Treating Morning Sickness: Traditional Chinese Medicine

Morning sickness effects more than 50% of all pregnant women. Despite its common name, many women experience the symptoms of nausea and vomiting at any point during the day. Generally these symptoms begin around week six and subside by week twelve. Though some experience symptoms as early as week four, and others lasting through week fourteen. 

What causes morning sickness? A western approach:

There are a number of theories regarding the cause of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Many speculate that the rapidly rising human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) is the main contributor. The timing of the rise in hCG and the symptoms of morning sickness seem to correlate. Some research also shows that higher levels of hCG, as with carrying multiples, seems to correlate to a higher likelihood of morning sickness. Estrogen seems to be the other offender, though there is no clear research providing this to be true. 

Some theorize that the enhanced sense of smell during pregnancy causes the hyperactive gag reflex, though western medicine can not explain why that is. 

Treatments from the western approach:

(Disclaimer: I am NOT recommending taking any of these medications during pregnancy. I am merely demonstrating the common pharmacological treatments.) 

Over the counter:
  • Emetro: general antiemetic 
  • Zantac and Pepcid: histamine H2 receptor antagonist.
  • Doxylamine: antihistamine and over the counter sleep aid, often used in conjunction with B6.
Prescription drugs: (all with known side effects)
  • Compazine: D2 receptor antagonist
  • Phenergan: antipsychotic 
  • Zofran: serotonin 5HT3 receptor antagonist. Created for the use of nausea during chemotherapy.

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach:

TCM is founded in the theory that Qi (chee) or our vital life force, is continuously circulating throughout pathways called channels and meridians. In order for our bodies to function optimally this Qi must be free flowing. During pregnancy a practitioner of Chinese medicine will often use a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to safely and effectively balance these meridians and related organs to reduce morning sickness. 

What causes morning sickness?

Traditional Chinese medicine views pregnancy as a time when the Essence, Qi and Blood collect in the lower jiao (lower abdomen) to create new life. This collection in the uterus causes a blockage in the Chong Mai- or Penetrating Vessel. The Chong Mai, known as the "Sea of Blood," is a channel that runs vertically from head to genitalia. The obstruction in this channel leads to a rebellion of stomach qi, causing nausea and vomiting. This pathology often leads to or exacerbates other disharmony's such as Liver stagnation, Spleen deficiency, damp accumulation, etc. 

Your provider will individually diagnose and treat accordingly. Remember these Chinese medical diagnosis are significantly different than that of Western medicine. We diagnose both subtle and severe organ pathologies, so generally speaking there is no concern for the heath of your organs. Know that licensed, NCCAOM certified practitioners of Chinese medicine are thoroughly trained and educated in western pathology, diagnosis and treatment. If we are concerned of a western pathology you will be referred out for further diagnosis. 

A few common acupuncture points used for Morning Sickness:

PC 6: Nei Guan "inner pass"- command point for the heart, chest and epigastrium. Relieves anxiety and digestive symptoms. Many studies have shown the effectiveness of this point in the treatment of nausea and vomiting.

ST 36: Zu San Li "leg three mile"- A major point in the treatment of gastric disorders. Pain, hiccuping, nausea, vomiting, constipation, enteritis, fatigue, low immune function, many GI disorders caused by both deficiency and excess. 

CV 12: Zhong Wan "central stomach"- Front mu point of the stomach. Commonly used in the treatment of gastric disorders including nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, and distention. 

SP 4: Gong Sun "Yellow Emperor"- confluent point of the Chong Mai. Used in the treatment of menstrual irregularities and pregnancy discomforts, especially nausea and vomiting, headache, and anxiety. 

A few common Chinese herbs used for Morning Sickness:

Ginger (Sheng Jiang): This is one of my favorite food grade herbs! I could write and entire article on its effectiveness for a diverse number of pathologies. It is warm, acrid and releasing. Dispersing in nature, ginger warms the spleen and stomach and transforms phlegm and effectively relieves nausea and vomiting. 

Cardamom (Sha Ren): Aromatic, transforms dampness, promotes the free flow of Qi, warms the middle, improves appetite, relieves nausea and vomiting. 

Patchouli (Huo Xiang): Aromatic, transforms dampness, harmonizes the middle jiao and alleviates nausea.  

Your provider will prescribe a Chinese herbal formula suited to treat your individualized diagnosis and will discuss possible dietary or nutritional supplements based on your constitution. 

What can I do at home?
  • Freshly grate or press ginger (I use a garlic press), or prepare an entire tuber of ginger and store in a small jar for 2-3 days. Add 1 tsp. ginger to boiling water and drink as needed throughout the day. 
  • Many women successfully reduce their nausea and vomiting by eating small meals very regularly. Remember to eat foods rich in nutrients: cooked veggies and meat, bananas, berries, yogurt(preferably very low in sugar), soups, and stews. Consider eating pumpkin, squash, oatmeal and whole grains rather than processed, difficult to digest flours and pastries. Many women find they need to eat every hour or two.
  • Avoid foods high in sugar, processed foods, fried foods, caffeine and soda. 
  • Eat fat. Coconut oil, avocado, soups and stews with slow cooked meat and veggies are very nourishing to our body. Animal fats aid in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins and are necessary as the building blocks for neurotransmitters and a healthy gut. 
  • Many women find relief when incorporating B6 with their prenatal vitamin. Talk to your provider about this.
  • Research your prenatal vitamin. What is its bioavailability? Are there any reviews from other mama's? Many multivitamins are made in a way that our bodies simply can not absorb. My favorite is Thorne Research basic prenatal.

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Kat Starbird, M.Ac.O.M., L.Ac., birth doula