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Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: The role of Blood according to Chinese Medicine

Chinese Medicine (CM) offers a fascinating take on the body, its organs, their functions, energetics and interactions. Certain Chinese Medicine concepts have made their way into common Western usage, namely Qi (the energy in everything) and Yin and Yang (the need for balance, as epitomised by the circular symbol of Yin and Yang), but beyond these there are many other concepts, such as my favourite - Blood - which are not well known.

Blood as a Chinese concept has a more intricate function than the blood of Western understanding, at least in terms of its effects on emotions and mental health.

According to Chinese Medicine, Blood (which is spelt with a capital B) is a Yin substance and as such its characteristics are deemed feminine in nature: Yin is related to the night, to darkness, to depth, the cold, receptivity and passivity, to name but a few. In contrast Qi, to which Blood is inextricably linked, embodies more masculine traits of warmth, action, brightness, lightness and restlessness. Blood and Qi rely on each other to function: Qi as a concept promotes the idea of movement, so Qi assists the Blood in its movement around the body; Blood in turn feeds Qi, giving it the strength to carry out its activities. 

Blood itself is made from a combination of the Qi energy that we get from good quality, nutritious food, from the air that we breathe and also from a special type of Qi that comes from our Kidneys, which Chinese medicine theory considers very significant organs. Sitting as they do in the lower back, they are to be protected at all costs, which is why many Chinese people wear a scarf, or sash around their midriff, to keep the Kidney area warm - the Kidneys after all are believed to give us our fire and zest for life, so they really do not like to feel the cold, as it stops them from working efficiently. The Kidneys receive their Qi in part as an inheritance from our parents and in part from the lifestyles that we lead: too much of a fast paced, 'modern' existence depletes Kidney Qi, while slow paced and focused, energetic exercises, such as T'ai Chi and Qi Gong, help to conserve it. In short then, to have a healthy Blood supply, it is important to eat well, breathe well and not rush around.

In physical terms, when the quality and quantity of Blood is copious and nutritious, it flows and cascades like a fountain, fulfilling its primary mission to nutrify the most vital parts of the body and once it has completed this task it overflows into other areas, which are still important, but less vital. The Liver is considered the storehouse of the Blood and is said to 'open' into the eyes - if the body has not got a good storehouse of nutritious Blood (or to use Acupuncture speak, if the Liver Blood is deficient), the eyes can be dry, or the vision blurry or impaired. Similarly, Blood is responsible for moistening sinews of the body (tendons and ligaments) and when it is deficient there can be symptoms of joint pain and rigidity, cramping and muscular weakness.

So why then is Blood so important in terms of the mind?

Blood is governed by the Heart, which also controls the blood vessels. The Heart is referred to as the Emperor of the organs and is so important that it has its own protective agency to guard it, called the Pericardium, which acts as a buffer to protect against injury to it. The Heart relies on a healthy flow of Blood from the Liver storehouse to keep it strong; if the Blood flow is weak (due to poor diet, weakened breathing and a fast-paced lifestyle), the body naturally starts to flag and tire. 

The Heart also houses something called Shen, which could be translated as 'Spirit', and which also encompasses our feelings and emotions. When Blood is strong, Shen is strong, which in turn means that our emotions and mental health are balanced. This manifests as clear thinking, fast thought processes and the uplifting presence of a person who feels good to be around.

Conversely, when Blood is deficient, the Spirit is weakened and emotional health and mental wellbeing are compromised. In this situation the deficiency of Blood can lead to poor memory, indecisiveness, depression and other mental health disorders. 

Since the Heart controls Blood and its vessels, Shen therefore travels around the body via the arteries, veins and capillaries, which is a fascinating concept and quite different from the notion that our emotions and feelings live in our heads, or in our minds. It may also then lend credibility to the idea that people who self harm are cutting themselves to release difficult feelings and emotions. 

Any situation where there is Blood loss, be it through injury, menstruation, nose bleeds or childbirth etc. should be monitored for a potential knock on effect within the body and mind and the best place to begin with keeping Blood healthy is diet. Bone broths are considered an excellent dietary source due to Blood being made in bone marrow, and red meat (in moderation and preferably organic) is also recommended, along with beans, legumes and green leafy vegetables. Chinese Medicine theory also supports the idea that foods which have a colour similar to Blood, such as beetroot, dark berries, salmon and molasses can be helpful to building healthy Blood.



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