic. Of course, when you explain the concept of stagnant qi to a patient, they want to know more, including how the qi got stagnant in the first place, and what they should do about it. Because I explain this so frequently in clinic, I decided to write a blog post about it. Let’s start with the basics.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there’s an understanding that qi stagnation plays a role in most, if not all, imbalances in the body/mind. As you might imagine, symptoms of qi stagnation all involve a lack of “flow” and a feeling of “stuckness.” When qi is not flowing smoothly, one feels it in the body as tension, cramping, or pain, and in the mind as depression, anger, or frustration. There’s a common saying in Traditional Chinese Medicine: If there is free flow, there is no pain; if there is no free flow, there is pain.

It’s also key to understand that qi and blood are inseparable. 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 qi stagnation, you are, to some extent, experiencing blood stagnation (technically known as blood stasis).  Blood stasis typically feels more ‘extreme’ than qi stagnation, and manifests as deep, stabbing, persistent pain anywhere in the body. The pain is localized, as opposed to the more diffuse discomfort of qi stagnation. (Blood stasis is often involved in dysmenorrhea, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, fibroids, cardiac events, and some cancers). Typically, if blood stasis is indicated in your particular health issue, your acupuncturist will likely suggest herbs, as blood stasis is best treated with a combo of acupuncture and “blood-moving” herbs.

I Just Feel…”Stuck”

Car stuck in mud
Feelin’ stuck?

At least a couple times a day, I have a patient who tells me they just feel “stuck.” It’s often a general feeling, and one that we often label as “depression.” Sometimes it’s more specific than this general feeling, and patients will point to a specific part of their body (common places include the chest, low back, and tops of shoulders). As an acupuncturist, I don’t think anything about this is weird. These areas are common places where people hold stress, and stress, in the most basic sense, is qi stagnation.

The Origins of Stagnation

So, how does qi stagnation and blood stasis happen? I’d make the argument that the most significant factor affecting the stagnation of qi involves an emotional/cultural component. In fact, 21st century living is a perfect environment for disrupting the free flow of qi and blood. Though I’d be a big jerk to overlook some of the wonders of being alive during this time (as hilariously illustrated by my bigtime love, Louis CK)…humor aside, it can also be an incredibly painful experience.

Here’s a quote from Daverick Leggett, from Recipes for Self Healing, that explains a little more about what I mean:

Qi Stagnates when the flow of the creative being is stopped. When the Qi is Stagnant, any aspect of harmonious flow can be affected. We may feel frustrated, indecisive or depressed in response to the constraint of our freedom to be ourselves. Physically we may experience uncomfortable digestion, irregular or painful menstruation, headaches, tenderness beneath the ribs, or all kinds of pain.

…It is helpful to consider Stagnation as having two levels of manifestation. The first is Constraint. This is the realm of the psyche, the subtle and shifting ways in which we stifle the more raw expression of who we are. Sorting out these patterns of Constraint means exploring the “shoulds” and “dont’s” which regulate our lives and deciding which of them provide useful and necessary containers and which of them we wish to reject because they stifle our true expression of vibrant aliveness.

Constraint arises from the relationship we have with the growing edges of our being as we shape ourselves against the rules imposed by family, authority, and culture. Wherever healthy assertion of aliveness is chronically suppressed and then internalized, patterns of constraint will develop as we struggle to assert who we are against the ‘controller’ we have taken on inside.

Treating Qi Stagnation and Blood Stasis

As you might expect, treating any type of stagnation involves movement. (It’s one of the reasons people love acupuncture; a well-placed needle is a miraculous thing in regards to moving qi).

The dietary approach to moving qi and blood isn’t overly complex, and can even end up being pretty fun to practice.

  1. Eat until you’re about 70 percent full. 80 percent works, too, if that quiche is especially tasty today.
  2. Pay attention to breathing and posture while eating. In other words, as often as possible, try to sit down (your car doesn’t count), breathe, and chew your food. Taste it!
  3. Incorporate qi and blood moving foods into your diet.

Foods That Move Qi Stagnation

Symptoms: tendency to depression, frequent sighing, flares of temper, sensation of something being stuck in the throat, pain in the ribs or abdomen, uterine cramping, tension in the body that seems stuck, IBS

One easy approach to mitigating a tendency to stagnation, especially if it’s coming from eating too fast, or eating while stressed, is to take a dropperful of bitters before or after you eat (I use bitters before and after meals, especially at a food-centric event, like Thanksgiving). I prefer to mix bitters with a small glass of seltzer water. Some find that eating a segment of section of grapefruit before a meal serves the same purpose.

Use the onion family more! Includes onion, garlic, leeks, and chives.

Embrace the Brassica! Cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens, turnip, kale – all can help move qi!

Pungent/aromatic foods are your friends. Use radish, basil, cilantro, arugula, coriander seed, fennel, turmeric, cayenne, cardamom, and mint.

Incorporate sour flavored foods, in moderate to small amounts, like lemon, grapefruit, vinegar, plums, and green apples.

Try adding a little citrus peel to grain dishes or teas. Use organic citrus fruit for this. I especially love to add lemon rind to basmati rice before cooking. It’s wicked good.

tangerine peel on old wood table, shallow focus
Chen pi (citrus peel) does not directly go to the liver, but it can help move qi, especially when your digestion is feeling ‘stuck.’

Try starting your morning with a small glass of warm water mixed with organic, raw, apple cider vinegar and local honey.

Here’s simple tea for any time you’re feeling stagnant, especially digestively: Take equal parts cinnamon, ginger, and tangerine peel; simmer until a 1/3 of the water has evaporated. Add a small amount of honey. Drink up.

Limit: refined grains, sugar, fried foods, food additives, low fiber diets

Foods That Clear Liver Heat

If qi stays stagnant for long enough it will give off heat. An example of this? A traffic jam when tempers flare, or a compost pile in late spring – put your hand over the compost and feel how it gives off heat. Symptoms of liver heat, or the more extreme version of this, liver fire, include severe irritability and rage, pain and distension in the head (including migraines and headaches), insomnia, constipation, tight neck and shoulders, anxiety, ringing in the ears.

Use bitter foods to your benefit, since they are cooling. Celery, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, asparagus, and rye are all good choices.

Other cooling foods include cucumber, summer squash, tomatoes, carrot, spinach, artichoke, burdock root (gobo), lemon, lime, grapefruit, green tea, mint, and chrysanthemum.

Limit spicy foods, alcohol, coffee, lamb, beef, and trout.

Foods That Treat Blood Stasis

Heap of Fresh Ripe Eggplants isolated on Rustic Wooden background
Eggplant is specific to moving blood stasis that affects the uterus. Cramping, colicky pain in that area? Try eggplant. (To be used with moderation during pregnancy, but a great addition when trying to induce labor!)

Like stated above, since qi and blood are so closely interdependent, know that qi-moving foods are, to some extent, blood-moving.

If blood stasis is an issue for you, focus on incorporating onion, garlic, scallion, ginger, vinegar, turmeric, saffron,eggplant, shiitake, hawthorn berry (Shan Zha), cayenne pepper, and chili pepper.

Limit cold foods (like iced water and riding the ice cream train too often), as well as refined foods.