Using TCM During Pregnancy

Mar 2018 Pregnancy

Contributed by: Dr James Lee

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What is TCM?

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a history of more than 2000 years and remains a cornerstone of healthcare in modern China. The philosophies underpinning TCM have been interwoven into the cultural DNA of Chinese people worldwide, shaping their lifestyles, disease prevention, and sickness management.Chinese herbology and acupuncture have become recognised for their health-restoring abilities, and countries like Singapore have established TCM alongside western medicine, despite their different health concepts.

The bedrock of TCM is to achieve a physiological balance of the Yin and Yang. The Yin-Yang philosophy encompasses the entire natural world, both large and small. The Yin-Yang forces are conducted through the Qi and Blood energy, along meridians that organises the organ systems of man. TCM promotes the holistic approach to maintain equilibrium by the use of natural medicine.

The Pregnancy Concept in TCM

Unlike in Western Medicine, TCM does not identify pregnancy as a phase with altered human physiology with its unique vulnerabilities. Poor health during pregnancy is managed in a similar way as with non-pregnant women, by stabilising the Yin-Yang balance, using herbs and acupuncture that manipulate the Qi movements. There is a weak appreciation of the interaction between the growing foetus and the pregnant mother.

The pregnant mother and the foetus are managed as one. TCM textbooks only discuss few pregnancy related conditions such as threatened miscarriage and foetal mal-presentation. Pregnancy-related disorders are not considered unique conditions; rather they are treated according to symptoms such as abdominal pain, leg swelling, headaches, etc.

Using TCM Herbs During Pregnancy

Pregnancy is an altered state of human physiology, when the foetus, who is part foreign to the mother, is allowed to mature with the uterus. Herbs must be consumed with care as they affect both the living systems of the foetus and mother.

Many pregnant women use herbs or complementary therapies to boost energy levels and strengthen the body in order to cope with the pregnancy.

Common Chinese medications used during pregnancy are:

  • 八珍汤 / Ba Zhen Tang (8 Treasure Tea Pills)
  • 四物汤 / Si Wu Tang (4 Substance Decoction)
  • 安胎饮 / An Tai Yin (Danggui and Cuscuta Formula)
  • 人参 / Ginseng
  • 黄连 / Huang Lian (Rhizome Coptidis)

The widespread belief is that Chinese herbs of natural origin are mild and harmless, and should not have the noxious effects of western processed medications. This is far from true as ingested herbs can have potent and unintended effects.

What Products should You Avoid During Pregnancy?

All herbs are invariably toxic, and excessive doses of even a “weak” herb can cause extensive injury. The classic TCM pharmacopoeia warns against the dispensing of individual herbs and medicinal materials that are poisonous, may cause miscarriage and injure the pregnancy. These include:

  • Animal products (e.g. scorpion, beetle, toad, leeches, and centipedes)
  • Heavy metals (e.g. arsenic, mercury, and lead)
  • Herbs with a laxative effect
  • Invigorating and harsh plants

The use of herbs is not advisable in the first trimester, as this is the phase when the foetus’ organs are assembling to become a functioning unit. Any unnecessary chemical compound, be it processed medication or plant product, must be tested safe before consumption.

Herbs should only be taken if there is a clear need for them to be used. They should be prescribed by a trained TCM practitioner who has evaluated the pregnant woman’s present condition and is able to appropriately customise the herbs to meet her requirements.

To allow pregnant women to take herbal treatment for a prolonged period, there must be both clinical and biochemical evidence that the herbal compounds do exert the positive effects as claimed. Otherwise, the potential risk to the pregnancy and foetus may be indefensible.

In conclusion, well-tested herbs may be beneficial in the correct circumstances. It is unwise to encourage herb use in pregnancy without prior consultation with a trained TCM practitioner.

 

About Author
This article is written by Dr James Lee, an gynaecologist with experience in the areas of urogynaecology and pelvic floor dysfunction in women. He is currently practising at Astra Women’s Specialist (Novena, Bishan, and Punggol).

 

Dr Lee’s Place of Practice

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