Working with the River of Life

     In Greek Medicine, blood, or the Sanguine humor, is the essence of life and health.  To maintain vibrant youth and good health, it's important to cleanse this most vital of all humors, and keep it in balance through constant regeneration and renewal.
     Herbs are the main therapeutic agents used to adjust and regulate blood, or the Sanguine humor.  In countries where it is legally permitted and part of the system of traditional medicine and healthcare, venesection, or bloodletting is used to adjust the Sanguine humor by draining off the excess, and to alter the dynamics of its flow.  Cupping, or Hijama, either wet or dry, is another important therapy for dispersing or redirecting the flow of blood.  The therapeutic principle here is derivation, or drawing blood away from a point of congestion or stagnation. 
     In herbal medicine, herbs that adjust, cleanse or purify the blood are broadly referred to as alteratives, because they bring about profound alterations in a person's state of health for the better.  Alteratives are of many different kinds, and bring about many different kinds of beneficial changes in the blood, according to their traditional indications. 


Working with Blood

     There are a number of different arenas, or kinds of health conditions or disorders, in which we must work primarily with blood, or the Sanguine humor:
     Bleeding Disorders most obviously call for an adjustment of the Sanguine humor.  Herbs that stop or staunch bleeding are called hemostatics, and do this through various mechanisms of action.  Some stop bleeding directly through an astringent action that draws the wound closed, or coagulates the blood.  Other hemostatics work by cooling the blood and draining excess heat from it.  Chinese Medicine says that excess heat in the blood makes it wild and reckless, causing excessive bleeding; in Greek Medicine, we say that the blood "boils over".
     Wounds and Traumatic Injuries also require us to work with the blood, to enhance its natural ability to regenerate tissue and heal wounds through granulation and the formation of scar tissue.  Herbs and medicines that do this are called vulneraries or cicatrizants, because they aid in the process of cicatrization, or the formation of scar tissue.  Many wound and trauma herbs either have a glutinative property that thickens the blood in granulation and tissue generation, or an astringency that draws wounds together, or a little bit of both properties.
     Boils, Pustules and Abscesses are caused by the accumulation, ripening and excretion of pus, which Greek Medicine sees as a toxic byproduct of a spoiling or  putrefaction of the blood.  Alteratives with anti-purulent properties cleanse the blood of these purulent toxins.
     Skin Rashes and Urticaria are usually caused by the buildup of excess heat and choler in the blood.  The remedy is to cool the blood with cooling alteratives specific to these skin conditions.
     Devitalization Disorders result from either a deficiency of blood, as in anemia, or from tired blood, with a deficient or compromised vital function.  To treat anemia, blood tonics are used to help the organism generate more blood.  For tired blood, thymogenics are used to activate the blood, improving its circulation, as well as its immune and vital functions.  Modern scientific research has shown that many thymogenic herbs stimulate the phagocytic immune activity of the blood.  Since blood is the humoral vehicle for the vital principles, the vital capacity of the blood must be kept in peak condition for optimum health.
     Cardiovascular Disorders require treatment with herbs that thin the blood and disperse its stagnations and congestions.  Hemolytics are blood thinners that are useful in dissolving clots and embolisms.  Vasodilators dilate the arteries and blood vessels to stimulate and improve the flow and circulation of blood.  Cordials are heart tonics, many of which are useful in lowering blood cholesterol levels and improving the aerobic efficiency of heart muscle.  Herbally, there's a high degree of overlap between hemolytics, vasodilators and cordials and thymogenic herbs. 
     Menstrual Disorders most obviously involve working with the Sanguine humor, since women shed a considerable amount of blood in their monthly periods.  Emmenagogues are herbs that stimulate the menstrual flow when it is suppressed; many have considerable blood tonic and/or thymogenic properties.  Other emmenagogues have hemolytic properties that dissolve blood clots and disperse blood stagnation in the uterine and pelvic areas, which is the source of much pain and suffering in menstruating women. 
     The use of thymogenic herbs is an important part of natural herbal therapy for cancer.  Medical research dating back to the 1920s has shown that cancer cells thrive in oxygen poor environments where the vital function and circulation of the blood is poor.
     Stimulating the circulation, vital function and tissue regeneration capacity of the blood is also important in treating arthritis and rheumatism.  When normal circulation and blood supply to the joints is chronically compromised, degeneration overtakes regeneration and morbid deposits accumulate in the joints, initiating arthritic changes.


Superstar Herbs for the Blood

     I'd like to discuss a number of herbs here that have excellent virtues for adjusting and regulating blood, or the Sanguine humor.  This selection is by no means comprehensive, but it should give you a good idea of what herbs can do to optimize the purity, consistency and vital properties of the blood, which is the essence of life and health.
     Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria) -  Agrimony is a good example of a hemostatic herb that stops bleeding.  It can stop bleeding from the stomach, coughing up blood from the lungs, and also in the urine.  The astringent properties of Agrimony give it its hemostatic powers.  Agrimony is also an astringent tonic that strengthens the stomach and liver, two important digestive organs of the Natural Faculty that are crucial in the formation of blood and other humors.
     Angelica (Angelica archangelica) -  This is the European Angelica, of which both the root and the seeds are used medicinally.  The seeds are more carminative, but the root is an excellent tonic and vitalizer of the blood; it is also a great emmenagogue and menstrual tonic for women.  Angelica is also classified as a cordial herb, or a heart tonic because of its beneficial effects on the circulation.  Angelica is also an herb that resists poison by detoxifying the blood and the liver.
     Blessed Thistle (Carduus benedictus) -  Blessed Thistle is the famed digestive bitter and chief herb for the Benedictine Liqueur, taken to promote the appetite and relieve indigestion.  But it also has a number of beneficial effects on the blood; Blessed Thistle is a thymogenic herb that activates the blood and its circulation, particularly to the extremities.  It is also an emmenagogue, relieving menstrual cramps and regulating the female cycle, and a galactagogue that promotes the flow of milk in nursing mothers. 
     Calendula (Calendula officinalis) -  Calendula is used extensively in homeopathic salves and tinctures as a vulnerary that promotes the healing of minor wounds, cuts, irritations and abrasions, as well as muscular sprains and strains.  Internally, Calendula is also a blood purifier in abscesses and purulent conditions; it also cleanses and improves blood flow through the liver and the hepatic portal system, and is useful in treating hemorrhoids.  Calendula is also used as an emmenagogue in suppressed menses.
     Dragon's Blood (Sanguis Draconis) -  Dragon's Blood is so called because it is a red, gummy resin that is bled from a species of tropical palm tree.  In traditional medicine, it is used as a powerful vulnerary to speed up the healing and granulation of wounds, being used topically in wound dressings and the like.  The Doctrine of Signatures and classical Greek natural philosophy is at work here; not only Dragon's blood, but various other tree resins are used as vulneraries to speed up the regeneration of flesh and to heal wounds.  You see, when a tree gets cut or injured, it secretes resin at the site of the injury in order to heal itself; the same inherent healing and mending powers of these resins can be used to heal wounds in men as well.  Resins are also powerful thymogenics that vitalize the blood and improve its circulation; they also have strong disinfectant powers as well, due to the aromatic principles they contain.
     Elder Berries (Sambucus nigra) -  Elder berries are a great blood tonic and vitalizer, due to the natural abundance of iron, anthrocyanins and bioflavonoids they contain.  They are also a tonic for the circulation and vascular system, and help maintain vascular tone and elasticity.  The berries are also a tonic in recovery from colds, and for chronic consumptive fevers of the blood, in addition to having mildly laxative or aperient properties that relax and soothe the bowels.  By improving blood supply and circulation to the joints, Elder Berries can bring relief to stiff, aching rheumatic joints.  By cleansing the blood, Elder Berries are also a mild diuretic.  Virtually every part of the Elder tree can be used medicinally, but the berries are the part most specific to the blood.
     Feverfew (Chrysanthemum parthenium) -  Feverfew is famous as a remedy for migraine headaches, which it does by dilating the cranial arteries and blood vessels, and also lessening their inherent tension, iritation and inflammation.  But Feverfew also works well as an emmenagogue to regulate the menstrual periods and reduce cramps; it also has carminative and antispasmodic effects to relieve gastrointestinal bloating, colic and discomfort.
     Frankincense (Boswellia carterii) -  Frankincense is gaining increasing recognition as the source for Boswellin, an aromatic compound that relieves rheumatic pains and stiff, aching arthritic joints.  Like Myrrh, with which it is frequently used, Frankincense is a tree resin with glutinative properties that generate tissue and speed the healing of wounds and trauma.  But Frankincense is lighter in nature, and its aromatic principles more volatile and penetrating, to vitalize the blood and stimulate the flow and circulation of its vital principles.  Frankincense also opens up the urinary passages and soothes irritation and inflammation in them. 
     Ginger (Zingiberis officinalis) -  Ginger is probably the most perfect, balanced metabolic stimulant in the herbal kingdom.  But in addition to stimulating the digestion and metabolism, Ginger also mildly vitalizes the blood and stimulates its circulation.   Fresh ginger also cleanses the lymph, which supports the blood. 
     Hawthorn (Crataegus oxycantha) -  The Hawthorn is a small tree of the Rose family that bears berries.  The tart Hawthorn berries have been clinically proven to lower blood cholesterol and act as a soothing, sedating tonic to the heart.  The Hawthorn leaves and flowers are lighter and more dispersing in their nature and energetics, and have a stronger action as a thymogenic blood vitalizer, circulatory stimulant and vasodilator. 
     Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris) -  Lady's Mantle, as the name suggests, is one of the foremost women's tonics, and is useful in curbing excessive menstrual bleeding, and even preventing threatened miscarriage, due to its drying, binding astringent properties, and its ability to strengthen the Retentive virtue of the spleen.  Lady's Mantle is also useful in drying up and curbing leucorrhea and menstrual discharge.  Lady's Mantle is also unsurpassed as an astringent and vulnerary herb in the healing of wounds and traumatic injuries.
     Melilot (Melilotus officinalis) -  Melilot is also called Sweet Clover, and is closely related to the better known Red Clover.  Its abundance of fragrant Coumarins give it strong blood thinning and thymogenic blood vitalizing properties.  Melilot is also soothing, cooling and detoxifying to the blood, purifying it of excess heat and choler, as well as purulent toxins.  Melilot has traditionally been used in putrefaction and septic conditions of the blood, and to avert gangrene.  Melilot is also a useful alterative in skin rashes.
     Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) -  Motherwort is so called because it is given as a uterine tonic to postpartum mothers to shrink and tone the uterus after childbirth.  Motherwort is also a good thymogenic and blood vitalizer, dilating the arteries and improving the flow of the Vital Force as well as the blood.  In stimulating the circulation, Motherwort also has mild diuretic effects that reduce bloating and improve fluid metabolism.  The species name cardiaca comes from the fact that Motherwort is also a potent heart tonic, due to the abundance of Calcium Chloride it contains.  Motherwort is also an excellent emmenagogue, to stimulate a sluggish or suppressed menstrual flow.
     Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) -  Mugwort is a warming, stimulating emmenagogue and blood vitalizer with an ability to remove excess cold and Cold dystemper from the blood, and also from the uterus, where it can interfere with female fertility and cause cold, deficiency bleeding, which Mugwort will treat.  Mugwort is excellent for menstrual cramps caused by coldness.  Mugwort, particularly the fresh juice, is very cleansing to the liver, and rubbed onto the skin, is an excellent remedy for skin rashes, especially the contact dermatitis caused by Poison Ivy or Poison Oak.  The Japanese cook Mugwort into mochi, or glutinous rice cakes, as a food remedy for anemia. 
     Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) -  Myrrh is a famous resin and perfume used since ancient times not only as an aromatic, but also as a vulnerary and disinfectant to speed the healing of wounds and traumatic injuries.  For this purpose, it is often used with Frankincense.  The thymogenic and blood activating properties of Myrrh also make it useful as a women's blood tonic in menstrual disorders.
     Pseudoginseng (Panax pseudoginseng, P. notoginseng) -  Pseudoginseng, called Tienchi by the Chinese, has absolutely stellar properties for regulating, tonifying and adjusting the blood.  Paradoxically, Tienchi has the seemingly contradictory ability to both dissolve blood clots as well as stop bleeding.  Although the exact mechanisms for this action are unknown, Tienchi seems to be an optimizer of blood circulation, consistency and clotting properties, working on the liver enzymes that regulate these factors.  Pseudoginseng is also a great vulnerary herb for speeding up the healing of and recovery from wounds and traumatic injuries.  Pseudoginseng has also been clinically proven to reduce blood cholesterol and arterial plaque buildup with regular use.  As a heart and circulatory tonic, Tienchi strengthens the aerobic efficiency of heart muscle and opens up the coronary arteries.  Steamed Tienchi is an excellent blood tonic for menstruating women, and regulates the female cycle.  An antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral, Tienchi is also useful in treating cases of hepatitis.  Li Shih Chen, China's greatest herbalist, said that Tienchi is more precious than gold.
     Red Clover (Trifolium praetense) -  Red Clover, a close relative of Melilot, or Sweet Clover, is similar to the latter herb in many respects, and is used similarly.  As a thymogenic and vitalizer of the blood and a purifier of the lymph, Red Clover has a valuable place in herbal cancer therapy.  Chronic rashes and skin conditions is another area of its use.          
     Rue (Ruta graveolens) -  Rue was generally held in high esteem by the ancients, and regarded as a miracle herb that acts as an antidote or Mithridate to resist poison.  It was applied topically or taken internally to treat the bites of venemous vipers or insects.  Rue is a potent vasodilator and a great circulatory tonic to the blood vessels, and was the original source for the bioflavonoid Rutin; Rue also has beneficial effects in lowering blood pressure. Rue is also a potent emmenagogue that can bring down or procure women's menstrual courses if they are delayed or suppressed.  Topically, Rue is used in liniments and medicated oils for its pwerful antispasmodic and antirheumatic effects to relieve spasms, and muscular aches and pains.  CAUTION:  Rue is an extremely potent herb.  In excessive doses, it may provoke nausea and vomiting, and unsettle the nervous system.  Rue is best used in small doses, and preferably not for extended periods of time. 
     Saffron (Crocus sativus) -  Saffron is not only the world's most expensive spice; it is also a great herbal heart tonic, and thins, purifies and vitalizes the blood.  Its powerful blood thinning and vitalizing properties make Saffron valuable, in small doses, as a vulnerary, antirheumatic, female tonic and emmenagogue, and an alterative.  Saffron also cools off excess heat and choler in the blood.  If the high quality and potency of genuine, expensive Saffron is unaffordable, a cheaper but less potent substitute is Safflower (Carthamus tinctoris), which may be used in larger doses to treat the same complaints.
     Sage (Salvia officinalis) -  This is the European or Garden Sage, also called Dalmatian Sage.  In Greek Medicine, Sage, called Salvia, which means "the Savior" in Latin, was regarded as a miracle herb.  According to Culpeper, Sage stimulates the liver to breed good blood and, as an emmenagogue, brings down a woman's menstrual courses.  As an antiseptic and vulnerary, Sage tea cleanses foul wounds and ulcers, and its astringency helps to draw wounds together.  Sage can also be used as an external wash in rashes, eczema and other skin conditions, and the tea if drank, closes the pores and stops excessive or abnormal sweating, and is useful in relieving the hot flashes of menopause.  A gargle of Sage tea, or sweetened with lemon and honey and drank hot, is good for sore throat and clears and strengthens the voice.  Sage also has mild sedative properties, and was considered by Culpeper to be good for the palsy.
     In Chinese Medicine, the root of the Purple Sage (Salvia miltiorrhiza), is famous for dispelling stagnant blood in the chest and heart and relieving the pains of angina.  Used with Pseudoginseng root, Chinese Salvia functions as a great heart tonic.  Scientific research has also shown that Chinese Salvia root opens up and stimulates the microcirculation of the peripheral capillaries.
     Turmeric (Curcuma longa) -  Turmeric is gaining considerable recognition these days for its active constituent Curcumin, which has antirheumatic, antiarthritic and antiinflammatory properties.  Turmeric is also a powerful thymogenic and circulatory stimulant, as well as a detoxifier of the blood and liver.  Turmeric also has fat scraping properties that make it a useful alterative in treating high cholesterol and high blood sugar.  A decoction of a quarter teaspoon of Turmeric in a cup of hot milk is useful in treating rheumatic and muscular aches and pains and in speeding up recovery from grueling athletic workouts; in Ayurvedic medicine, this concoction is said to be beneficial in treating all skin disorders.  Turmeric also has emmenagogue properties that improve pelvic and uterine blood circulation and regulate the menstrual cycle. 
     Due to its strongly heating and drying nature, Turmeric is best used in small doses; in Choleric and sensitive individuals who have a lot of heat and choler in their bodies, it may provoke reactions of tongue and mouth ulcers.  To remedy this drawback, Chinese medicine often uses a milder variety of Turmeric, Curcuma aromatica, as a substitute.
     Yarrow (Achillea milfolium) -  Yarrow, botanically named after Achilles,  the great warrior and medical pupil of Chiron who discovered its medicinal properties, was originally a military herb, a vulnerary used in the treatment of wounds, and as a hemostatic to stop bleeding.  Great healing miracles have been attributed to this herb, used either as a poultice, or the tea used as a wash for wounds and traumatic injuries.  Yarrow is also a great thymogenic and blood vitalizer that optimizes blood circulation, consistency and clotting properties.  As a hepatic bitter and digestive tonic, Yarrow is one of the best herbs to facilitate nutrient absorption by improving the circulation of veinous blood in the hepatic portal system.  Culpeper said that Yarrow is under the dominion of Venus; it is a women's herb, a great emmenagogue and menstrual tonic, which is particularly good at treating menstrual cramps and excessive menstrual bleeding.  Father Sebastian Kneipp, the founder of Naturopathy, said that women could be spared many troubles, if only they drank Yarrow tea from time to time.  Charred black, Yarrow powder is a great hemostatic, applied topically to cuts, and especially to nosebleeds. 
     Zedoary (Curcuma zedoariae) -  Zedoary root is a member of the Ginger family, closely related to both Ginger and Turmeric.  Its properties are similar to those of Turmeric, but it is milder, being not so heating and drying.  Zedoary stimulates the digestion and the circulation of blood as a thymogenic and blood vitalizer.  It also acts as a menstrual tonic and emmenagogue, dispersing stagnant or clotted blood in the pelvic and uterine areas.  Zedoary's potent thymogenic properties give it therapeutic promise in the treatment of cancer, for which it has been extensively studied clinically in China.


Cautions and Contraindications for Blood Herbs

     Most herbs that adjust and regulate the blood, especially the milder ones, are generally gentle and safe to use.  However, their use may be cautionary or contraindicated in certain conditions like pregnancy, or in conjunction with certain prescription medications. 
     In pregnancy, particularly the first trimester, which is inherently the most risky and precarious, the embryo or foetus can be seen as one big blood clot.  Essentially, that is how classical Greek Medicine saw conception and the generation of the embryo - the male and female procreative seeds act as catalysts to curdle and clot menstrual blood secreted by the mother into her womb.
     It follows, then, that strong thymogenics and blood thinners that have the power to dissolve blood clots could also dissolve the clot of the embryo and expel it from the womb, initiating a miscarriage.  Of the blood herbs discussed previously, one should particularly avoid when pregnant Angelica root, Blessed Thistle, Calendula, Feverfew, Frankincense, Melilot, Motherwort, Myrrh, Pseudoginseng, Red Clover, Rue, Saffron, Sage, Turmeric (in large doses), and Zedoary. 
     Sometimes, it's just a matter of dosage and good old common sense.  For example, a little Turmeric to flavor your curry might be OK for a pregnant woman, but large medicinal doses would be out of the question.  But, when in doubt about this or any other herb, it's always best to consult with your physician or healthcare provider to make sure.
     From these cautions and contraindications, it might be easy to conclude that all blood herbs can be dangerous to pregnancy.  But this is definitely not the case, especially with the milder herbs.  Some herbs, like Lady's Mantle, or Red Raspberry leaves, are even great saviors, protectors and enhancers of pregnancy.
     The other major cautionary area to watch out for are those who take blood thinning medications like Heparin or Coumadin.  Thymogenic and blood thinning herbs, especially the stronger ones, but even milder ones like Ginger, can ineract with these medications to potentiate their effects so that the blood winds up being too thin.  This could provoke crises of abnormal or excessive bleeding or hemorrhage which, of course, can be a critical medical emergency.
     So. please consult with your physician or healthcare provider if you are on prescription blood thinners.  To thin the blood, where a hemolytic action is needed, most conventional doctors prefer the prescription blood thinners because they know them better.  But herbalists point to the stellar natural healing virtues of herbal blood thinners and vitalizers as an alternative to conventional drug therapy.  To return to Nature as much as your medical condition will allow is generally a good idea.
     However, under certain conditions, it's even possible to overdo herbal blood thinning and blood vitalization therapy.  The warning signs will usually be a tendency to bleed too easily, whether from the nose, teeth and gums, uterus and vagina, etc... or a tendency to bruise too easily.

Diet:  Eating to Build Healthy Blood

     Blood is the very essence of Life and Health, and is perfect nourishment perfectly digested.  As the first humor to arise, blood is also the first humor to be replenished and regenerated from the food we eat.  Eating a balanced, wholesome, nourishing diet is the best way to generate healthy and vital blood for optimum health.
     Eating meat generates a great abundance of blood, but the down side is that it will be too thick, acidic and filled with toxic residues.  Eating meat is only necessary two to three times per week at the most to keep the blood robust and healthy.
     Those of a Sanguine temperament, who naturally generate an abundance of blood, have an easy time being vegetarians.
     Those of a Choleric temperament, whose blood tends to get too hot, Choleric and acidic, need an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables to cleanse their blood; since their digestion is generally strong and robust, Cholerics usually have an easy time being vegetarians.
     Those of a Phlegmatic temperament can go either way, meat eater or vegetarian; a little meat can be good to stimulate their metabolic heat and digestive fire.
     Those of a Melancholic temperament tend to have the hardest time being pure vegetarians, since their weak, colicky, delicate digestions make them most prone to malnutrition and anemia.
     Not enough attention is paid to getting sufficient vegetarian foods that build the blood.  These are as follows:
     Green leafy vegetables, rich in Folic Acid, whose chlorophyll is easily converted by the body into hemoglobin.  The best ones are spinach, kale, mustard greens, dandelion greens and nettles.
     Celery family vegetables,
rich in thymogenic blood vitalizing factors.  The best ones are parsnips and carrots.  Other root vegetables, like beets, are also good blood builders.
     Sea vegetables are rich in protein and vitamin B12 to build healthy blood.
     Dark red or blue berries, also called forest berries, are rich in anthrocyanins and bioflavonoids for vascular, blood and circulatory system health.  The best ones are blackberries, blueberries, cherries, sour cherries, black currants, red grapes and wine, pomegranates and raisins.

Unani Remedies for Adjusting the Blood

     On page 171 of his excellent book, The Traditional Healer's Handbook, Hakim G.M. Chishti gives a traditional Unani remedy for cooling down excessive heat in the blood.  It is composed of Chicory seeds, Lettuce seeds, Coriander seeds, Red Rose petals, Lemon juice, Sandalwood syrup and Oxymel.
If one looks at all the above herbs, one finds that they are all very cooling to the blood.
     For corruption of the Sanguine humor by morbid superfluities of other humors, Chishti advises administering herbal purgatives that adjust the morbid humor in question. 


Other Therapies for Adjusting and Regulating the Blood

     Besides herbs and diet, there are other important therapies that Greek Medicine uses to adjust and regulate blood, or the Sanguine humor. 
     To remove excesses and localized congestions of the blood, Greek Medicine uses venesection, or bloodletting.  Besides directly puncturing a vein and draining the excess blood into a bowl, two other forms of bloodletting are done:  leeching, and wet cupping, or scarification and cupping.  A more thorough discussion of venesection or bloodletting can be found on the Hygienic Purification Therapies page in the Therapies section.
     Hijama, or Cupping is the application of suction cups to specific points on the body to relieve localized congestions of blood in those areas.  Cupping can be done either wet, which is scarification and cupping, a form of bloodletting; or dry cupping, which is the simple application of suction cups to draw out and disperse deep seated congestions of blood.  Again, please refer to the appropriate page in the Therapies section.
     Derivation is the drawing out of morbid pus and toxic matter from the blood by the localized application of vesicant and counterirritant plasters to the affected area.  Again, a more detailed discussion of this procedure can be found on the Hygienic Purification Therapies page in the Therapies section.