Bloodletting 101

Bloodletting? Did I get your attention with that title?! Maybe not- if you know me and know how much I enjoy researching most anything. In my ongoing reading/obsession with Hildegard of Bingen, I have become intrigued with bloodletting, a common medical practice in her day.

Bloodletting, aka phlebotomy, has a long history with the earliest records of it's implementation for health purposes found in 3,000-year-old Egyptian texts and it was used regularly well into the18th century. Its use was encouraged in many medical journals, even with charts designating which areas on the body should be bled for various ailments. It may seem a bit barbaric to us today, but with such a long history of use, it must have conferred some type of benefit, perhaps?

An internet search will yield a detailed history of bloodletting, including the belief that it helped to balance the "four humours" (or elements), the imbalance of which was considered to be the cause of many physical and mental illnesses. Hmm... that sounds a bit like our current western herbalism view of attributing "dis-ease" to an imbalance (either too much or not enough) of the energetics (tissue states) of heat/excitation, cold/depression, dry/atrophy, damp/relaxation, damp/stagnation, and/or wind/constriction (terms based on Matthew Wood's, The Three Basic Principles of Traditional Western Medicine, with a more in-depth study in his book, The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism"). Interestingly, other traditional healing systems have similar views of disease being caused by imbalance, such as imbalanced chi or vital energy in Traditional Chinese Medicine or the disharmony of doshas in Ayurvedic medicine.

About the same time I was researching bloodletting, I opened an email from the Red Cross about the current severe blood shortage. So... I decided to see how the benefits of bloodletting might apply to donating blood, perhaps a safe alternative to bloodletting? As wacky as it sounds, donating blood (sounds better than bloodletting) might offer some potential real-life benefits.

From St. Mary's Medical Center (check their website for additional information on each point), donating blood may:

Giving blood reduces harmful iron stores

According to the Mayo Clinic, one in every 200 people in the U.S. is affected by a condition called hemochromatosis that causes an iron overload. Many of us don't even know we have the condition because symptoms don't show until mid-life and overlap with other common conditions.

By giving blood, you lower your iron levels and allow your body to replenish it with fresh blood.

Giving blood may help preserve cardiovascular health

Having too much iron in your blood can contribute to hardening of the arteries. When you donate blood, the amount of iron in your blood is reduced. The iron will be replenished by the food you eat after donating, but regular donations can balance your iron level. By reducing iron in the blood cells, blood donation can also reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that participants ages 43 to 61 had fewer heart attacks and strokes when they donated blood every six months. In another study by the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers found, in a sample size of 2,682 men in Finland, those who donated blood at least once a year had an 88 percent lower risk of heart attacks than those who did not donate.

Giving blood may reduce the risk of cancer

Iron has also been thought to increase free-radical damage in the body and been linked to an increased risk of cancer and aging. The Miller-Keystone Blood Center says that consistent blood donation associated with lower risks of cancers including liver, lung, colon, and throat cancers due to the reduction in oxidative stress when iron is released from the bloodstream.

Giving blood burns calories

After the holidays, we are all looking for a simple way to kick start our diet. According to the University of California, San Diego, you can burn approximately 650 calories per donation of one pint of blood. However, blood donation should not be thought of as a weight loss plan - just a little extra motivation to give.

Check out this 2012 article by MinnPost about the benefits of bloodletting for obesity with metabolic syndrome.

Giving blood provides a free blood analysis

When you donate blood it is tested for syphilis, HIV, hepatitis, and other diseases.

* Note from me: It was by giving blood for the first time decades ago that I found out I could not donate because I was low in iron. I felt so much better after increasing the amount of iron in my blood through my diet - thank you Red Cross! I still consider the checks done before I give blood as a mini-checkup as they check my iron level, blood pressure, temperature, pulse along with testing my blood later for potential underlying health issues.

A couple more benefits thanks to Rasmussen University:

Giving blood can help your liver stay healthy

Another danger of iron overload is the health of your liver. “In recent years, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the hepatic expression of metabolic syndrome, has reached epidemic proportions,” reports the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Research has linked too much iron with NAFLD, Hepatitis C and other liver diseases and infections. Though there are many other factors involved in these problems, donating blood can help relieve some of those iron stores and avoid extra issues in your liver.

Giving blood may lower your risk of suffering a heart attack

Having too much iron in your blood can contribute to hardening of the arteries and may constrict your blood vessels and create more risk of a heart attack. Depleting those extra iron deposits by donating blood gives your vessels more room to operate.The iron will be replenished by the food you eat after donating, but regular donations can balance your iron level.

Giving blood can help your mental state

While there are several physical benefits to donating blood, the most powerful health benefit is arguably in the psychological realm. Donating blood means that someone (or multiple people) somewhere will be getting the help they desperately need.

Giving blood may be useful in the prevention or treatment of staph

According to Eric Skaar of the University of Chicago, staph (Staphylococcus aureus) thrives on iron compounds. Although we all carry staph bacteria on our skin, it can cause serious infection internally. Specifically, it prefers a kind of iron found in heme, the molecule in red blood cells that helps carry oxygen. It's as if the bacterium scans its host's menu of iron compounds, hoping to find heme. "Heme iron is the preferred iron source during the initiation of infection," write Skaar. If no heme is available, the bacterium's chances of thriving may fail. The less blood that's available, the harder it is for the bacterium to scrounge up enough heme to thrive.

You've likely heard about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotic therapies. Could giving blood help in preventing or treating some bacterial infections? Tracey Rouault, MD, of the National Institutes of Health in Science, writes, "As recently as 1942, Sir William Osler's highly regarded medical textbook advocated bloodletting as a treatment for acute pneumonia... Bloodletting in the pre-antibiotic era may have been an effective mechanism for starving bacterial pathogens of iron and slowing bacterial growth."

And finally, even Oprah weighs in on bloodletting citing several impressive studies. Oprah's writer, Lauren Dzubow, points out that building up too much iron "may interfere with circulation, which could explain why men in their 30s and 40s have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than women: Menstruation may get rid of artery-damaging iron, at least until menopause, the time of life when a woman's risk nears that of a man's". Dzubow also states, "Iron is key to health—we need enough to manufacture red blood cells; anything beyond that is superfluous. Once our bodies absorb the mineral, though, the only way to get rid of it is by losing blood."

I hope you found bloodletting as fascinating as I did. In order to not overwhelm anyone, I didn't even include all of the intriguing information I found- click on the links above to read more or simply do a quick internet search. In fact, I was so impressed with the benefits of giving blood, that I went online and set up an appointment to donate blood this past Monday. And I even got a free t-shirt! What a deal - save a life, improve my health, and get a new t-shirt. All-in-all, a very good way to say goodbye to 2021.