Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Thursday 21 June 2012

How to have a healthy pregnancy: First trimester

 This post focuses on the first trimester of pregnancy and is the first in the series on pregnancy health. The second and third trimesters are discussed in separate posts.

Pregnancy is a key time not just in the life of the baby but of the mother as well. I have seen the health of women being completely transformed by a pregnancy: allergies disappearing forever, skin conditions completely clearing never to come back, energy levels boosted. This is a true opportunity to get rid of toxicity and re-educate the body into a balanced state that will give you good health for years to come. Conversely, not looking after yourself during pregnancy can have the opposite effects, so it is worth thinking of how you are going to adopt a life-style that supports both your energy and the life of your baby. 

Good energy and nutrition can turn this into a healthy baby
This is particularly crucial in the first months of pregnancy when the pregnancy itself can be easily put at risk by any type of excess. Remembering that the most important baby organs start to form at this time can give you motivation to stay toxin-free and to obtain as much energy as you can from nourishment and rest. This clean, strong energy will be your personal contribution to the health of your baby.

In terms of Chinese medicine, this is a time when the Blood and Yin need to be plentiful to provide nourishment and moisture to the embryo via the uterine lining and, later on, the placenta. Yang also needs to be strong to fuel the transformation of a fertilised egg into a ball of cells and later into layers of tissue that will become the spine, the skin and each of the organs of the baby. Because they are the root of Yin and Yang and the organs of reproduction and development, keeping the Kidneys healthy and their energy strong is essential during pregnancy. This can be done by supporting Yin and Yang. The nourishment of Yin is achieved through avoiding excessive activity, having a supportive diet and staying as stress-free as possible, while Yang is strengthened by having enough rest and keeping warm inside and out.

First trimester essentials

The four most important things to bear in mind during the first few months of pregnancy are:

1. Rest up, no need to push yourself:  Many women feel that they should carry on “as normal” during the first months of pregnancy. Contrary to this idea, in the first months of pregnancy rest should be taken really seriously.  As I mentioned, above the energy requirements on the part of the expecting mother during this time are enormous. It may not feel like much is happening, but cell division and the formation of tissues and organs are not small tasks. 

Heavy exercise especially running and cycling long distances can actually affect the health of the foetus, and in cases may result in miscarriages (1).  Many women actually feel too tired to do any exercise during the first months of pregnancy. This is normal and may be an indication that you need to rest. Pushing yourself at this time is not advisable. If you have energy for exercise, try swimming, walking in the open air (but not long distances), and gentle yoga.

2. Reduce your stress levels: needless to say, stress can have a detrimental effect on pregnancy and can impair foetal development (2). Often there is little that can be done to avoid stressful situations and the hormonal surges occurring during pregnancy may not make it easy to deal with them. 

However, you can build up on resources can help you cope better.
  • Avoid stimulants: coffee and tea should be banned from your diet, especially if you are prone to feel stressed. If you love chocolate, try to reduce your intake, not only it contains caffeine but its high sugar contents could contribute to pregnancy-related diabetes (gestational diabetes).
  • Meditation can give you tools that you can use to keep calm during stressful moments
  • Avoid things that upset you: this may include certain people, violent/horror films and books, conflict, watching the news or anything else that makes your blood boil.
  • Surround yourself with relaxation-inducing objects, people, and music. Lavender flowers can induce a calm state and promote sleep, while drinking camomile, lime flower or passion flower tea can help you keep calm.
If applying self-help techniques is either difficult or ineffective, Acupuncture can be very effective at reducing stress and anxiety levels, improving sleep, increasing energy, and generally promoting a more relaxed attitude.

3. Eat to maintain two people healthy: The idea that we need to “eat for two” is not really an excuse to stuff ourselves with cakes and chocolates during pregnancy.  In fact, it is becoming increasingly clear that what we need to do is eat “twice as healthily” rather than “twice as much”.  It is not just a question of logic that eating junk or other unhealthy food during pregnancy will affect the baby, it is a fact. Studies are now showing that what women put in their mouths during pregnancy can change the DNA of the baby and can serve as the base to a host of future health problems (3).

Apart from making an effort to follow a balanced diet there are some additional tips for the first few months of pregnancy:
  • Avoid spicy food and stimulants such as black tea and coffee: in TCM spices such as chili and black pepper, and stimulants have a strong moving effect on the Qi and Blood of the body. This is definitely not wanted during the first months of pregnancy as it can result in bleeding especially if the mother’s energy is already low.
  • Ban alcohol, tobacco, and drugs: the toxicity of these substances will end up in your liver and in your baby’s too.
  • Keep the sugar down: Refined sugar and refined carbs create acidity in the body and can contribute to indigestion, heartburn, and pregnancy-related diabetes. You will be doing a favour to your baby if you switch to wholemeal carbs and unrefined sugars such as honey and molasses.
  • Increase your protein intake: Protein can provide you with energy and nourish the Blood and Yin. Good quality eggs and chicken are good options for meat eaters. Vegetarians need to be careful with the protein intake as there is high demand of Yin and Blood especially during the first months of pregnancy. Eating plenty of pulses and adding moderate amounts of nuts and seeds to your meals is essential.
  • Avoid eating excessive amounts of cold and raw foods as this may rob your Yang energy of the power it needs to hold the pregnancy and encourage foetal growth. Eating warm and well-cooked foods and adding small amounts of fresh ginger can help warm the body and keep the digestive system strong. For more on this click here.
 Eating well also promotes energy but when the digestive system is unable to extract nutrients from the food we eat, help may be needed. Acupuncture can be used to strengthen the digestive system and, combined with specific dietary advice, can help relieve morning sickness, heartburn, indigestion and constipation which may be preventing the proper absorption of nutrients.

Acupuncture and moxa can warm the Yang during pregnancy
4. Keep warm: The Kidney channel runs along the lower abdomen into the inner part of the leg down to the inner ankles and feet. The Kidneys themselves are found in the lumbar region of the back and their energy governs the whole of the lower back area. These areas are most susceptible to cold and wind and as they are regarded to be directly connected to the Kidneys, their exposure to the elements can have a detrimental effect on the Kidney Yang. 

Because the strength of Kidney Yang is important to maintain the pregnancy and support foetal development during the first months of pregnancy, it is considered essential to always keep the lower back and abdomen, and the lower legs and feet covered and warm.
If the Yang of the Kidneys was weak prior to pregnancy, symptoms such as feeling constantly cold and exhausted, frequent urination, sluggish digestion, and heaviness in the limbs and lower abdomen can occur during the first months of pregnancy. In these cases both Acupuncture and moxibustion may be needed to re-ignite the fire of the Kidneys and strengthen the Yang energy so that the pregnancy can be protected.

Pregnancy can be used as an opportunity to promote long-term health in both mother and baby. Fathers-to-be can also take advantage of this time to strengthen their own energy and health so that they can fully take part in the production of a healthy family.  Although this may sound daunting, understanding and assuming this responsibility at the right time could be the key to the joy and health of the whole family for years to come.

1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7014828.stm

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/may/31/childrensservices.medicineandhealth 

3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-13119545 

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