As regular readers, clients and friends will know, I really believe in the ethos of the Chinese way of life when it comes to health. It has an approach of balance that incorporates all systems of the body, which sometimes in our western culture we oversee. Since I’ve been pregnant I’ve had people write to me about conception, pregnancy and birth.
My approach to all of this has been with as much awareness as possible to my total being, this allowed me to keep as balanced as possible throughout (not all, but most of the time!). Coupled with trying to keeping stress at an all time low. Our next Healers Journal entry is about Chinese medicine & pregnancy by Chloe Ogden who is a client, friend, herbalist & acupuncturist in London.
Have a read, it relates to pregnancy however the ethos can be threaded through life in general. Here it is:
Traditional Chinese Medicine for Pregnancy
Over the course of its long history, Traditional Chinese medicine has endlessly contemplated natural cycles and the generation of new life, but about two thousand years ago, the first (known) Chinese medical document emerged which specifically addresses the health of the mother and baby in pregnancy and childbirth. The detail is precise and terminology can be baffling, but the overall approach is very easy to sum up:
The health of both mother and baby depends on the vitality of the blood.
For the mother, who is lending out her body and sharing resources with another (growing) human being, the quality and vigour of the blood becomes increasingly important.
The pregnant body has an extra heart beating away, and an increase in blood flow and pressure (with the monthly loss of blood temporarily halted) which is often detectable to Chinese medicine practitioners on the pulse as a “slippery” quality, indicating surplus blood in the vessels.
In Western medicine great care is taken to monitor the overall blood pressure and nutrient load of the blood. We are familiar with the blood being a delivery system for oxygen and digestive nutrients to our tissues, as well as a remover of waste products such as carbon dioxide and urea. But Chinese Medicine attributes some other properties to the blood which flows within us, such as the blood’s connection with your awareness, your ability to engage with life, what we might term the quality of your spirit. This is linked to the ability of very active blood to richly supply nerves. Think of body hair and fingernails - bloodless and unable to feel pain when cut - for something to be within our realm of perception, it has to be supplied with blood. In this way Blood is seen as your vital fluid, your source of liquid, flowing warmth and expression of life.
Many common complaints such as insomnia, aches and pains, digestive problems and menstrual irregularities are deeply entwined with the state of your blood. Further, once you are pregnant, these issues - which may have been minor and even asymptomatic before - are often exacerbated and worsened by the increasing demands on your system.
So what affects the blood?
The quality of our blood is dictated by many things which we could summarise as input, output and flow.
Input is affected by how well we eat, how efficiently our digestive system is working, the quality of the air we breathe and how effectively our lungs can expand and contract to get the oxygen to the tiny capillaries of the alveoli, how deeply and consistently we sleep, how much nature we experience.
Modern lifestyles mean that many women have depleted blood - difficulty conceiving and miscarriages can be consequences of this - and further symptoms are very common during pregnancy. Muscle cramps in the feet and legs are a sign that these tissues are crying out for more blood, stuck in the process of creating a massive contraction to squeeze out what they can from the vessels. Headaches, dizziness and heart palpitations can also result from an insufficiency of blood in the vessels.
The baby is your body’s priority, and will get what it needs to grow, meaning that the mother may often go without. The effect of this cannot be underestimated. Growing, birthing, breast-feeding and taking care of another life will take an enormous toll on your body. So little
emphasis is given to helping a mother replenish her resources before jumping back into the demands of life, which is a major factor in the exhaustion and post-natal depression that so many new mothers suffer from.
Output relates to how much we exercise and sweat (both of which deplete the blood), how late into the night do we stay up, how much do we worry or ‘overthink’, how many people do we look after, how hard do we work, how many screens do we stare at, demanding huge amounts of blood flow to eyes and brain and not the baby?
Another thing to say here is to be cautious with drinking large volumes of cold fluid. Your stomach is like the pilot light of a boiler which should stay lit and warm to gently cook and break down the food you eat. If you drown it in a gallon of iced cola, or even water, you will put that fire out, and your digestion will suffer accordingly. Small sips of warm or room temperature fluid throughout the day, ideally avoiding mealtimes, are preferable. Keeping your feet and lower abdomen warm (front and back) is also highly advisable, especially after the birth. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a postpartum woman in the eyes of Chinese medicine is for her to catch a cold, as her immune system is so vulnerable at this time, enabling the cold to penetrate deeper into her system potentially causing more long term problems.
Chinese medicine is less interested in overall blood pressure and more focussed on balancing various different pressures across systems in the body. Much of this is again directly related to blood flow or lack of it, but here it is also worth mentioning that much overused word “stress” and its role. In Chinese medicine the emotions are considered to be a causative factor in disease and disorders; the activity of the mind orchestrating a delicate but definite influence on the state of the physiology.
Pregnancy brings with it a plethora of shoulds and shouldn’ts and what-ifs and if-onlys, all of which create mental and subsequent physical tension that you may not even be aware of. You will be bombarded with well-meaning advice, but even the healthiest and safest diet, exercise, or course of action can be a source of stress (and therefore a source of blockage) if it goes against your deeper feelings.
So how can we affect the blood?
Chinese herbal medicine has many ways to supplement the blood and ensure that it can flow freely around the body, the principles of which can be adapted to food choices. Herbal medicine is fantastic at breaking down stagnation (think clots in your period, or severe period pain), nourishing the substance of weak blood (think pale, light periods, dizziness, cold extremities) and ensuring fluids are warm and moving freely in and out of the plasma and tissues (think swollen feet and legs, abdominal discomfort, gas, reflux and nausea). All, if administered correctly, without the side effects that stronger medications might cause.
Herbs are prescribed according to what the practitioner can feel on your pulse (hence the state of your blood). We use the flavour and nature of herbs to elicit specific actions in your body. Pungent spicy flavoured herbs will herb disperse fluids and move them towards the surface, warm herbs will dispel cold and move the blood and dry up areas of damp, salty herbs can break up accumulations and masses, sweet herbs (not usually so necessary with today’s diets) help to build flesh and moderate heat, sour flavours will astringe fluids while bitter can drain and move stagnant fluids.
Acupuncture and bodywork techniques such as tuina can also be highly effective, especially when it comes to relieving tight muscles and ligaments which are being stretched to accommodate the growing child (potentially causing pelvic, low back and sciatic pain or even carpal tunnel syndrome). Tense tissue often means stuck fluids, qi and blood, which equates to pain and sometimes swelling, and needling acupuncture points can release this tension quickly and easily. Stuck fluids are also prone to heating up, and this can cause nausea/vomiting if in the epigastric region, or urinary infections and urgency when lower in the abdomen.
But the main thing….
is that with all this extra blood, and therefore awareness and perceptive ability, in your system, try to use it to your advantage. Pregnancy is above all the time to tune into your intuition and learn to listen to what your body actually needs and when. This is not an easy skill to develop, but you are the person with the most direct line to your baby and your baby will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t.
We have outsourced so much of our lives to what others think is right or good, especially in the realm of healthcare. Don’t doubt the value and accuracy of your own inner voice and common sense. Putting yourself back in touch with the natural cycle of your inner world and the dance it is doing with the irresistible forces of the world around you is, after all, exactly the principle the ancient Chinese tried to live by.
Realistic and enjoyable awareness of yourself in the context of the bigger picture of life is not only the best medicine, it is what the development of yourself, your child and the adult they will hopefully become, is all about.