Blood Movers – Chinese medicine idea using Western herbs
Movement, change, flexibility – It’s what makes something vibrant and alive. A still pond fills with algae but a flowing stream feeds the river and the ocean. Sit still and get bedsores and indigestion and vein problems; keep active and stay healthy. A key part of health is keeping things moving rather than letting them sit and fester.
And so in herbal medicine we have many herbs that help stimulate circulation, to get the blood and other fluids moving and help cleanse the blood. We might call these circulatory stimulants, alteratives and lymphatics in Western parlance, and in Chinese medicine either Qi movers or Blood movers. But how can we tell if we need these herbs, or even which herbs are best?
Although there are many levels of stagnation, one of the best ways to visualize blood stagnation is to imagine a bruise. Tissues get damaged, capillaries break and blood leaves the vessels and pools; soon the body walls it off until the mess can get cleaned up and reintegrated. Bruises are painful and sore and then there’s that tell-tale purple-ish color. Got that image?
Blood movers are great for bruises and other physical trauma (think Arnica or Tiger Balm), but sometimes the stagnation isn’t quite so obvious. Sometimes we don’t get the nice visual “black and blue” but just the pain and soreness. This might be the pain we experience in arthritis, in an old injury that never healed right, or in menstrual cramps as a few examples.
When blood flow slows in an area, there is less oxygen and nutrients coming in and also slower removal of waste products. Think about how twigs and leaves start to accumulate when a part of a stream becomes impeded and slows down. This stagnation of fluids creates an environment where unwanted growths can occur and so we see swollen lymph nodes, fibrocystic breasts, uterine fibroids, enlarged prostate and tumors, to name a few. Blood movers work great for these kind of growths as well.
So there are a broad range of indications for blood moving herbs because slowed circulation can manifest in many different kinds of problems. These herbs range in strength from gentle herbs that are taken for a long time to clear up long-standing stagnation like Red Clover, traditionally used in many cancer formulas, to strong and potentially toxic moving herbs like Poke root used for acute lymphatic congestion or Arnica used topically for bruises and muscle pain.
Four local herbs that all have the ability to move Blood are Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa, syn. Actea racemosa) Stone Root (Collinsonia canadensis), Sassafrass (Sassafrass albidum), and Red Root (Ceanothus americanus). Those familiar with these herbs will recognize that these plants have different uses and might not ordinarily be grouped together in western herbology.
Black Cohosh is probably the best known of these herbs. Often thought of as a “women’s herb” for menstrual cramps and hot flashes, I often use it for muscular and joint pain for everything from rheumatoid arthritis to fibromyalgia to whiplash. It is a mild vasodilator, meaning it opens up the blood vessels to allow more blood flow, which makes it useful for mild hypertension.
When you look at the old indications for Black Cohosh, you’ll see that before it was thought of as an herb for menstrual cramps and hot flashes, it was used to treat “rheumatism” – a general word for arthritic complaints – and also as a remedy for nerve pain. This is telling, since most pain relieving herbs in Chinese medicine achieve their effect by moving blood.
Stone root is a lesser known herb but is abundant in rich woods from north Georgia up through New York and deserves a better reputation. Though not a remedy for any one specific condition, and indeed it is an herb that can take some time to take effect, I find it an excellent addition to any formula to move Blood in the pelvic area. It is not as strong and quick a blood mover as Black Cohosh, but works better for long-standing conditions that have resulted in accumulations. In western terms, it is an excellent lymphatic and local circulatory stimulant.
So it ends up in formulas for uterine fibroids, enlarged lymph nodes of the pelvic/inguinal area, and ovarian cysts as well as in formulas for “congested blood” manifesting as hemorrhoids and varicose veins.
Red root has a stronger reputation but is still not as widely used as it should be. Red root has even broader uses than Stone root, being used for almost any kind of lymphatic stagnation from swollen lymph nodes during a cold to chronic swollen glands, and if anything is not quite so specific for the pelvic area.
This is another herb that is key to any treatment of uterine fibroids, fibrocystic breasts, ovarian cysts and even enlarged prostate. Unlike Stone root, it does not seem to directly affect congested veins but mainly the lymphatic tissue which would make it very useful for treatment of mono and any other disease that causes enlargement of the spleen.
And finally we have Sassafrass, that lovely tasting root that is the original taste of root beer. Well before tobacco became popular, Sassafrass was an important export from the early American colonies to a Europe desperate for a syphilis cure. By itself, I’m not sure how much this root would do for syphilis but if there ever was a time when antibiotics were no longer available, this is one of the plants I would think of as part of a larger protocol.
Just tasting this herb, you can tell that this relative of Cinnamon is a warming circulatory herb. Traditionally used a spring tonic to cleanse the blood of all the heavy starchy food of a winter devoid of California-grown produce, it is also an excellent alterative, or blood cleanser, helping the body gently cleanse out toxins. As such, it has a long tradition of use for many kinds of rheumatism, especially any kind of joint pain that is worse with cold and damp. It has also, like many alteratives, been used for chronic skin conditions and other conditions where toxins may be building up in the blood.
We can learn a lot by integrating the ideas and therapeutic approaches of Chinese herbal medicine with the use of local herbs. Looking through another lens at herbs we may or may not be familiar with, we can understand new uses of old herbs and also how to make better choices about which herb to use for what particular kinds of symptoms.