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TCM practitioners describe iron deficiency and explain how it may lead to anaemia, its symptoms such as cold hands and feet, causes, and methods to treat it. Photo: Shutterstock

Cold hands and feet? It could be iron deficiency – TCM practitioners provide tips on how to fix this common condition

  • Iron deficiency can lead to anaemia, with symptoms of fatigue, weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath
  • Dried longan, lotus seeds and dates are among the foods that can help restore qi and overcome deficiencies, traditional Chinese medicine practitioners say

Feeling a bit peaky in the cold weather and cannot seem to warm your hands and feet no matter what you do? You might be iron deficient – but a simple change in your diet may fix this.

If left unchecked, iron deficiency can lead to anaemia – when the number of red blood cells, or haemoglobin in them, is lower than normal.

Haemoglobin carries oxygen around the body. If you have too few or abnormal red blood cells, or not enough haemoglobin, the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues will decrease. This may cause fatigue, weakness, dizziness and shortness of breath.

About 30 per cent of the global population has this condition, which affects women three to five times more than men. The World Health Organization estimates that 42 per cent of children under five years of age and 40 per cent of pregnant women worldwide are anaemic.

According to TCM, frequent dizziness, pale complexion, and cold hands and feet are often related to blood deficiency. Photo: Shutterstock

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, anaemia was responsible for 5,633 deaths in the country in 2020.

Iron-deficiency anaemia can largely be prevented by eating a balanced and varied diet with iron-rich foods. To get the most out of iron in foods, experts advise including vitamin C in your diet, and being aware of foods that contain iron absorption blockers, such as tannin in tea and coffee.

Traditional Chinese medicine – its history, therapies and uses

To prevent or treat iron deficiency, general medical advice points to eating iron-rich foods such as red meat. People with this condition who are on a plant-based diet can turn to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which takes a more holistic perspective when it comes to iron deficiency.

Iron-deficiency anaemia is identified as a blood syndrome or blood deficiency and can be described as a general weakness of the body,” says Yoyo Sze Tung-yan, a registered Chinese medicine practitioner at Chain’s Medicare Centre in Hong Kong’s Central district.
“Common symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia include fatigue and drowsiness at early stages, followed by fatigue, sallow or pale complexion, hair loss, dizziness, tinnitus, palpitations, shortness of breath, lethargy or insomnia, dreaminess, loss of appetite, and a swollen abdomen, which may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting or constipation.”
Yoyo Sze is a registered Chinese medicine practitioner at Chain’s Medicare Centre in Central, Hong Kong. Photo: Yoyo Sze
To prevent or treat iron deficiency, general medical advice points to eating iron-rich foods such as red meat. Photo: Shutterstock

Hong Kong registered Chinese medicine practitioner Yu Man-fung agrees. “According to TCM, frequent dizziness, pale complexion, and cold hands and feet are often related to blood deficiency.

“Blood deficiency refers to weakness of blood or insufficient blood supply in the body, which leads to the loss of nourishment to vital organs … resulting in physical weakness.”

Blood production is closely related to the spleen, Sze says.
Yu Man-fung is a Hong Kong-registered Chinese medicine practitioner. Photo: Yu Man-fung
“[According to] TCM … the spleen has the function of absorbing food, transforming qi [energy] and blood with nutrients, and moderates the blood to prevent bleeding. This ties the spleen inextricably to the stomach.”
Problems may occur if the spleen fails to function properly, and TCM separates different types of iron deficiencies with corresponding organs. Apart from the heart, the kidneys play an important role in the production of blood, and the normal work of the spleen depends on the nourishment of the yang and qi from the kidneys.

In TCM, the diagnosis of iron-deficiency anaemia is a combination of weakness of the spleen and stomach.

Lotus seeds and fox nuts: disease fighting, gluten-free superfoods

Sze suggests that those who suffer from insufficient qi and blood deficiency can add dried longan or lotus seeds to their diet, to nourish the heart and spleen.

Common symptoms of qi and blood deficiency include dizziness, a pale or yellowish complexion, fatigue, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or irregular menstruation.

She recommends three-date tea, which helps to nourish the qi and blood.

Dates and longans can help restore nutrients in those with iron deficiency.

Three-date tea


4 dried red dates

4 dried black dates

1 dried preserved date

2g American ginseng

700ml of water

Method: Simmer ingredients for 20 minutes, turn off the heat and let sit for 15 minutes before drinking.

Common symptoms of qi and blood deficiency include dizziness and fatigue. Photo: Shutterstock

Symptoms of spleen and kidney deficiency include a sallow complexion, cold limbs, tinnitus, dizziness and loose stools. In this case, the following herbal concoction can help nourish the blood by warming the yang and nourishing the spleen and kidney.

Herbal concoction to nourish the blood


30g Mongolian milkvetch root

15g largehead atractylodes rhizome

4 pieces of dried longan

30g peanuts

15g dried yam

15g poria cocos mushrooms

6g lotus seeds

6g dried goji berries

1 litre of water

Method: Add ingredients to water, bring to a boil over high heat and then turn to low heat for 20 minutes before drinking.

Acupuncture: its history, how it works, its benefits and side effects

Yu suggests acupuncture and moxibustion can also help with nourishing blood.
Most importantly, Yu says that iron deficiency is closely related to lifestyle and recommends that, in addition to TCM and acupuncture treatment, “you should maintain an optimistic mood, have enough sleep, eat a regular and balanced diet, and include moderate exercise in your lifestyle”.

Also, she says, avoid fried, spicy and frozen foods.

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