Learning herbalism is one things; learning pathology is quite another. Just today I was struck yet again with the realization that I can study what herbs do until I am blue in the face, but what good is it if I don’t know when to apply them? It’s an ongoing process to be certain, but one thing is quite useful for this; learning energetic qualities.
Southern blood typology is interesting because it is an energetic system that is rooted in a physical phenomena, blood. Even though blood is quite tangible as a life-giving substance, here it is infused in energetic language and symbols. It makes me think of what I’ve learned about Yin (blood) and Yang (energetic) being both mutually dependent and ever transforming and flowing into each other. Speaking of Chinese medicine, many of the Southern blood classifications share similarities with TCM, like blood deficiency, heat in the blood, and so on. Again, I have to direct you to my list of references (Wood in particular, as this is mostly taken from him), because there is a decent amount of information out there about Southern herbalism.
There are a number of variations of Southern blood typology. A system currently in use by herbal practitioners in and out of the south contains the most adjectives and thus gives rise to more individualized diagnostic and treatment options. Basic blood classifications includes the locations (high or low), viscosity (thin or thick), an overall cleanliness (clean or dirty, synonymous with good or bad), and flavor (bitter or sweet). Other systems may also include temperature of the blood, (hot or cold), speed (slow or fast), or a combination of any of these qualities. For example, sweet blood may be included under high blood (Mathews, 888) and can be treated with bitter herbs to lower the blood from the head, neck and chest to the center of the body. The system illustrated below places sweet blood as cause of thick blood, as excessive amounts of sugar in the blood may contribute to high cholesterol (Wood, 24). Just as the sap flows unconstricted in the warmth of summer, thin, high, hot and fast blood as associated with summer, while cold, low, thick and slow blood are more likely to come up during winter.
Good or clean blood is the state of blood in healthy, strong and vibrant people. It is the state of blood resulting from a good constitution married with healthy lifestyle habits and choices. Herbal tonics are consumed daily and adjusted seasonally to keep the good state of blood stay where it is, like ‘seng (ginseng), sassafras and sarsaparilla.
Bad or dirty blood contains various chemicals (a modern concept), impurities or waste products. It is called “dirty” or “toxic” in popular natural commerce. Alterative herbs like burdock, dandelion, yellow dock, as well as lymphatic herbs like poke, red clover or echinacea can be used to clean the blood. The bitter flavor is also an important blood cleanser, as seen in the role of spring tonics and salad greens, especially important after the winter, a time of dirty, thick or slow blood easily accumulates toxins.
High blood is located high in the body, accumulating and causing pressure in the head, face or neck. It can also mean high blood pressure and refers to high volume of blood. It is not uncommon to hear people in the south refer to high blood pressure as “high blood”. In its past, Western medicine used blood letting to release high blood. Accounts from the turn of the last century of traditional herbs used for lowering the blood included sassafrass, wild cherry, onions and garlic (Cavender, 123), while modern herbalist use diaphoretics that release the surface and soothes capillaries, like yarrow, hawthorn, peach leaves, vervain, angelica and aspirin (Wood).
Anemia or malnutrition are clinical manifestations of low blood, which can be due to blood that is lacking vitality and is low in volume, low in the body or low in pressure. Fatigue and looking ‘peaked’ are symptoms of low blood, as is dizziness upon standing (Cavender, 124). Blood builders and things that raise the blood, stimulate circulation and tone the veins are used in modern practice. Traditional remedies include cooking on iron pans, adding iron nails to water pitchers, as was eating spring greens and taking a compound of molasses and sulfur (Cavender, 124).
Thin blood is somewhat related to low blood, but it is more watery and occurs in thin and cold people. Frequent bruising, clammy skin, frequent urination and having a blue or purple tinge to the skin are common manifestations of thin blood (Wood, 22). Warming angelica or feverfew can be helpful to increase the circulation, while astringents like raspberry leaf, red root, rose hips are herbs useful as they tone the tissues and stop the leakage of fluid.
Thick blood is sometimes called oily blood. It can be caused by excess fat, sugar and other metabolites in the blood or when waste products from bad blood accumulate and coagulate. Blood viscosity is reduced, leading to stroke, heart attack, high cholesterol and obesity (24-25). Treatments for thick blood are many and share treatments with other blood conditions (especially high blood). Often alteratives are used, along with blood thinners (a bioregional favorite is tulip poplar), cooling fruits like huckleberry and aromatic circulatory stimulants like yarrow, safflower, angelica and sassafras.
Fast blood is related to hot blood, with the most obvious symptom being a racing heart beat. Hyperthyroidism and chronic stress can be present with fast blood, along with nervous energy or anxiousness. Sedatives are used to calm the nervous system, like poplar bark, motherwort, or hops; stronger antiseptics like figwort, echinacea and baptisia have been traditionally used in chronic, stagnant cases or with throbbing infections or pain (27).
“Slow blood develops over a long time, due to chronic influences” (27), and is a more severe form of bad blood often with additional causative factors of cold, low or thick blood. Basically the vitality of the blood has been worn down, whether from constitutional weakness chronic or severe disease. Herbal treatments will vary according to the individual and the reason slow blood developed.
Hot blood can include fevers, infections or rashes, as well as a general hot constitution. Cold blood is similarly obvious in its’ meaning; it refers to states of coldness whether it be due to chills, spasms, arthritis or stiffness. Both hot blood and cold blood cross over a bit from their obvious naturalistic meanings of tending to excess heat and coldness respectively to the psychological realm. At the extremes, hot blooded people anger easily, have violent tendencies and live excessive lifestyles, while cold people are seen as tense, removed and are capable of premeditated crime (28-9).
Cavender, Anthony. Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia.
Light, Phyllis. “Southern herbalism: Southern Herbalism, My Story”. An article from: New Life Journal [eDoc/Amazon Short].
Light, Phyllis. Lecture notes: Southern Folk Herbalism. 2007.
Matthews, Holly F. “Rootwork: Description of Ethnomedical System in the South.” Southern Medical Journal, July 1987, Vol. 80, No. 7.
Wood, Matthew. The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal