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Traditional Chinese Herbs – How They Work

Herbal medicine has been used for thousands of years in countless cultures across the world. Many pharmaceutical medicines are even derived from different plant materials. Our natural world is truly a garden of medicine, which we enjoy exploring through the art of herbal medicine.

The ancient Chinese methods of diagnosing and prescribing herbs is very unique. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, illness arises from a disharmony of the natural functions of the body. The body’s internal environment is a reflection of the external patterns of nature; similarly, humans are intrinsically part of nature.

Thus, through careful and astute observation, the ancient Chinese perceived the internal workings of bodily functions. Specifically, what tendencies cause imbalance, and what can help engage the body’s natural homeostatic tendencies.

What Makes Traditional Chinese Herbs Unique

Each herb has a combination of flavours which have certain actions in the body

  • Sweet – Tonify the body, harmonize digestion, moisten dryness
  • Pungent – Disperses pathogens, move stagnation and invigorate the blood
  • Sour – Astringe and stabilize
  • Bitter – Drain and dry
  • Salty – Softens hardness, scatters lumps, drains stools
  • Bland – Drain downwards, leach out dampness, promote urination. 

Each herb has a thermal nature

  • Herbs can be Warm, Cool, Neutral, Hot or Cold. This is why we often ask questions that help us understand your body’s thermal nature. 

Each herb has a tropism or direction in the body

  • Different herbs go to different places. For example – Ji Xue Teng goes to the fingertips and toes, Bai Zhi goes to the sinuses and forehead, and Bai Shao goes to the Liver. 

Herb combinations

  • Herbs are used in combination to enhance, accentuate, counteract or suppress common or opposing effects. TCM herbs are always prescribed in combination – often between 2-25 herbs are used together in a formula to specifically suit the patient’s specific constitution.

One Thousand Questions

When you come for a visit with a Traditional Chinese Medicine Herbal Practitioner, they will ask you ‘One Thousand Questions’, because they want to know every single detail about your health.

With the myriad of details, we perceive the complex pattern that has brought them into imbalance. We can determine the thermal nature and the functional organ system imbalances. Then, we match the complexities of the constitution and nature of the imbalance with an appropriate herbal formula.

For example, if 7 people are struggling with headaches, each of these people will have different presentations: location of the pain, duration of the pain, nature of the pain, triggers for the headaches, different things that create relief or worsening of the symptoms, and more.

On top of the difference in manifestation of the headache, each person’s other signs and symptoms will be different too. The TCM practitioner takes all of these things into consideration, crafting a different custom blend of herbs for each person, ensuring that the formula matches the presentation of illness as well as the constitution.

With all of these complexities, you can imagine the process of deliberation required for each patient!

Classical Herbal Formulas

Many of the formulas we use are ancient formulations, dating up to 2000 years old. These classical formulas are then modified, depending on the patient’s unique constitution and situation as discussed above. Sometimes, we even write a formula from scratch if there isn’t one to fit a patient’s particular situation. There is a general hierarchy present for the herbs in each formula:

  1. The Emperor Herb – this is the most important ingredient of the formula and has the greatest effect on the principle pattern or disease. 
  2. The Minister Herbs – these herbs aid the Emperor Herb in the treatment of the main pattern and can also act as main ingredients to counteract a co-existing pattern.
  3. The Assistant Herbs – these herbs enhance the effects of the Emperor or Minister Herbs, directly treat a less important aspect of the pattern, moderate any toxic or unwanted effects from the Emperor or Minister Herbs, and sometimes even counteract the Emperor Herb if there is an opposing pattern.
  4. The Messenger Herbs – These herbs guide the action of the formula to a particular region of the body and harmonize the actions of the other ingredients. 

As you can see, the construction of an herbal formula is complex. 

Chinese Medicine Constitutional Approach & Epigenetics

In TCM, we have a concept called the Prenatal and Postnatal constitutions. Essentially, it is the same concept as epigenetics and DNA. The Prenatal constitution is everything that we inherited from the moment of conception,  from our parents – it is the genetic blueprint and DNA that makes up our physical body.

The Postnatal constitution is everything that we take in after conception – the air we breath, the food we eat and the thoughts we think. In short, our lifestyle turns on or turns off different parts of our genetic blueprint. It is in the interaction between these two, within the inner environment of the body, that the field of TCM works. 

Substances which interact with our epigenetics in a positive way are known as epigenetically active substances. Some substances, such as green tea or broccoli sprouts, are epigenetically active substances. This means that they have the ability to interact with our epigenetics in a positive way.

Research

Interestingly, in a study in 2011, researchers analyzed 3294 TCM herbs to find out if they have epigenetically active properties. To their surprise, they found that the 29.8% most commonly prescribed herbs have chemical constituents that interact with epigenetic related proteins!

Researchers also analyzed 200 herbal formulas to find out about their epigenetically active herbs. They discovered that each formula contains epigenetically active properties.

Interestingly, researchers found that when organized from the most actively epigenome interacting herbs to the least actively epigenome interacting herbs the results were consistent with the order of hierarchy used in each formula. These results remained the same even if the dosing is set to one gram each! This means that the most epigenetically active herb was exclusively the emperor herb and the least epigenetically active herb was the messenger herb. The pattern here is absolutely fascinating.

This research suggests that TCM herbs may even be influencing the interaction between our inner environment and our genetic expression. It also suggests that, perhaps, when the Chinese medicine practitioner is piecing together the complex patterns from the constellation of signs and symptoms, they are also treating the way the body’s inner environment can express the genetic blueprint.

At Whole Family Health our TCM specialists are always interested in discussing TCM and a care plan best suited for you. 

If you would like to book in for a free 15 minute consultation to discover if herbs would be a good fit for you, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Resources

PMID: 21785634

Connie’s Fertility Journey

June is a month that gives me a mixture of feelings.  First, it’s a month when I finally feel that summer is here and ready to spend some good time with my family.  However, it’s also a month when my emotions get triggered more because of my past miscarriage history.  

I remember after a few years of trying to conceive, my husband and I began traveling down the frustrating road of doctor visits and infertility treatments.  Whenever doctors told us we would never get pregnant naturally, I felt like everything I had ever dreamed of was being taken away. 

I felt like I was being punished by not being able to conceive and felt like I was a failure for not being able to be a mom.  After three years of infertility treatments, heart-wrenching disappointments, and faith-filled prayers, I finally got pregnant and delivered a healthy sweet boy.  

However, since I successfully conceived the first child, I expected it would be easier to have a second child.   After my son turned two years old, I was able to get pregnant again without any fertility treatments.  Both my husband and I were very excited about the news. 

However, within just a couple of months the excitement turned to sorrow.  After three ultrasounds, the doctor told us that the baby’s heartbeat could no longer be detected, confirming it was no longer viable. It was a missed miscarriage.  He also informed us that the chances of getting pregnant again were slim.  

This miscarriage journey was dark, lonely and frustrating.  I remember questioning why I had to go through a miscarriage after I had already suffered a lot from infertility.  It felt like I had fallen into a very dark pit and could not climb out on my own. I felt hopeless and exhausted about the whole experience, and I kept all of the feelings inside. In the beginning, I did not seek any help.  

During this difficult time, I received comfort and support from my husband, friends, and my faith community.  They also encouraged me to seek professional help though.  I’m grateful that I was able to find a counselling therapist who helped guide me to share, express, and process my feelings. 

These counselling sessions gave me a safe space to reflect deeply within myself, allowing me to to be with difficult emotions and to work toward accepting and integrating them. 

I was able to recognize my fears and wounds and process feelings of guilt and shame that arose from infertility and pregnancy loss.

Counselling helped me to become aware of my limitations as well as my strengths. With counselling support, my infertility and miscarriage journey has become a huge transformational life experience.

I’m thankful that I was able to find light within the darkness of that time. I can see that in the face of that difficult situation, I had the love and support of my family and friends and I am also grateful to now have a deeper understanding of the suffering and pain associated with miscarriage and infertility. This understanding fuels my compassion to help others going through similar experiences.

Many of us may have had experiences that carry strong emotions or psychological impacts that can resurface when triggered by certain events, people or even calendar dates. Please reach out to people who love you and care about you so that you don’t have to carry the burden of the struggle on your own. It can be so therapeutic to simply share your thoughts and feelings with others who can offer you comfort and support.

Because it can often be challenging for loved ones who are also directly involved and intimate with your reproductive challenges – it can also be so beneficial to seek extra support from a professional therapist or counsellor who can help hold safe space and provide you with some tools for dealing with the challenges of infertility and pregnancy loss. It certainly helped me on my own journey!

Contact us for a free 20-minute phone consultation with Connie about her fertility counselling sessions.

Image IG @nushu

Part 4: How Social Media Breaks Can Reduce Fertility Stress

Social Media Breaks 

When experiencing difficulties trying to conceive, it can be really hard on the psyche seeing pregnancy and baby announcements taking place on social media. It can cause more stress to an already stressful situation. 

That’s why I suggest taking breaks from social media from time to time. I know in this day and age, especially during a pandemic it might be hard to do this because this is a way that we stay connected to some people. Therefore, if you don’t want to take a break there are ways to navigate the system. 

Facebook has a setting where you can unfollow people (this will not notify that person that you have unfollowed them). This is a way to hide some people’s posts without unfriending them. This way, if you do want to see what is going on in their life you have the option to go to their page when you choose to.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, please feel free to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Image: @debbyillustration

Part 3: How Exercise Can Reduce Fertility Stress

Exercise 

Exercise is a great stress management tool. However, when trying to conceive there should be a healthy balance. This means that exercise should be done in moderation because on the flip side, too much exercise can actually hinder pregnancy attempts. 

Generally, it is best to exercise 3-5x/ week no longer than 1 hour each day.

If you would like to see more specific guidelines, please visit my recent blogs on exercise and conception and what types of exercise are safe when undergoing ART.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, please feel free to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Image: @chloealexisham

Part 2: How Mindfulness Can Decrease Fertility Stress

Mindfulness

Mindfulness supports the cultivation of awareness of difficult psychological states while normalizing and accepting them, thereby increasing the capacity to respond to stress with resilience.

A study published in Fertility and Sterility shows that Mindfulness-Based Programs for Infertility are an effective psychological intervention for those experiencing infertility, increasing resiliency and decreasing psychological distress (4).  

Whole Family Health and Elements of Health have teamed up to provide Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programs for fertility. By taking part in a program geared towards fertility with people who might have a similar experience to yours, your experience is validated and your ability to cope increases, helping to navigate challenging circumstances.

For more information on Mindfulness for fertility and upcoming events click on this link: https://mindfulnessforfertility.com/

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, please feel free to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Resources

PMID: 23809500

Image: @fieldandsea

Part 1: How Acupuncture Can Help Decrease Fertility Stress

Experiencing fertility issues can be extremely stressful. In fact, research published by the Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology found that the psychological symptoms of those having fertility issues were comparable to those who were diagnosed with cancer or a cardiac condition (1). 

The authors suggested that it is important for those experiencing fertility challenges to have psychosocial interventions. Therefore, it can be inferred that it is important to find ways to help cope with stress.

I’ve already shared in a recent blog about how healthy sleep can decrease stress and support fertility, in my upcoming blog series, I’ll be sharing my next top 4 choices to help you decrease stress while you are on your fertility journey.

Here’s my first recommendation and stay tuned for the rest!

1. Acupuncture 

Regular acupuncture treatments can help decrease stress and help with blood flow. Blood flow is usually restricted to certain body parts when we are stressed, and this impacts fertility. 

A study done using ultrasound to measure blood flow proved that after acupuncture, blood flow did increase blood flow in the arteries (2). 

Basically, when we’re stressed, the body increases Cortisol production. This encourages more blood flow to the brain, some organs and to the big muscles (in the past this was to help people run away from something dangerous). This also means that it diverts blood flow away from the reproductive organs. We want good blood flow to go to the reproductive organs to encourage conception. 

Another research indicated that acupuncture treatment not only activates distinct brain regions caused by imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic activities, but also modulates adaptive neurotransmitters in related brain regions to alleviate autonomic response which controls the fight-or-flight response (3).

If you would like to find out more about how we can help you, please feel free to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Resources

  1. PMID: 8142988
  2. PMID: 22778772
  3. PMID: 23762116

Image: @imangibson

Book Event: Catalogue Baby

Dr. Alda Ngo is honoured to be invited to moderate a Virtual Book Event on Thursday, May 20th at 6pm MT.

Audreys Bookstore is hosting a book event with author, Myriam Steinberg, who has just published her deeply moving tragicomic graphic memoir, Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility, about a single woman’s efforts to conceive in her forties. 

Myriam is a dear friend of Dr. Alda, who had the privilege of supporting Myriam along her journey toward motherhood. Myriam will be talking not only about her experience trying to birth her “rainbow” babies, but also about the process of writing such an emotionally charged memoir while still going through her fertility journey(!).

ABOUT THE BOOK


A few months after Myriam Steinberg turned forty, she decided she couldn’t wait any longer to become a mother. With her family and friends to support her, Myriam began her journey as a Single Mom by Choice that was far from straightforward.  

Whether it was choosing donors or opting for one medical procedure or another, she grappled with a wide variety of difficult decisions. She experienced not only the soaring highs and devastating lows of becoming pregnant and then losing her babies, but also the silences, loneliness, and taboos that often surround the loss of a pregnancy.

Although the lack of understanding and language around fetal loss and grief often made it very hard to navigate everyday life, Myriam nonetheless found solace in the community around her who rallied to sustain her. 

Beautifully illustrated by Christache, and told with humour, honesty, and courage, Catalogue Baby is one woman’s story of tragedy and beating the odds, and is a resource for all women and couples who are trying to conceive. This book is a compassionate portrait of fertility and infertility that hasn’t been seen before. 

EVENT INFO & REGISTRATION

Date: May 20, 2021
Time: 6 p.m. (MST)

Register for the event here:https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/myriam-steinberg-virtual-launch-for-catalogue-baby-tickets-153383398875

For additional info, please visit www.cataloguebabynovel.com and Instagram at @catalogue_baby

GET THE BOOK


If you would like to purchase and read the book ahead of the event, you can get your copy at Audreys Bookstore.*

The store is closed to browsing, but they are offering delivery or curbside pick-up at 10702 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton, AB


Order on-line: www.audreys.ca

Order by phone: 780-423-2487

Order by email: audrey@audreys.ca

REVIEWS

This book should be required reading for anyone working in the fertility field, as they are unlikely to find a more potent psychological study of a persistent individual experiencing infertility and loss….I found Christache’s visuals sublime, Steinberg’s story gripping
– Women Write About Comics

Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)Fertility[is] an extraordinary feat of visual storytelling 
– Foreword Review

Steinberg’s solo-mother-by-choice perspective and accessible, well-paced graphic storytelling brings a fresh angle to the pregnancy memoir canon.
– Publisher’s Weekly

Warning: you’re going to need to set aside some uninterrupted time to savour Myriam Steinberg’s new graphic novel, Catalogue Baby: A Memoir of (In)fertility because it is hard to put down.
– Ormsby Review

Graphic novels are well known for tackling a wide-range of topics and presenting them in ways that convey the subject’s emotional experience in image and script. Catalogue Baby certainly succeeds…. Christache’s capturing of the experiences… is perfect.
-Vancouver Sun

“A bracingly candid, fearless, and funny look at the misconceptions of conception and the emotional rollercoaster of fertility. Myriam Steinberg has turned her journey of heartbreak and healing into something wonderfully alive.” 
—Elan Mastai, writer/producer of THIS IS US and author of ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS.

Self-Care Abdominal Massage For Fertility

“I am feeling stressed, worried, and anxious… I know I need to relax, but I just don’t even know where to start anymore.” 

Does this feel like a familiar sentiment? The stress of trying to conceive can be high under normal circumstances, but add on what has been happening in our world the last year and that stress begins to amp up even higher. 

Abdominal Self-Massage

When I have people come to see me, one of my greatest take home recommendations for de-stressing and relaxation is actually abdominal self massage. I tend to incorporate abdominal Tui Na (Chinese massage) into my general practice to help with circulation to the reproductive organs, but it is also a great practice to help decrease stress. 

If you are looking for a different approach to bringing some calm into your life, check out the routine below! 

Mo-Fa Round Rubbing

This practice involves using the technique known as Mo Fa – Round Rubbing. This is a gentle technique that uses the palm of the hand to bring great care to a specific area of the body. 

Mo Fa is a technique that can have many benefits to the body. It can be used to regulate digestion, relieve abdominal tension, and support fertility and menstrual health as well as creating an overall sense of relaxation. 

The abdominal work can be done over top of clothing or directly on the skin with some oil. It is best to choose a fragrance-free oil. Consider an oil like coconut, jojoba, or sweet almond oil. 

These are general guidelines to follow and it is always best to consult with your healthcare provider to determine if these techniques are appropriate for you. 

Setting the Space 

Set yourself up in such a way that you can lay down comfortably and relax. Consider playing some soft music or use a heating pad under your back to make sure you are cozy.

Do whatever you need to do to feel comfortable. Prop a pillow under your knees and cover your legs with a blanket.

As you rest, close your eyes and take a few moments to observe your breath. Relax into the space and take about ten rounds of deep breaths. 

The Technique 

Place your left hand over your heart and your right palm below the belly button, over your womb, on the midline. Begin by slowly circling your right hand clockwise over the womb.

The pressure can be adjusted to your preference, but I usually recommend just the weight of the hand to start.

Circle the palm until you begin to feel warmth under the right hand. As you notice the warmth, start to spiral this circle larger until you begin to encompass the entire abdomen. Gliding under the edges of the ribs, the hip bones, and across the top of the pubic bone.

After about nine rounds, begin to spiral the circle smaller and smaller until your right palm ends up where it started, circling over the womb. 

Move through these circles very slowly. Keep your wrist relaxed and find a comfortable rhythm staying aware of your breath. 

Let your palm come to rest over the womb and become aware of the sensations underneath your palm. Is there warmth? Do you notice a subtle tingling sensation in the fingers? End the practice with a round of 3-5 deep breaths and again become aware of how you feel in your body at this moment. 

This can be practiced for about 5-10 minutes daily. 

For a live demo of this abdominal technique, you can tune into the video premiere on the Whole Family Health Facebook page on Wednesday, April 21st!

For more information on how we can support your fertility, book a free 15-minute phone consultation.

Image @angiecouple

How to Support Fertility With Sleep

According to the APA (American Psychological Association) it is best to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. When people are not getting the appropriate amount or quality of sleep, their stress increases

A nationwide cohort study out of Taiwan found that people who suffer from insomnia were almost four times more likely to struggle with fertility compared to those who were well-rested (1).  

Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is important in order to get good quality sleep. 

Here are some tips for improving your sleep: 

  • Keep sleep patterns regular and sleep between 10 pm and 7 am:
    Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Schedule permitting, aim to be in bed by 10pm and wake no later than 7am. 
    You’ll feel better if you are awake during sunlight hours. Once you get into a routine where you’re getting enough sleep each night (even on weekends) you won’t miss the weekend sleep-ins after awhile. 
  • Light/darkness support:
    If it’s not possible for you to sleep when it’s dark and rise when it’s light, you can try using blackout curtains and a sunrise/light alarm to simulate those conditions at off-times.
  • Stop caffeine intake by a certain time:
    When trying to conceive, you should already be limiting your caffeine intake. But in terms of improving sleep habits, caffeine consumption should stop at least 4-6 hours before going to sleep.
  • Turn off technology:
    Turning off backlit electronics at least 30 minutes before bed is essential. Devices like cell phones, tablets, readers, and computers emit short-wavelength enriched light, also known as blue light.

    Blue light has been shown to reduce or delay the natural production of melatonin in the evening and decrease feelings of sleepiness. Blue light can also reduce the amount of time you spend in slow-wave and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, two stages of the sleep cycle that are vital for cognitive functioning.
  • Relax your mind:
    You might be used to finishing up some last-minute tasks prior to bed. However, it’s best to skip things that might stay on your mind as you go to bed. Try doing relaxation techniques like meditation or breathing exercises instead.
  • Spend time outdoors:
    Spending an hour in sunlight each day can help with quality of sleep and the ability to fall asleep. This hour does not have to occur all at once, you can break it up into increments that fit into your schedule. For example, try to have lunch outside, take walks, and play with pets outside.
  • Short term melatonin intake:
    If you suffer from Delayed Sleep-Wake Phase Disorder (DSWPD) -a circadian rhythm disorder, I typically suggest taking a small dose of melatonin for 2-4 weeks to reset your circadian rhythm.

    It is best to stick to short durations with breaks in between, because there is a possibility of long-term use of melatonin negatively affecting your own natural production of melatonin.

    Please consult with a qualified practitioner for dosing and melatonin supplementation scheduling. 

To find out more about how we can help you reduce stress and support your fertility, book a free 15-minute phone consultation with one of our fertility specialists.

References

  1. PMID: 29136234

Dr. Alda Ngo on She Found Motherhood Podcast: Mindfulness for Fertility & Pregnancy Loss

I had the honour and pleasure of chatting with Dr. Sarah from She Found Motherhood about our Mindfulness for Fertility & Pregnancy Loss programs.

Dr Sarah is an inspiring family, maternity and addiction physician based out of Victoria, BC.

We chatted about the ins and outs of becoming parents as healthcare professionals, and how this has informed our medical practices. We also chatted about the power of mindfulness, the research, how it works and how it can increase resilience through your fertility journey and through pregnancy after infertility or miscarriage.

Subscribe and listen to the She Found Motherhood Podcast here.

A little more about She Found Motherhood:

Drs. Sarah and Alicia answer common questions such as: I’m pregnant what do I do? are my symptoms in first trimester normal? What to expect for labour and delivery? How will I know about breastfeeding? How do I care for my newborn?

She Found Motherhood aims to help take the anxiety out of pregnancy and the journey through childbirth to parenthood. We discuss the fourth trimester and how to care for your newborn. We discuss mental health in pregnancy and the postpartum period and how to navigate changing relationships. We discuss newborn sleep, starting solids and even our tips and tricks for all topics given we have had 5 kiddos between the two of us.

Are you looking for evidence based, high quality information to help you make decisions through your pregnancy, labour & delivery and postpartum journey? If so you have come to the right spot! Make sure to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out on any episodes!

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