Morning Sickness and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Relief from Heartburn and Morning Sickness During Pregnancy with TCM

by Dawn Aarons, BA, D.AC. OAATCM.

If you are dealing with nausea, vomiting and/or heartburn in pregnancy, comments like, “It’s normal; you’ll be fine,” are not usually helpful. You are looking for some relief. You want to enjoy your pregnancy to the fullest. While many women don’t suffer from morning sickness after the first trimester, some women do – and whether you are 10 weeks pregnant or 28 weeks pregnant, the symptoms can be debilitating.

On the other hand, heartburn is commonly a late pregnancy concern, but can also give women “heartache” throughout pregnancy.

Don’t despair! There are things you can do for relief. Below I will introduce some ideas from Chinese Medicine theory and then focus on what you can do by yourself and for yourself.

In Chinese Medicine practice, acupuncture is the primary treatment for both morning sickness and heartburn in pregnancy. Acupuncture helps the body to balance itself and redirect energy flow, bringing relief from symptoms.

Energy can flow upward, downward, inward and outward. In digestion, the normal flow is downward. Food is eaten, digested and evacuated. But when a person is nauseated, vomiting or experiencing heartburn, the usual downward flow has been reversed. This is called “counter flow of Stomach Energy (Qi).” There are a number of patterns that underlie counter flow. Distinguishing the exact pattern allows the health practitioner to offer an effective treatment.

THE PATTERNS FOR MORNING SICKNESS

  • Spleen and Stomach Energy (Qi) deficiency: Nausea and vomiting with epigastric fullness and bloating, no desire for food and drink, exhaustion and heaviness of limbs.
  • Liver invading Spleen: Nausea and vomiting with a bitter or sour taste, depression or irritability, tendency to sigh and to be easily angered, chest heaviness.
  • Stomach Fire: vomiting of food soon after it has been eaten, persistent thirst for cold drinks, heartburn, dizziness, constipation, red face, chapped lips.
  • Phlegm: vomiting mucus or constant spitting of saliva.

THE PATTERNS FOR HEARTBURN

  • Stomach Fire: burning and heat in the upper and median part of the abdomen, thirst for cold drinks, vomit of sour fluids.
  • Food Stagnation in the Stomach: epigastric fullness, distension and pain, belching, acid regurgitation, vomiting after eating.

In Western Medicine, both morning sickness and heartburn are attributed to the hormonal changes of pregnancy. Women are commonly affected by morning sickness in early pregnancy and heartburn later in pregnancy, but both symptoms can arise at any time.

Since these hormonal changes are a necessary and natural part of pregnancy, some suggest that these “discomforts” are natural; however, all women have a unique experience of pregnancy and although all women undergo hormonal changes, not all women experience these symptoms. A woman’s likelihood to experience symptoms is connected to her genetic inheritance (in Chinese Medicine we call this her “Congenital Essence”). Women whose mothers experienced nausea are more likely to do so themselves.

More importantly, a woman’s general health and balance (between expending and receiving, stress levels, nutrition and hydration) will affect her experience of pregnancy.

In Chinese Medicine, symptoms are understood as signs of an overall imbalance in the body. So the whole person is treated. Treatment aims to re-establish “relative balance.” Once this is accomplished, the symptoms disappear.

If you are experiencing symptoms, a practitioner of Chinese Medicine may offer the relief you seek. There are also many self-help techniques that have proven very effective in conjunction with treatment as well as on their own.

SELF CARE STRATEGIES

Below are some ways you can take care of yourself. Not all suggestions will be of interest to everyone, but I hope that you will find some that bring relief and comfort. Although the suggestions are written with a focus on morning sickness, they are also helpful for heartburn. Strategies specific to heartburn are added at the end.

  1. Rest and Relaxation. Your body is doing a tremendous amount of work. Consider that the fetus and placenta are entirely developed by 12 weeks gestation (all systems have developed, ready to grow and mature), so it is understandable that your body needs some extra rest. When exhausted, a woman is more prone to suffer from nausea and vomiting. Enjoy guilt-free afternoon naps and going to bed early.
  2. Eat Little and Often. All women want to eat well for themselves and their babies, but often morning sickness makes many of the dream foods unpalatable. Eat what you can. Avoid sugary foods.

Eat frequent and small meals to keep blood sugar levels stable. A small snack every 1-2 hours is recommended. In the case of heartburn, frequent small meals are easier on the stomach, especially in later pregnancy.

Hunger makes nausea worse. The key is to snack throughout the day. Try to eat nutritious foods, but also respect your body’s limits and messages. Have protein-rich snacks (e.g. nuts, yogurt, bread and tahini, brown rice with miso) before bed. Increase your protein, iron and vitamin B intake and avoid spicy and greasy foods. Some recommended foods include almonds, rice, crackers, dried fruit (especially apricots and raisins), egg sandwiches, grapefruit, miso, noodles, peaches, pears, peppermints, potatoes, yogurt, baked vegetables, and soups – especially potato soup and rice congee.

  1. Drink up. Drinking plenty of water is good for us all the time. Women experiencing morning sickness benefit from drinking between meals since drinking with meals can increase nausea and heartburn. The key is to stay hydrated. Dry lips, feeling thirsty, and scanty or infrequent urination are signs that fluid intake is inadequate.
  • You can also get lots of water (along with valuable nutrition) by drinking herbal teas. Below are some beneficial teas I would suggest:
  • Ginger Root tea relieves nausea for many women. A study comparing the effectiveness of ginger root tea with vitamin B6 found no significant difference between the two, with all women having reduced nausea, retching and vomiting.
  • Raspberry Leaf tea is a pregnancy tonic that many women find brings gentle relief of nausea and stomach distress. This tea has a rich concentration of vitamin C, the presence of vitamin E, and an easily assimilated form of calcium and iron, in addition to vitamin A and B complex as well as many minerals, including phosphorus and potassium.
  • Peppermint or Spearmint tea are fragrant teas which can bring relief and settle the digestion of those sensitive to smells.
  • Making an herbal infusion: use a jar that has a lid and holds at least four cups of water. Put one handful of loose leaves (or roots in the case of ginger) and pour boiling water into the jar. Leave for four hours or more. It’s easy to prepare this before bed and have it ready room temperature in the morning.
  • If you want to steep a fresh hot cup of tea, leave a teaspoon of herbs in a cup of water for at least 15 minutes. Long steeping extracts all the chlorophyll, as well as the vitamins and minerals. Drink over the course of the day.
  • Visualize. The digestive tract is meant to have a downward motion (you eat, food goes down to your stomach to be digested, and then down to the intestines to be absorbed and eliminated). As mentioned above, nausea, vomiting and heartburn are examples of upward motion. Visualization can re-establish downward flow. I like to imagine I am standing under a beautiful natural waterfall. I feel the water gently falling onto my head and then flowing across my shoulders and down my body. My feet are solid on the ground in pools of water. This water is absorbed into the ground. This visualization can be done standing up or sitting down (with feet flat on the floor). Imagine warm sun and cool refreshing water. Breathe deeply with this image in mind for a couple minutes.
  • Touch. Any loving supportive touch can be very soothing and relieving. Try downward strokes along your arms or legs. Have someone massage your feet if you can’t reach them comfortably yourself. A special pressure point for nausea is called “P6” in Chinese medicine. To find it, put three fingers along the inside of your forearm, with one finger directly above the upper crease of your wrist. Near the spot where the third finger rests you will find a sensitive point in the middle of your forearm if you press with firm pressure with your thumb. This technique has been used for thousands of years to bring relief of nausea. Press into the spot and maintain pressure while you take four breaths and then release and repeat; or you can apply the pressure with the breath – pressing into the point when you breathe out and coming off the point when you breathe in. See which ways feel better to you. Repeat for five minutes every couple hours.
  • Teas for Heartburn. Try Anise or Fennel Seed tea after meals. They offer a calming aid to digestion and have a pleasant taste. Slippery Elm Bark is recommended to neutralize stomach acid. A convenient way to take Slippery Elm is in the form of throat lozenges with are available at most health food stores.
  • Exercise and Fresh Air. Even if you don’t initially feel like doing much, exercise like walking, tai chi and yoga has been found to make women feel much better once they get started. A gentle push out the door may make all the difference in the world.
  • Massage for Heartburn. There are two special points to massage on the feet. The first one clears “Liver Heat” and is found on the top of the foot in the web between the big toe and the second toe (Liv 2). Feel for sensitivity in this area (between the metatarsal bones). The “Stomach Fire” point (St 44) is at the same level, one toe over (between the second and third toes). There areas can be stimulated (see Touch section for suggestions).
  • Eat Papaya. Containing digestive enzymes, a small amount of papaya (fresh, dried, canned, juice or in tablet form) aids digestion and helps relieve or even prevent heartburn.

Good luck and congratulations!

Dawn Aarons, BA, D.AC. OAATCM.