Traditional Chinese Medicine and Pregnancy
It's all about finding your inner zen...
Looking to give your chances of getting pregnant a holistic boost? Or seeking all-natural remedies for a challenging pregnancy? Dr. Troy Sing and Dr. Cecilia Cheung of Health Wise explain how Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can help women conceive and cope with their pregnancies.
Traditional Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine may sound “Old World” to some people, but there’s a fair amount of evidence that shows it (especially acupuncture) can be a reliable treatment method. In the past 20 years, the amount of scientific and medical literature on TCM has surged; run a quick search for “acupuncture” on PubMed (the world’s largest source of medical and life science journals) and a little more than 21,000 articles will pop up. In Hong Kong, TCM is regulated by the Hospital Authority; it also recently launched an integrated Western-Chinese medicine pilot project in select public hospitals.
Using the most basic of terms, TCM is an alternative healing practice that aims to treat patients using holistic methods that also enhance their overall well-being. TCM utilizes a wide range of therapies, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, moxibustion, cupping, qi gong (breathing exercises), tui na (therapeutic massage) and diet (eating specific foods to treat symptoms). These therapeutic methods help treat functional problems, including weak organs and even infertility.
Infertility and IVF
Couples seeking help for infertility follow a customized treatment course that weaves herbal medicine and acupuncture therapy together. They also change their daily habits to lead a balanced lifestyle (a fundamental element of TCM that emphasizes an individual’s well-being) to complement the course.
And as each treatment strategy is tailored for each individual (it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach), an integrated plan can be created for IVF patients to bring out the best of both medical worlds. “We’re all-inclusive,” Sing stresses. “I see value in the use of Western medicine; it’s very functional.”
Recent research suggests that acupuncture alone can help increase the chance of successful IVF treatment by up to 40%. For IVF patients, acupuncture is administered during the lead-up to the retrieval of the eggs, just after the embryo transfer, and a few days after the implantation period. For non-IVF patients, acupuncture is done at other key periods, including during the ovulation period. Acupuncture helps by opening up the body’s qi and increasing blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, making them more receptive to the sperm and IVF treatment.
Herbal medicine (which can contain up to 15 ingredients) is also taken to help increase sperm count and enhance mobility, and improve the ovaries’ ability to produce quality eggs. Common ingredients used for women include cinnamon, peony, and angelica root. For men, herbs like dodder seeds and yin yang huo or “horny grass weed” (yes, it does exactly what you’re thinking) are popular.
Men with poor sperm quality are also advised to eat foods rich in Vitamin E and beta carotene, such as: avocados, pumpkin, vegetable oils, carrots, dark green leafy vegetables (like spinach) and apricots. These foods help improve the overall quality of the sperm, including its mobility, morphology (shape) and fertility.
Above all, Sing emphasizes the need for couples to de-stress and relax. “Stress in our body provokes automatic responses; the body is producing a whole lot of responses to deal with that adrenaline rush,” explains Sing. “Conception is not high on the list when the body is under a fight or flight response.”
It’s no surprise that his advice, however, comes off as ironic for couples desperate to become parents. But for Sing, it’s not a coincidence there’s a positive correlation between relaxation and conception. “Why else do they find so many couples conceive when they’re on holiday?” he asks.
So instead of obsessing over your ovulation cycle, join a yoga class or hold an impromptu dance party to boost your endorphin levels and alleviate anxiety.
During the course of their pregnancy, women will seek TCM treatment to supplement the primary prenatal care they receive from their OB/GYN. Sing and Cheung share a few simple TCM remedies on relieving common complaints during pregnancy.
First Trimester: The most common complaints Sing and Cheung hear about are morning sickness and nausea. To help alleviate the discomfort, Cheung suggests gently massaging what’s known as neuguan, or “inner gate.” The inner gate – so called because it directly links to the stomach via a meridian line – is an acupressure point located about three finger widths down from the inside of the wrist. Massaging it for a few minutes will help calm your stomach down.
Forbidden Acupuncture PointsA few pressure areas are ‘forbidden’ or discouraged from being stimulated by an inexperienced practitioner, especially during the first and second trimester. One such area is around the ankle, but “the more important one is around the belly,” stresses Sing.
The reason they’re mostly avoided, Cheung explains, is because they can directly affect the uterus and even induce labour. So, while it’s a handy trick to use during the third trimester (especially if the baby is past its due date), it’s a no-no for women still in the early stages of their pregnancies.
Second Trimester: As the baby develops and grows larger in the womb, it puts extra pressure on the mum’s lower back, causing pain. To relieve the tension, cupping therapy is commonly used, where a glass cup is heated (which creates a vacuum) and then applied to the back. The suction draws blood to the surface of the skin, which increases the blood flow and relaxes tight muscles.
Third Trimester: Apart from seeking help for common complaints like back pain, pelvic pain and swollen feet (all of which can be alleviated with acupuncture), parents also frequently request treatment to induce easy labour. At around week 37-39, these parents are given a portable machine with little gel patches that deliver waves of gentle electric currents. The patches are applied onto acupressure points located about four finger widths above the inner ankle. “It’s like a massage,” Cheung says. It’s also quite gentle: “It’s not a ‘more pain, more gain’ thing,” she adds.
One more thing
Research suggests TCM can bring about favourable results, but will it be a good match for you? Before embarking on an integrated medical journey, always consult your primary doctor and your TCM doctor. And a caveat: although integrating TCM and IVF can help boost a couple’s chances at conceiving and becoming parents, it’s not a bulletproof plan. Each couple is different, so what may work for some, may not work for others. Remember to keep an open mind and do what feels right for you and your partner.