Treating Sickle Cell Anemia Through Traditional Chinese Medicine



Tariq M. Sawandi, M.H.



    Sickle Cell Anemia (SCA) is a much misunderstood and under-represented disease in the medical community.  This is partly because it affects mostly African-Americans.  The Western medical system is still deeply entrenched in prejudiced research.  Most physicians' formal training is limited to the conventional white models of disease and health crisis.  Thus, the prejudices and limitations of their training make it difficult for Black patients to receive the kind of care and education that could lead to better health.


    It is in this setting that I came to the realization that Traditional Chinese Medicine could best serve African-Americans who suffer from sickle cell disease.  In this article, I offer to individuals a holistic approach to sickle cell anemia for which I perceive a great need.


    Through the principles of Chinese medicine, one can treat and control the causes of pain associated with sickle cell disease.  In addition to treating the symptoms of sickle cell anemia, Chinese medicine helps you see what lifestyle factors may be contributing to your health problems and what actions and self-care therapies you can implement to achieve and maintain a more balanced, pain free, state of being.  Conventional physicians are trained to see a patient simply as a disease, or set of symptoms.  Chinese healing methods strive to look at the whole person-mind, body and spirit.  It is only when one addresses all these elements, can one achieve complete well-being.


Important Facts About Sickle Cell


    According to the Black Health Research Foundation, about fifty thousand black Americans have sickle cell anemia, and about one out of every four hundred black infants are born with it each year.  Sickle cell anemia is not strictly a "black disease".  It is also known to affect Italians, Caribbean Africans, people of the Mediterranean, East Indians, and people of Hispanic ancestry, mainly in South America, Cuba, and Central America.


    It is believed that sickle cell disease arose as an "evolutionary mutation" in order to survive places which had the malaria virus.  A mutation is a biochemical change in the DNA structure of the human-being to insure the survival of offspring.  Thus the hereditary disease of sickle cell anemia, protected Africans against deadly forms of malaria.  Scientists have identified at least four types of sickle cell, each indigenous to different geographical areas around the world.  Some children, however, only carry the sickle cell trait, while other children are born with the sickle cell disease.  Children who carry the sickle cell trait remain perfectly healthy.  In order to contract sickle cell anemia, it must be transmitted genetically by both parents, each of them a carrier of the sickle cell trait.  Those who live with sickle cell anemia show painful symptoms, while others rarely have crises.  However, in more severe cases, other suffer prolonged crises and hospitalization.


The Western Perspective of Sickle Cell Disease


Sickle cell is considered to be a metabolic disease, caused when the instructions for making a protein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen to the body's tissues and organs.  Hemoglobin is made of several hundred amino acids.  When a defect occurs in the hemoglobin molecule, the blood cell also becomes defective.


    Normal red blood cells are soft and doughnut-shaped which allows them to squeeze smoothly through small blood vessels.  But in a sickle cell victim, some red blood cells become twisted into a hooked, or sickle, shape.  Sickle cells can get trapped in the tiniest blood vessels and thus block the normal flow of blood.  The vessels get clogged and oxygen can't get to tissues and organs.  This causes the periodic attacks.


    These sickle cell clots can be life threatening, depending on where they occur in the body.  For example, blockage of blood vessels in the brain can cause seizures or stroke.  Blockage in the lungs can cause respiratory problems.  Clots in vital organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys, spleen, or eyes can cause damage to these organs.  The most common symptoms are pain the chest and abdomen, but in many cases the whole body may be affected, particularly in the joints and spine.


    Conventional Western medicine has very few effective treatments to manage this disease.  Some of the most commonly used treatments to cope with this devastating disease are pain killers, blood transfusions, and in mild cases, diet and supplements can be used to manage the symptoms.


Using Chinese Healing Principles


    In my practice of Chinese medical principles, I have observed a number of common factors of sickle cell anemia-underlying causes of, or significant contributors to chronic and recurring ailments. by uncovering them and applying the "Five element system" and "Yin/Yang diagnosis, I have been able to help individuals tonify and balance their health to levels they never thought possible while assisting them in getting off a medical roller coaster from which they thought there was no escape.


    According to Chinese medicine, each person suffering from sickle cell may not be given the same therapy. The chosen therapy is determined by what kind of problem the person is experiencing.  This applies to both chronic and acute problems.  The Chinese medical practitioner is committed to removing the pain or symptoms, by finding and removing the cause. The concept of
Chi", "yang-deficiency", 'stagnant blood", and "dampness" is absolutely at the heart of the sickle cell disease.  Life force and chi are one.  Chi has its own movement and also activates the movement of energy and blood in the body.  Wherever chi goes, blood flows.  Healthy chi moves freely.  But chi that is stagnant cause blood flow to be constrictive and congestive.  The stagnation of Chi and blood is experienced as a localized stabbing pain.  If this stagnation of blood persists for too long, it gives rise to imbalance of other organ networks.  This situation is often the case with sufferers of sickle cell anemia.


    Stagnant Chi and blood can also obstruct the spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs, affecting their ability to generate and distribute water and Nutritive Essence in the body. (See article entitled "The African Roots of Traditional Chinese Medicine.)


    According to the Five Element system, most conditions of sickle cell anemia are classified as a "deficiency of yang energy".  Deficiency in Chinese medicine is characterized by a overall  "weakness" of the total energy of the body.  Yang energy and Yang organs are responsible for transportation and movement of blood, fluids, and foods in the body.  Yang energy is responsible for heat and Chi.  When Yang is weak, or deficient, cold and dampness can invade the body, producing coldness, poor circulation, and slowness, which is associated with the kidneys.  In the Chinese system, the kidneys are considered "The Life Gate Fire" and source of Yang energy.


    It is important to remember that each person will tend to have different Yin/Yang dynamics, depending on where the area of distress occurs in the body.  This is the power of Chinese medicine.  It allows us to understand the individual's own constitution and inherited differences.


Chinese Herbs and Nutritional Therapies


    We have given sickle cell anemia the name "deficient Yang" in the Chinese system of medicine.  In order to address this condition in general, we would use a combination of Chinese herbal formulas.  Many people who suffer from sickle cell experience conditions of weakness, congested Chi and blood, poor circulation, and coldness.  In this case, we would prescribe herbs that tonify yang, complemented by herbs that disperse and mobilize blood circulation.  The following Chinese formula is excellent to achieve this goal:


Rehmannia Eight Formula, (Ba Wei Wan)





Poria cocos



Cinnamon bark



    This is a major Chinese formula for tonifying kidney yang.  It nourishes the kidneys, dispels stagnant blood, alleviates pain, improves blood circulation, increases body temperature, and increases the flow of urine.  This formula is also combined with dispersing herbs like tangerine peel and ligusticum, which move Chi, water and blood.


    Another important part in managing sickle disease is to use special foods in a medicinal way to help prevent and overcome illness.  Foods can be used to help support the immune system and other organ networks by virtue of their unique qualities, flavors, colors, textures, and their unique biochemistry.  Under the Chinese system of nutrition, foods are valued more for their heating and cooling energies and their flavors.  The Energetic properties of foods go beyond the Western scientific classifications such as protein, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins.  What we are considering is the "Holistic Energetic" effect of a food or herb on the body.




cool energy 

warm energy

fruit juices    




sweet foods



    There are many books on the market that describe these Yin/Yang food polarities according to Chinese principles.  However, due to limited space, a basic understanding will suffice for our purpose in this article.  As my teacher Dr. Tierra used to say. "There can be no true healing with herbs if the diet remains the contributing cause in sustaining the disease."  We have to let our food be our medicine.  I found that many sufferers of sickle cell anemia continue to eat denatured, synthetic, and toxic foods which tend to contribute to their ailments and pain.


    The follow is a specific outline of foods which I found helpful in treating sickle cell disease.  The primary goal is to eat foods that are rich in oxygen, tonifying and have a balanced Yin/Yang nature.


Folic acid

    aids in appetite, cell reproduction, growth, and red blood cell formation.



    high in iron, and helps build the blood and oxygenate the system.  It also tonifies the kidneys, liver, and bladder.


Brown Rice

    the most balanced food energetically.  It particularly strengthens the lungs and spleen.



    helps build yang energy, and expels cold, dampness, and relieves cramps.



    cabbage, kidney beans, lentils, legumes, mustard greens, mutton, onions, millet, sorghum, and radishes.


Cayenne pepper

    strengthens yang energy, disperses congestion, expels cold, and good for abdominal pains.


African Cassava

    is known to inhibit cell sickling and building red blood formation.  It is commonly eaten on the African continent where few Africans have sickle cell anemia. 


        This is by no means a complete list of foods that aid in the treatment of sickle cell disease.  Chinese and African medicine in general include a number of organic and inorganic therapeutic substances that have tremendous healing properties.  These can be purchased in most health food stores and are safe to use for treating all types of diseases.  If you are interested in receiving a full Chinese holistic diagnosis, you can contact the author at: Dr. Tariq Sawandi, Bldg 3B04-210, (D47495), P.O. Box 3466, Corcoran, CA 93212.


Note: The information in this article is not intended as a substitute for qualified professional medical care.  This is especially true when attempting to treat serious life threatening diseases.


Suggested Reading:


Foods that Heal, Maureen Salaman, 1989, Statford Press.

Traditional Foods are Your Best Medicine, Dr. Ronald P. Schmid, 1987, Ballantine Press.

The Way of Herbs, Dr. Michael Tierra, 1990, Simon and Schuster. 


   Copyright by Tariq Sawandi, M.H.

May 2002.  All rights reserved.



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