by Julie Colby
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is an ancient healing system that has been extremely effective in treating women on their journey through pregnancy, birth, and the postpartum phase. Three commonly implemented modalities in modern day practice are: acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy. The underlying premise of TCM is that energy (Qi) is a life force that everyone and everything are made from. We all require Qi to survive and maintain. When disharmony manifests, whether physically emotionally, or spiritually, we practitioners of TCM say that there is a disturbance in the flow of Qi. Pregnant mamas throughout the ages know that pregnancy, birth, and postpartum cause our Qi to travel far off the beaten path. As TCM postulates that we are all unique, dynamic beings, the roads down which the childbearing years take us depend on many factors (age of conception, underlying disposition, lifestyle choices, just to name a few). The point of departure, as well as the paths we veer off on our healing journey, are known as our pattern according to to TCM. That is a rudimentary synapsis of TCM theory. Let’s get to some of the juicy specifics of what TCM can address:
Pregnancy is when the Palace of The Child (the uterus) is growing and nurturing a sweet babe. As sacred and miraculous as this critical life event is, TCM views pregnancy as Qi blockage for women’s bodies to function optimally. Let’s face it, week-by-week, the growing uterus expands and pushes the internal organs upward, where space is less than abundant. Conditions such as: heartburn, nausea and vomiting, round ligament pain, urinary tract infections, itching, back and sciatic pain, and carpal tunnel are quite common. Other common issues that arise in pregnancy are: positional concerns (breech and occiput posterior are the most common), postdates (babies gestating beyond the traditional forty weeks), and anxiety.
Acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy are all helpful in reducing the severity of these conditions and have almost no side effects. In contemporary clinical practice, disposable surgical steel needles are placed in various acupoints along pathways (also known as meridians or channels) of the body and retained for 20-40 minutes. The intent of acupuncture is to access and manipulate Qi that needs to be redirected. Some describe the sensation as tingling, itchy, heavy, relaxing, or warming. Herbs and foods also can be prescribed according to one’s individual pattern. TCM employs an amazing model called the Five Element System (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood). Each herb and food belongs to a particular Element and possesses a particular thermal (Hot, Warm, Neutral, Cool, and Cold) property. Knowing which ones work for you and why is helpful in making practical decisions when going to the grocery store and considering what’s cooking for dinner.
Most TCM practitioners, particularly those that focus on pregnant women, know that regular acupuncture treatments throughout pregnancy and especially in the last month keep Qi flowing throughout the body. Harmonious Qi flow often has powerful outcomes for labor encouragement and we see better outcomes in birth. In fact, acupuncture can be a remarkable tool during labor itself for: relaxation, fatigue, positioning, and progression. In the immediate postpartum, acupuncture can be used to: promote urination, reduce bleeding, encourage birth of the placenta, and to strengthen a woman’s overall Qi.
TCM has a gorgeous protocol for postpartum women known as The Golden Month. During these forty days, women stay home (preferably skin-to-skin) and bond with their precious newborn babe. Cold foods and beverages are forbidden and warm, nourishing foods are served. Visitors are kept at bay, family (often a mother, grandmother, aunt, or sister) attends to all household chores, and mama’s activity and attention is focused on recovery and breastfeeding (if this is her wish). Women given this incredible gift of healing in the postpartum phase have amazing outcomes in: establishing a successful breastfeeding relationship, nurturing emotional health, healing tears or lacerations related to birth, and overall, navigating life with a new member of the tribe. Another powerful tool that TCM suggests is placenta encapsulation. The placenta contains nutrient rich medicine that reharmonizes the overall Qi of the body.
Above all else, making intentional decisions regarding our own health is empowering. To pause, reflect, and make informed decisions about how we birth, how we live, and what goes into our body and our healing is a very normal thing that should be rooted in personal preference and evidence-based research. Being a TCM practitioner, mother of three, and embracing these principles throughout my own birth journeys has propelled me to commit my life calling to trusting in women’s wisdom and particularly in knowing a little can go a long way. A little insight into The Five Elements and thermal properties can make some revolutionary changes for many.
Julie Colby is a Licensed Acupuncturist, a Birth and Postpartum Doula, and an Aspiring Midwife. She owns Lady Slipper Wellness Center in NE Minneapolis and loves fielding inquiries regarding health. From time to time she teaches classes or holds workshops on TCM and Women’s Wisdom. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.