Many people believe that to have a healthy baby, a pregnant woman should eat as much nutritious food as possible. But not all good foods are good throughout the nine months, and some are better than others. Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes special reinforcement in the three trimesters.
There's an old saying that if a pregnant woman craves spicy food, she will have a girl; if she craves sour food, she will have a boy. Even TCM doesn't know for sure.
During pregnancy, according to TCM, the energy essence of a woman and a man combine to form a new life. In the 280 or so days, a woman's energy balance changes greatly.
Since a lot of yin energy and blood flow to the fetus, most women suffer a yin deficiency, according to Dr Chen Jinli, chief of the Gynecology Department of Longhua Hospital attached to Shanghai University of TCM.
Deficient yin energy usually results in excessive internal heat. Therefore, many pregnant women may suffer palpitations, constipation, thirst, and have a bitter taste in their mouths. They get hot easily.
"Cold (yin energy) foods such as white gourd, pears, lotus seeds and lily roots should dominate the diet to rebalance the mother's energy during pregnancy," says Dr Chen.
After childbirth, the principle is reversed - hot (yang energy) foods should predominate.
The process of labor consumes a great deal of blood and energy, leaving a woman both energy- and blood-deficient and vulnerable to pathogenic energies outside such as coldness, dampness, heat, and wind.
Warm reinforcement foods after childbirth will help the mother regain her energy and blood quickly to fight against pathogenic energies. TCM doctors recommend foods like mutton, chicken and beef as well as herbs like dang gui (Chinese angelica root), yi mu cao (motherwort) and huang qi (hoantchy root).
Cool reinforcement foods during pregnancy and warm reinforcement after childbirth are fundamental to handle the great changes of energy inside the body. Therapies should be adjusted for early, middle and late pregnancy - the three trimesters.
First trimester: One to three months
The TCM classic "Qian Jin Yao Fang" ("Thousand Golden Essential Prescriptions") by Sun Simiao in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) says the baby is not formed in this period and the pregnant woman should not take any medicine for reinforcement.
Her primary task is to remain psychologically healthy and balanced. She should avoid frights, annoyance, anger, anxiety. Good sleep in a peaceful environment is important.
Bland foods are recommended, nothing too greasy, salty, or spicy. Not too much hot (yang energy) foods like mutton, lest they contribute to miscarriage. Neutral or cold (yin energy) foods such as lotus seeds and crucian carp can help prevent miscarriage.
Nausea and other symptoms can be relieved by drinking sugar cane juice, ginger juice, apple juice, lemon juice, honey water, or by eating pomelo fruit. Crucian carp and ginger soup and lotus seed congee can help prevent miscarriage and relieve symptoms.
Second trimester: Four to six months
Baby grows fast. The mother-to-be should slow down the pace of her life. Movements should be slow and gentle, her mood should be even.
Taking a bath in the sunshine prevents pathogenic cold from invading and helps the baby grow.
Deficient yin energy and blood become apparent. Reinforcement foods include spring cabbage, spinach, sesame, white fungus, coconut and beans. Black beans, jujube and pork chop soup, dang shen (radix codonopsitis) tea, and lean meat cooked with American ginseng are recommended.
Third trimester: Seven to nine months
Many women suffer insufficient spleen energy, which can cause edema. A good mood is important. Women should eat warm (temperature) foods but not hot (yang) foods.
Foods that reinforce energy, benefit the spleen, liver and kidneys can aid in a smooth delivery. Chinese yam with white fungus, cubilose (key ingredient in birds' nest soup) with Korean ginseng, and dang shen tea are recommended.
A few energy-reinforcing foods like ginseng can help the mother in giving birth but too much can cause excessive bleeding.
Yue zi: The three months after childbirth
Giving birth consumes a lot of energy and blood. A woman is susceptible to pathogenic energies like coldness, dampness, heat, and wind.
This is the time for warm and hot (yang energy) reinforcement, but a weakened mother may not be able to digest and absorb too much nutrition for half a month after childbirth. Chicken soup is popular. Beef and mutton can be added when a woman regains her appetite. Both cold and cold (yin energy) foods such as watermelon or pear should be avoided.
(Shanghai Daily April 22, 2008)