Diet and life style can be an enormous and determining factor in infertility; and diet and lifestyle adjustments can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful conception and the birth of a healthy happy child.
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The following is taken directly from Randine Lewis’ book, The Infertility Cure, published by Little, Brown and Company. This book is highly recommended for all who are interested in enhancing pregnancy and the birth of healthy babies.
From the section “Step Two: Diet and Lifestyle”
“HOW NUTRITION MAKES A DIFFERENCE”
“Those who take medicine and neglect their diets waste the skill of the physician”
-- Chinese Proverb--
Women facing fertility challenges are often told that certain vitamins and dietary adjustments can restore hormonal functioning, reduce FSH levels, and ultimately help them get pregnant. Yet many women try to cut out processed meats, refined sugars, and dairy products for a few weeks or supplement their diets with large doses of vitamins and don’t notice a bit of difference. It is well documented that body fat content has an effect on our fertility (too high or too low accounts for 12% of infertility cases in the US); lesser known is how much of a role nutrition plays in our reproductive health.
The Chinese tradition recognizes food as the main source of energy. The Spleen converts food into usable energy (including Qi, Blood, and Essence). Each food has different energetic qualities. For example, hot, spicy foods are more Yang in nature, while sweet foods are more Yin. Some foods build up the Blood; others help draw heat and dampness from the body. The different tastes – sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and aromatic – have certain effects when taken in moderation. However, if any of these tastes predominate, they can create imbalance in the body. The effects of overindulging in some of these tastes are recognized in Western medicine, too. In Chinese culture, salty flavors are considered necessary for the Kidneys, but too much salt is said to obstruct the flow of the Blood. In Western medicine, too much salt causes water retention, affecting the kidneys, and also can create problems with the circulation of blood.
In the Chinese tradition, a meal isn’t just an accumulation of calories but an opportunity to supply our Organs with the balanced tastes and energies needed for health. When the body is out of balance, food is one way to make up for deficiency and drain excess from the system.
According to TCM philosophy, the shen (translated as Kidneys and spirit) governs the reproductive system. If you are having problems conceiving, there is often a deficiency in the shen energy. Symptoms of Kidney deficiency include lower back pain, weak legs, dry mucous membranes, night sweats, cold feet, irregular menses, low libido, increased urinary frequency, and nighttime urination, to name a few. (During menopause, a woman’s Kidney Essence, or shen decreases, and many of the same symptoms occur.) A doctor of Oriental medicine would suggest taking herbal supplements to increase the shen and also would recommend a diet containing foods that nourish the Kidneys, such as walnuts, black sesame seeds, barley, tofu, black soybean, wheat germ, seaweeds, various beans, organ meats, and wheatgrass.
Kidney essence, or shen, encompasses Kidney Yin and Yang, and both Kidney Yin and Kidney Yang deficiencies can be helped with dietary changes that supplement the Essence. A patient with Kidney Yin deficiency should avoid too much exercise, external heat, and hot, spicy foods. Someone with Kidney Yang deficiency should not consume ice-cold drinks, especially during menses, as these would lower the heat in a body that is already heat deficient She also should eat lightly steamed vegetables instead of raw ones, which require more Qi (which is Yang in nature) to digest.
The goal of every dietary prescription is to bring the body back ijnto balance. Here are some general dietary recommendations I make to my patients who are trying to get pregnant:
A SPECIAL NOTE FOR MEN: Men who are having fertility problems should make similar dietary adjustments. Avoid environmental estrogens and dietary sources of free radicals including saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, and trans fatty acids. Stop or reduce al medications, especially anti-hypertensives, anti-neoplastics and anti-inflammatary drugs, which can impair sperm production.
Increase consumption of legumes and soy, and include vitamins C, E, and B12, beta-carotene, folic acid, and zinc and herbs such as ginseng, which increases production of testosterone and helps with sperm production. Supplement with the amino acids l-arginine and l-carnitine, which are especially associated with enhancing sperm production.. (Chinese medicine classifies arginine as a Kidney Yang tonic, while carnitine nourishes the Yin and Blood). This regimen will improve not only sperm but overall health.
Food is only one aspect of our lives affecting our fertility. Any chemicals we take in – through our skin, from the air we breathe, the water we drink, even the cleaning products we use – can produce minute yet important changes in our biochemistry. The same is true of the lives we live. If we don’t get enough rest, we can deplete our systems of valuable nutrients, because our bodies have to work harder to keep in balance. If we don’t exercise, everything can get flabby, including the systems carrying Blood and Qi throughout the body. If we are experiencing a lot of stress in our lives, the biochemical storm released by our emotions definitely can affect our fertility.
Women today have been told time and time again that it’s important to prepare themselves physically before they conceive. It is as crucial for us to take a clear-eyed, dispassionate look at the effects of our lifestyle on our reproductive health and make any necessary changes to help us get pregnant. That includes examining the effects of one of the most difficult aspects of our life to face; the amount of stress we experience. Unfortunately, a diagnosis of infertility and subsequent medical treatments for the condition can create immense levels of physiological and psychological stress – which can present a significant barrier to conception.
Stress is defined as an inability to respond appropriately to the environment. The resulting physical response can manifest as myriad nervous system complaints including insomnia, restlessness, nervousness, or a general state of agitation. In some cases the immune system becomes compromised, resulting in everything from an increased susceptibility to colds and flu to hormonal imbalances and chronic disease states.
Stress put the body into a “fight of flight” mode, which increases the cortisone hormones and other neurochemicals and selectively redirects the blood flow to the brain, the eyes, and the musculoskeletal system. This adaptative mechanism allows us to escape from danger. However, most of the stressors we experience in twenty-first-century life do not require the “fight or flight” response, yet our bodies haven’t adapted as our environment has changed. Our stress response may be triggered by an endless number of situations – overwork, environmental pollution, emotional factors, worry, and so on. Far too many of us live with high stress levels most of the time. Unfortunately, the stress response preferentially redistributes blood flow away from the gastrointestinal, endocrine, and reproductive systems, all of which are nonessential to the “fight or flight” response. Day in and day out, our bodies still need to eat, relax, and reproduce, but under stress these systems won’t get the blood flow they need to function efficiently. Blood quits flowing to the stomach, hence we get ulcers and have a wide range of digestive complaints. Blood over nourishes certain parts of the endocrine system and starves others, so we don’t produce the right balance of hormones needed for a healthy menstrual cycle. And the poor uterus and ovaries are ignored altogether! In addition, the hormone adrenaline, which is released during conditions of stress, inhibits the utilization of progesterone, one of the key hormones for reproduction.
In October 2001 an important study of the effects of stress on conception was published. Doctors at the University of California, San Diego, examined the success rates of a group of women undergoing intrafallopian transfer (GIFT) or IVF. The study concluded that women with the highest rated life stress levels were 93% less likely to become pregnant and achieve a live birth than women who scored lower on the stress scale.
Interestingly enough, in China there is no counterpart to the English word “stress”. The closest physical phenomena is a state called Liver Qi stagnation. This describes a condition noted for contracted blood vessels, tight muscles, and a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system. The people who receive this diagnosis are usually those we would describe as being under stress. Yet the Chinese say the most common reason for Liver Qi stagnation is “unfulfilled desires.” (I don’t know of any greater unfulfilled desire than trying and failing to have a child). Techniques like Qi Gong breathing, meditation practices, and acupuncture/acupressure focus on resolving the effects of stagnated emotions. In some cases psychological support from therapy or infertility support groups can be helpful in releasing the stuck emotions. Meditation and guided-imagery CDs or tapes help reduce stress. Sites such as www.AnjiOnline.com provide visualizations and meditation specifically for supporting reproductive health.
Oriental medicine has been extremely effective in helping the body deal with stress, depression, and insomnia; it can balance the hormonal system and regulate the menstrual cycle. Remember, in the Chinese medical tradition there is no separation between mind, body, and spirit. Whatever treats the body helps the mind, and whatever heals the spirit will also help restore balance to the physical being. Fortunately, all three elements of the wellness program described in this book will help you mitigate the effects of stress on your body, mind, and spirit. As you add these elements to your health regimen, you will find your stress levels dropping and, as my patients have discovered again and again, you will create an environment in which conception can occur naturally.
First, step away from any guilt you may feel about how you have been living up to this point. Begin by relaxing. Believe your journey has been perfect (even with all of its shortcomings) up to this point. Resolve to make whatever changes you can to support greater health for your mind, body, and spirit. The greatest gift you can give your potential child is to love, honor, and accept yourself
Taking care of yourself should involve some kind of massage, meditation, or other physical indulgence. While general massage will make you feel more relaxed and pampered, there are specific techniques to help redirect your body’s attention and energy to your reproductive organs. Here are a few exercises you can do to improve the blood flow to the uterus and ovaries.
This exercise increases blood flow to pelvic organs, providing more nourishment to the uterus and ovaries. (This massage may be more effectively performed by a partner).
NOTE: do not perform this exercise if you think you are or might be pregnant. If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, circulatory problems, or a history of strokes or detached retinas, do not practice this technique.
QI GONG BREATHING
This ancient Taoist exercise utilizes the basic life force – the breath – for relaxation and enhances the body’s focus on the reproductive organs. We literally breathe life into and through the uterus. (Excellent exercise for males also: improves genital strength and prostate health).
Do this exercise anytime and anywhere, as often as possible, other than during menstruation of pregnancy. You can perform Qi Gong breathing while you are in traffic, during times of stress, or while watching TV or cooking. The more you do it, the more naturally this form of breathing becomes.
Most women with Kidney deficiency symptoms have cols feet, especially at night. Soaking the feet in wrm water for ten to twenty minutes per day improves the circulation to the lower half of the body and increases the blood flow to the pelvic organs as well. All the meridian of the body passing through the feet helps improve the circulation of Qi and Blood, not mention the relaxing effect of a warm foot soak.
While the lymph glands are not technically a part of the reproductive system, they are responsible for cleaning the blood and removing toxins from the body. Therefore, they are an important component in keeping our reproductive organs healthy and clean. Lymph nodes lie along the sides of the femoral and iliac arteries in the lower abdomen, so we will focus the massage there. Lymphatic massage may be performed at any time. It is recommended to use it once a day.
Exercise helps relieve stress and oxygenate the tissues. Too much exercise, however, depletes Yin. This depletion of Yin shows up as a lack of estrogen from too little body fat. But even when body fat content is adequate, if the body focuses too much of its energy on the musculoskeletal system, it will be at the expense of the reproductive system. I have seen many women who work out daily, aerobically and with weights, until you can literally see the lack of Yin in their appearance – masculine, sculpted (Yang) muscles replace (Yin) curves. Even this relative Yin/Yang imbalance may be enough to deprive the reproductive system of its essence. If you experience any of the symptoms of Kidney Yin deficiency, please sacrifice the hard body for a while.
Pilates strengthens the core and firms up the center. This makes for hard abdominal muscles but does not allow the pelvic organs enough room to breathe. I have had to ask quite a few women who consistently do Pilates to back off the abdominal exercises to allow the blood flow to resume to the lower abdominal organs. The same holds true for excessive sit-ups. When you’re trying to get pregnant, it’s not the time to be working on a six-pack set of abs.
Yoga is a wonderful form of exercise. It is relaxing, energizing, and wonderful for unblocking energetic obstructions. But I advise my patients to take their yoga classes before acupuncture treatments, not right afterward. (Yoga distributes energy throughout the body, and the goal of an acupuncture treatment is to direct the energy to specific locations and Organs). Do not do inversion techniques during your menstruation, especially if you have endometriosis. The energetic focus should be downward during menstruation rather than upward. Women who have signs of Yin deficiency should not do Bikram or Astanga yoga. It is too hot and further depletes the body of its precious Yin fluid.
The Infertility Cure: The Ancient Chinese Wellness Program for Getting Pregnant and Having Healthy Babies.
Randine Lewis, Ph.D.