Learning from Ancient Practices


When I was in high school, I was fascinated by ancient history.

The Egyptians built massive pyramids, lavish temples and invented hieroglyphs, amongst other amazing inventions. I remember being awed by how they could get the resources together for these undertakings.

The Greeks invented philosophy and built the foundations of Europe. Between city wars, they had time for sculptures, poetry and Olympiads.

The Chinese fought amongst themselves, got conquered by the Mongols, and then finally invented paper, gunpowder and printing. They were probably the most advanced and populous nation at the time.

The Indians had myriads of kingdoms, spices, and were the only ones to be able to stop Alexander the Great.

We took the number 0, the foundations of mathematics, philosophy, visit the ancient places. Most often, we also pity that they were so far behind in areas such as comfort or modern medicine.

Looking Behind

One of the practices that’s most laughed upon is blood letting. Ancient Greek physicians believed diseases occurred due to “bad humors” stagnating in the body. Thus sick patients had to be relieved of these bad humors.

In history class, this makes everyone laugh. Everyone knows that sick people are weak and blood letting will make them weaker, most probably aggravating the disease. Ignorance, just like believing that Earth is flat!

What I found interesting though is that blood letting was a common practice in Ancient Egypt, Greece, in traditional Indian medicine or Ayurveda, Arabic, Persian, as well as traditional Chinese medicine practices.

How do you account for the fact that ancient civilizations, separated by thousands of miles, as well as thousands of years, came to the same practice?

Is it simply coincidence? Or was there an ancient Marco Polo, passionate about blood letting, who made his life-long mission to teach all civilizations about blood letting? Most likely, no.

I do not claim to have the answers, but you have to agree these coincidences are troubling.

What Modern Science Says

Interestingly, I found a German clinical trial with subjects having metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome means elevated blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess central body fat, and bad cholesterol. It’s often a result of an unbalanced diet and lack of exercise, and keeps you at risk for diabetes, heart disease or a stroke. In this trial, a group of underwent blood donations twice in a month, which is comparable to blood letting.

Researchers did blood tests at the beginning and on the 6th week and found a reduction of blood pressure of -16.6mmHg for those who underwent blood donations, compared to those who didn’t. Additionally, “blood glucose, HbA1c, low-density lipoprotein/high-density lipoprotein ratio, and HR were significantly decreased“.

In simpler terms, this means the two blood donations have beneficial effects for those with metabolic syndrome. Much lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar, better cholesterol etc. Compared to my personal experience, the reported reductions are equivalent to 1 hour of daily exercise, 3 times a week for 6 weeks.

Makes you think, isn’t it? Many would prefer just sitting down 15mn twice to get their blood drawn. Less sweat, same beneficial results.

In another large study involving 438 participants with fatty liver disease, blood letting decreased insulin resistance, improved cholesterol levels and improved the liver condition.

In both cases, we had patients who were not sick or bed-ridden but had latent conditions that could worsen at any moment, into diabetes for metabolic syndrome (or cardiovascular disease), or into cirrhosis or liver cancer for fatty liver disease. Nonetheless, it appears blood letting slowed down the progress of the disease. In both cases, researchers speculated that blood letting might have depleted the patient’s iron stores.

Iron depletion or fresh cells re-generation?

I don’t know if it’s the iron stores or if blood letting is equivalent to a reset of the body, forcing the bone marrow’s stem cells to produce fresh blood cells. My theory is that blood letting could be effective in disease prevention for metabolic diseases (and possibly other types of disease as well, with further research). Maybe this preventive effect was “discovered” by accident in various parts of the world, and used sparingly by the ancient medicine man for prevention… until the practice was abused and forced upon sick patients, which should have never been the case. Blood letting was beneficial for prevention but deadly in acute cases.

This goes to prove that we can’t just diss ancient knowledge. There might be gold nuggets inside all the mysticism.

Now – this doesn’t mean you should also follow the practice at home. All of those trials were in a clinical context, with certified health professionals who made sure the person could undergo the procedure. BUT if you happen to go near a blood donation center and you feel fine, there’s no reason not to donate 300mL or 500mL, to the contrary. You might save a kid, and your biomarkers could actually be improved, as the 2 studies above show.

Now this is not the end of the story. Another fascinating practice by most civilizations and religions is fasting (Ramadan, easter etc.) and its health effects are certainly intriguing. Certainly worth a look, isn’it?

2 thoughts on “Learning from Ancient Practices”

  1. From your 2nd study link, “…hepatic iron overload…” is also known as Hyperferritinemia which is almost always the same as Hemachromatosis, an inherited condition that causes the over-absorption of dietary iron, which builds up in the liver stores and can cause a host of health conditions (http://www.hemochromatosis.org/#overview).

    Both studies were interesting and definitely bring up the question of whether ancient physicians rightly recognized the benefits of blood letting, which current studies are only now re-discovering the therapeutic benefits of. It is an added bonus that blood donation makes good use of the blood for other patients now. Great post.


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