From bleeder to breeder… 5 pre-fertility tips from TCM

So, I’m in my mid-30’s. Many of my friends – and many people who come to my clinic – are having kids or hoping to. Some are unsure and still considering it. Some feel their time ticking away. Some want to and are having trouble getting pregnant. Some were pregnant and aren’t anymore. Some really don’t want kids and aren’t worried about regretting it later.

Some of us are okay with where we’re at; some are not.

This short article does not address all the emotional, existential, financial or relationship considerations in having children. It does not address all the diverse beautiful ways that family gets created, challenged, salvaged and rebuilt. It addresses a somewhat mundane, but often emotionally-charged, topic that has become increasingly relevant as people become parents later in life: fertility.

For those who are undecided, or still searching for a partner/ co-parent/ intentional community/ other support, this article is also about ‘buying time‘ – age-related fertility pressures are increasingly common.

NOTE: I’m directing this article primarily at those of us who menstruate (many women, and also any trans/ intersex and/or genderqueer folk who menstruate/ have a uterus/ may want to carry a baby), as we’re the ones the clock seems to run out faster on. However, the principles of an early, holistic approach applies to prospective parents of any gender.

The business of baby-making

Fertility clinics are now a huge business in Ontario. You may have heard the news that OHIP has just elected to cover one IVF treatment. As it turns out, Chinese medicine also has much to offer in the fertility mix. A meta-analysis of research studies concluded that “management of female infertility with Chinese Herbal Medicine can improve pregnancy rates 2-fold within a 4 month period compared with Western Medical fertility drug therapy or IVF. Assessment of the quality of the menstrual cycle, integral to TCM diagnosis, appears to be fundamental to successful treatment of female infertility.” Other research studies have found significantly higher pregnancy rates among IVF participants who received acupuncture than those who didn’t.

Many people don’t realize that one of the early traditions contributing to Chinese healing was Taoism, which among other topics was very concerned with: sex, and longevity!

A few tips to consider from Chinese medicine

1) TIP #1: It’s never too early. Most people don’t seek out Chinese medicine for fertility until they’ve been trying for awhile, or they’ve experienced a miscarriage or two. And yet the best approach would be to get Chinese medicine support in the ‘pre-fertility’ stages – whether decided or not, we can always optimize the state of our bodies (and minds) for the possibilities of birthing down the road.

2) TIP #2: Understand what makes the clock tick. In Chinese medicine, fertility usually declines for one of the following reasons, many of which would not necessarily result in an ‘abnormal’ finding at your local fertility clinic:

1. Declining ‘Kidney’ energy. The ‘Kidney’ energy system (not your physical kidney organs, but the energetic system in Chinese medicine) is most intimately connected to reproduction and represents the life energy that gets passed down from generation to generation. The ‘Kidneys’ can be affected by prolonged or extreme stress/fear/trauma, late sleeping and lack of rest, overexposure to cold or heat (foods or environments), digestive issues, asthma, significant or chronic illnesses, etc. Signs of low Kidney energy can include: chronic low back or knee pain/weakness, low libido, dizziness, fatigue, bone weakness, ringing in the ears, frequent urination, cold feet, night sweating, hair loss or early greying, frequent fear or lack of willpower, and – infertility. (Most of these signs also have other possible causes.)

2. Low ‘Qi’ (life energy) and/or ‘Blood’. Many people who menstruate become low on (Chinese medicine) Blood levels (even if not technically anemic). This can apply especially to those who (a) have bled heavily much of their cycles, or who have very light periods (b) have weak stomachs, (c) are frequently fatigued or dizzy, (d) have pale or dry skin, hair, lips or tongue, (e) have floaters (spots that float around) in the field of vision, (f) experience some kinds of anxiety, insomnia, vivid dreaming, and/or chronic pain.

3. Qi or Blood ‘Stagnation’. Usually manifesting as emotional and menstrual irregularity, as well as pain, PMS, blood clotting, and conditions such as fibroids, ovarian cysts and endometriosis, ‘stagnation’ can affect fertility. By itself, stagnation is relatively quicker to address than #1 and #2 above, depending on its severity. This is best done before pregnancy is attempted (or while attempts are suspended).

The above factors can all be improved (not miraculously, but significantly) with a (custom) combination of acupuncture, nutrition, lifestyle, qi gong (Taoist-derived breathing exercises), and herbal medicine. While we can’t completely defy ‘aging’, this can help “buy time” in terms of baby-making.

3) TIP #3: It’s in your ‘blood’. For better or worse (but well, it works), we get slightly obsessed with your menstrual cycles. Length, regularity, flow, pain, clots, colour, volume, mucus, ovulation signs, and PMS signs (like irritability, bloating and breast tenderness) are all important clues to the energetics of your reproductive system. Many people in the West assume that menstrual pain, PMS, clots, and irregularity is “normal.” According to Chinese medicine, it may be common (especially over here, not so much in China), but doesn’t mean it’s optimal for fertility (let’s avoid the ‘normal’ judgment, shall we?). Also, many don’t realize that severe menstrual pain or mood swings can be addressed by Chinese medicine, usually without taking birth control pills. By looking at menstruation, ideally early on and before pregnancy is attempted, we can optimize your chances of getting and staying pregnant.

4) TIP #4: Everything is connected. When you see a Chinese medicine practitioner for fertility, the first step will always be to ensure the parent(s) to be is/are as healthy possible. ‘Health’ does not just mean ‘absence of disease’; (a) everyone has ways their wellness could be optimized, and (b) many folks with chronic illness/disease can and do have kids! We look at everything from your digestion, diet, emotions, stressors, back pain, how hot, cold, sluggish or dry you get, etc. to help you meet whatever health goals you have.

5) TIP#5: This is participatory. One of the main benefits of Chinese medicine support for fertility is the empowerment that comes with understanding your own body. You can learn to monitor signs during your cycle, including ovulation and bleeding, and note the changes from month to month. You can observe firsthand what effects your diet, emotions, or daily habits have on your cycles.

In conclusion

Many jurisdictions around the world recognize Chinese medicine’s valuable contributions to fertility enhancement, miscarriage prevention, and pregnancy, pre- and post-birth care. Whether you’re planning for a child now, or just keeping your options open, it’s never to early to check things out.

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