Know what to eat and what NOT to eat!
Food is medicine. But it’s also a toxin. When my patients ask me what they should be eating, they are often surprised to hear that there are actually very few foods that have a neutral effect on the body, and to always consider that food is either good for you or bad for you. It’s so important therefore within the subject of health and disease to acknowledge that the foods we should NOT be eating are equally important as those we should be eating. For fertile health and to supplement the treatment of fertility disorders and gynaecological diseases, choosing the right foods will have great benefits by enhancing the systemic functions of the reproductive phases within the menstrual cycle. Timing, quality, quantity: the foundations of all female fertility, not just regarding the period but also the hormones and interrelated factors. You can make a head start with getting the foundations of fertile health correctly functioning via the food you eat, but don’t forget, you must ensure you’re also avoiding the foods that will cause a hindrance, or you may not only be negating all the hard work you’re doing but be putting yourself in an even worse state of fertile health without realising it.
We’re all aware of the importance of nutrition. Many of you probably already take preconception supplements, but TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) delves far deeper into dietetics beyond the vitamin and mineral composition of food by placing great emphasis on how the body responds to the food and what happens within the body as a result of being stimulated by the energy of the food. These energetic responses will either positively promote or adversely affect the various body functions that necessitate fertile health. When I talk about the “energy” of food, I refer to how the body responds to the interaction once the food is consumed and the systemic changes on a holistic level once absorbed. It’s not something recognised in Western medicine that will only consider the vitamin and mineral composition of food and rarely the individual’s unique needs. Think about how you feel when you eat freshly prepared food rather than food previously frozen or food that’s a few days old, it tastes different, it tastes better, and you feel better for eating freshly prepared food. The difference is that the energy of the food is greater and more potent in its taste and how it makes you feel. The body equally responds to their health and medicinal value the same way, regardless of their vitamin and mineral composition. To give you a few examples, in TCM dietetics, Damp and Phlegm-producing foods such as cow’s milk products, or eating too much spinach, will worsen gynaecological dysfunctions such as PCOS or fibroids. Similarly, using ginger in cooking or drinking hot water infused with slices of raw ginger, whilst medicinal to warm the uterus and good for a patient with a luteal phase defect (such as a Kidney Yang deficiency), would actually be detrimental to a patent with Blood heat: a common cause of miscarriage. Each individual case must be considered: what exactly does your body need and what would negatively impact it?
Whilst a TCM practitioner will be able to assess and diagnose your individual case highlighting various dysfunctions, the point is that anything you consume will have either a medicinally strengthening action or an adversely negative result on how your body responds. The key is knowing your case and how to use food to improve your fertile and gynaecological health and treat any fertility or reproductive disorder. TCM dietetics would also consider how you prepare and cook your food to enhance and maintain its medicinal value. Ultimately, I believe TCM completes the missing elements of a typical Western nutrition plan by firstly, giving you insight into what foods are good for the body at an organic, energetic (and therefore more responsive) level but secondly, advising you on what your unique body needs based on your health patterns and thus help you understand how you can take an active part in your own healing process towards optimal fertile health.
Getting the foundations right
A regulated menstrual cycle is foundational in TCM when treating gynaecological diseases and fertility issues. This goes beyond just timely menstruation and focuses heavily on the health of all the phases within the cycle: the follicular phase, the ovulatory phase and the luteal phase. The fourth element is the period itself and the blood quality, which I will discuss later. When I talk about the “health” of the main cycle phases, I mean they must be timely and functioning adequately to produce the correct hormones at the right time and the right amount, neither too much nor too little: the perfect balance. Patients can present issues within any of these cycle phases or with several combined. You may have heard of conditions such as Kidney Yin deficiency that will result in follicular phase problems (such as high FSH), Kidney Jing deficiency (such as poor ovarian and egg quality), or Qi stagnation (resulting in poor movement of the Blood) and these dysfunctions commonly exist without ever being picked up by Western medical blood tests where results appear “within normal range”. In TCM, the close assessment of each aspect of a woman’s reproductive cycle can identify where discrepancies lie. Acupuncture (combined with Chinese herbal medicine if necessary) is the principal method for reaching these underlying dysfunctions and holistically correcting them. However, you don’t necessarily need a TCM assessment and diagnosis to make a good start in knowing what foods you should increase in your diet and what foods you should avoid. Yes, a practitioner will assess and identify where you need to improve and any issues that may suggest you need to avoid eating certain foods that are not doing you any favours and possibly ones that are detrimental to your fertile health. Still, suppose you are struggling to conceive and are not getting a lot of insight from your Doctor as to why it’s not happening for you, such as in cases of “unexplained” infertility (which is not a diagnosis at all!). In that case, you can make a start right now by working with your cycle.
What and When
The follicular phase is the start of the Yin phase and begins on Day 1 of your period. As the Yin and Blood need to grow and replenish to nourish the ovaries and prepare for ovulation, it is the quality (or “tonification”) of the Yin that aids in the development process of stimulating and maturing the follicles. Even if the kidney Jing (the essence of the egg health/quality) is healthy, without tonified Yin and Blood, the follicular phase won’t function optimally, leading to deficiencies in a maturing follicle, or the follicle can grow too quickly where an immature egg gets released. Foods to improve the function of the Yin phase include asparagus, kale, spinach, rocket and watercress, apricot, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, avocados, kidney beans, peas, quinoa and chicken and prawns.
The end of the Yin phase occurs at ovulation and the Yang phase of the cycle begins the luteal phase. Nourishment of Blood to warm and tonify the uterus are critical at this time. A Yang deficiency is apparent when the luteal phase is short, e.g. when progesterone levels are too low, and there is a lack of support for either a fertilised egg to implant or if conception does occur, it’s insufficient to later support the early stages of pregnancy. Foods to improve the function of the Yang phase to start eating at ovulation (or just prior, to promote ovulation) include leek, onion, parsnip, spring onion, sweet potato, apples, peach, rice, and spelt, lamb and salmon.
The role of the vital energy or “Qi” is the force that both drives the above actions and carries the Blood and necessary body fluids around the systems. If the Qi is deficient, there won’t be enough strength to drive the essential processes leading to proper functions including that of adequate hormonal performance. Similarly, if the Qi is stagnated (moving insufficiently), this lack of free flow prevents similar function performance issues resulting in conception difficulties or problems in early-stage pregnancy. Throughout the cycle, include eggs, seeds and nuts in your diet, and consume soups prepared from marrow bones (organic bone broth can be purchased from specialist supermarkets or you can make your own).
Foods to Avoid
You probably already know about the adverse effects of alcohol, caffeine, sugar and wheat. These need to be cut back as much as possible due to their toxic and inflammatory effects on the body. I will emphasise eliminating inflammatory toxins such as sugar and wheat from the diet for my patients eliciting Damp or Phlegm signs. However, the biggest no-no in TCM for anyone trying to conceive is cow’s milk and cow’s milk products. This can be an eye-opener for many patients who have been brought up to believe that cow’s milk is an essential part of the diet for its calcium benefits – get your calcium other ways! The negative effect that cow’s milk has on the body and what it creates can lead to an array of internal dysfunction because it allows the build-up of Damp and Phlegm leads to problems with movement within the fallopian tubes and ovarian function. Any patients seeing me to treat cysts, fibroids, and PCOS are heavily advised to entirely remove cow’s milk from their diet. I will recommend to all patients the need to substitute cow’s milk for alternatives such as goat milk or nut milk products: this includes cheeses (consider goat’s cheese, or feta), yoghurts (consider coconut or soya versions instead). Phlegm especially, which is a congealed form of Dampness, can occur anywhere in the body, slowing down the fluency of Qi, congesting the meridians and channels, causing numbness, dull and foggy headaches, sluggishness and poor concentration. However, candida, allergies, thrush, eczema, asthma, arthritis, tumours, excess weight, fluid retention are all syndromes of a deep internal Damp and/or Phlegm condition. Please, no cow’s milk! Remember, this includes cheese, butter, cream and yoghurts.
Foods cold in temperature must also be eaten sparingly. Take care with drinks straight from the fridge, refrigerated water especially and frozen foods such as ice cream. Extreme cold, especially on an empty stomach, will weaken the Qi and Yang as it tries to compensate for disturbing the inner Fire essential for the inner warmth and nourishment and vital energetic functions.
Water – more than just hydration
Another fundamental for every individual trying to conceive is to increase your water levels. Yes, hydration is essential to prevent diseases such as kidney stones, UTIs and constipation, but as your body reproduces blood constantly, and the only way it can make new Blood is from withdrawing the hydration from your tissues. Without the correct levels of hydration comes a deficiency of Blood. During and after the period, your water intake is essential for being able to rebuild the Blood so increase your water intake and try to drink throughout the day rather than binge consistently drink large quantities at fewer times of the day: your body can only take so much in one go, and you’ll just end up peeing it out before it has the chance to absorb! Aim for 1 litre of water for every 50lbs of body weight. For example, if you weigh 150lbs, you should be aiming for 3 litres per day; it sounds like a lot but for women over the age of 35 who’s Yin and Blood quality are already declining, water is essential as the basis from which all your nourishment via the Blood will develop and aiming for this amount means you will much more likely get at least 2 litres and if you can go above this that’s even better.
Shopping, Preparation and Timing
Try to eat organic wherever possible, particularly with animal products to avoid the growth hormones and other synthetic additives from mass farming. Don’t eat late at night; too much stress on your digestion before bed affects the central processes of your Spleen system and the critical energetic functions within. Slow-cooking meat is excellent for digestion which puts less strain on Spleen. Try to consume the juices from stews and casseroles to make sure you’re getting the energetic nutrition from the broth.
Understanding the fundamentals of TCM dietetics is a powerful way of taking charge of improving your fertile health without making the mistakes that I see so often from little knowledge in what foods should be avoided as well as increased upon. Using the cycle to enhance the body’s gynaecological process and get these factors to function as optimally as possible and you may find that your fertility struggles correct themselves entirely without the need for any further intervention.