April 9, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Carlton Moeller | Illustration by Xixi Qin
Bloodletting, otherwise known as phlebotomy, is a medical practice that has been used for at least 2500 years. In modern times, it’s often thought of as an ill-advised medical practice of the past, but with such a long history of use, some think it must have conferred some type of benefit. Some modern studies seem to agree.
For instance, a reenact study coming out of the University of Chicago in 2004 found that bloodletting may be beneficial in slowing down the growth of staph infections. Staph relies on its host’s excess heme iron stores — and bloodletting gets rid of blood, and thus, excess iron. Before antibiotics, bacterial infections such as staph must have been a very common cause of severe disease, and this is one proposed reason why bloodletting was such a common practice.
But with the marvel of modern medicine that is antibacterial drugs, is there any use for bloodletting still? It seems not, as most assume that there is no accepted modern use for this practice. However, the rare condition hemochromatosis, which is a dangerous buildup of iron in the body, is actually treated in contemporary times with bloodletting. Unsurprisingly, premenopausal women have a much lower risk of developing this condition due to their natural monthly blood loss.
Apart from hemochromatosis, there is no other rigorously accepted use for bloodletting; however, several studies suggest it can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. On the other hand, these have been contested by other studies that suggest the opposite. But there is, for obvious reasons, a temporary decrease in blood pressure after blood donation, which may help people with hypertension.
Throughout humankind’s evolution, there were always abundant chances to lose blood, be it from scrapes, cuts, leeches, mosquitoes, animal attacks, or more. Nowadays we often separate ourselves from these disturbances, and unnatural blood retention, as in the case of hemochromatosis, may be detrimental. Moderate stressors on the body, such as exercise or being too cold or hot, are often beneficial, and donating blood may be similarly beneficial. While it won’t cure the coronavirus, donating blood feels great, could be beneficial to your health, and it is an entirely altruistic community contribution that could save someone’s life.