It’s clear that offering a woman’s body an opportunity to prepare and optimise health before conception is not widely promoted in our society. Many women are left to wonder what they can do to prepare as the standard trip to their GP yields little holistic advice. To house new life, a women’s body needs and wants to be in a state of optimal health, and as fertility issues become increasingly common many women are looking to traditional practices, like acupuncture and Chinese medicine, to prepare themselves for the journey to motherhood.
From a traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) perspective there are many ways to prepare for conception and optimise fertility. We must first understand that the Chinese medicine system is vast and interconnected. For the purpose of this blog we’ll be looking at the most pertinent parts of TCM female physiology that relate to fertility.
The most important thing to remember is, the main thing that can go awry with women is with the blood, which is linked to menstruation, gestation and lactation.
With this in mind many of the TCM treatments and practices that support fertility have to do with the production, storage and movement of blood. This is best understood by examining the relationships between the organs involved in these processes. TCM considers the relationships between the Kidneys, Spleen, Heart and Liver to be the main influences of fertility. Their roles are to preserve, protect and nourish a women’s body, prime the womb for conception, pregnancy and later breastfeeding and postpartum recovery.
It’s by respecting these organs that the TCM practices to prepare a woman for conception were born. A supportive diet, healthy lifestyle and stable emotional state form the basis of these traditional practices.
The Kidneys play the role of preservation by storing our essence, or Jing as it’s known in Chinese medicine. From a Western perspective you could view Jing as our genetic potential given to us by our parents. We’re all born with innate potential that can be influenced by our lifestyle, diet and environment, and how we choose to live is ultimately what influences the strength of our Jing as we age. It cannot be replaced or replenished, but we can eat well and live well to bolster our Jing and remain healthy long into old age. All fertility potential is centred in the kidneys, so when egg and sperm meet, the Jing of both parents is vitally important for the baby’s health and longevity. With this in mind both man and woman need to be in good health during conception to limit any genetic issues and allow for the best opportunity for conception. It’s not unusual for both men and women to deplete their kidneys and therefore their Jing by handling too many demands with no respite. In order to keep the Kidneys energy strong and vital one must find the balance between the yin and yang of life. Not too much activity, not too little activity and so on. The Kidneys love fortifying foods like sardines, black beans, dark leafy greens, soaked walnuts, bone broth, mineral rich seaweed and healthy saturated fats that will help to pad the adrenals.
The Spleen is the organ responsible for extracting nourishment from the food we eat as part of the process that creates Qi and blood. Its actions have been compared to the Western medical understanding of pancreatic function, but in TCM theory the Spleen does much more! Women are most prone to issues with blood, therefore the Spleen’s role is vitally important. Not only does the Spleen help to create blood and Qi, it also helps to control the blood by holding it in the vessels.
The Spleen can become overtaxed and then deficient due to disordered eating and eating low-vibe foods, like takeaway or processed sugars. When the spleen becomes deficient disharmonies related to a woman’s cycle can occur (e.g., Heavy bleeding and mid-cycle bleeding). Over time the production of blood will be hindered, leading to delayed menstruation and difficult ovulation as there is not enough Qi and blood to accommodate the process.
The Spleen works the best when we feel calm and grounded and not overwhelmed by overthinking, obsessive worrying and perfectionism. The best ways to keep the Spleen happy and create an adequate supply of Qi and blood is to eat nourishing foods like pumpkin, squash, yam and grass-fed beef. It’s ideal to eat in an environment that’s calm, without distractions like TV or phones, to chew well and enjoy every bite.
The Heart has the most eloquent role in a woman’s menstrual cycle as it not only controls blood by pushing it around the body, but it also sends blood down to the uterus, called the Bao Gong, through a channel known as the Bao Mai. Once the Spleen has separated necessary nutrients from foods and the Kidney has shared its essence and warmth the Spleen sends the blood up to the Heart to turn it red. The Heart then sends the fresh red blood down to the uterus where it builds and builds until blood spills over and menses starts, or it’s held when pregnancy occurs. Issues with the blood before reaching the Heart (e.g., not enough blood due to Spleen deficiency) can present as anxiety and heart palpations. Alternatively, if there are issues with the emotions of the Heart, mainly joy or anger, the Heart may become distracted from its connection to the uterus and lead to issues with fertility. In ancient texts it was advised that women who are trying to conceive or had become pregnant steer clear of anything that could cause them to be overworked, frustrated or angry. It was recommended to eat warm cooked foods, nothing too spicy and to avoid alcohol.
The Liver has a big job and can become easily stagnant leading to a whole host of issues. Just as with the other organs, emotions play a role, as can diet and lifestyle choices. In TCM theory the Liver is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi in the body and it also stores or “treasures” the blood, dispersing it as needed. When it comes to the menstrual cycle the Liver helps to smoothly transition a woman through the 4-phases from menstruation to ovulation. If at some point one of those phases becomes difficult and symptoms of dysfunction arise (e.g., PMS) then the liver is often looked to as one of the culprits.
The Liver relies on the Kidney, Spleen and Heart to work smoothly in order to function best. The Liver can become stagnant due to eating improper foods, frustration, anger and the pressure of comparing one’s self to others. Finding ways to manage or resolve your frustrations will certainly help to ease the Liver’s burden as will participating in activities that soothe you. For some that may look like a yoga class while others may enjoy a long walk. The Liver also loves to be fed bitter greens, beets, extra virgin olive oil and anything with a sour tase. Slow cooking methods that make foods easy to absorb compliment both the Liver and the Spleen’s functions.