By Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D. & Qineng Tan, L.Ac., Ph.D.
Nausea or vomiting during the first few months of pregnancy, known as “morning sickness,” is experienced by more than half of all pregnant women. Severe nausea and vomiting, or morning sickness that lasts all day or further into pregnancy–called Hyperemesis Gravidarum—is less common, but can cause health problems for both the mother and the developing fetus. Acupuncture and TCM provide a natural and effective alternative for dealing with both mild and severe morning sickness.
“Morning sickness” is somewhat of a misnomer, although nausea during the first several weeks of pregnancy is often experienced early in the day, before eating. Having an empty stomach can exacerbate the queasy feeling of morning sickness. But why is it called morning sickness when it lasts all day? As many women know, morning sickness can strike at any time of day or night, and some women feel nauseous throughout the day.
The majority (at least 70%, maybe more) of all pregnant women experience some nausea during early pregnancy. Morning sickness usually begins occurring when a woman is around 6 weeks pregnant, and goes away by about the 12th week of pregnancy, or the transition into the second trimester. However, some women will continue to feel morning sickness later in pregnancy.
Medical science has not determined exactly what causes morning sickness, although it is generally thought to be related to changes in hormones, particularly an increase in hCG, known as the “pregnancy hormone.” A recent research study found that a specific genetic sequence present in some women may account for increased nausea during pregnancy. Some researchers at Cornell University have posited that morning sickness may be an evolutionary development that prevents harm to babies in utero by keeping the mother’s diet free of potentially toxic substances. They observed that in cultures where the staple diet relies more on starches and less on meat, pregnant women were less likely to experience morning sickness.
For most women, the morning sickness that occurs in the early months of pregnancy is not dangerous to their health or that of the fetus. However, feeling nauseous a lot of time is certainly uncomfortable. Some lifestyle habits can help get the nausea and vomiting under control. Acupuncture treatment and herbs can help even more to provide relief from the daily nausea of morning sickness.
For some women, morning sickness is more than just a nuisance. Not being able to keep any food down and vomiting repeatedly throughout the day for weeks or even months on end can cause serious health issues for mom and baby. Lack of proper nutrition, dehydration, and weight loss can lead to unwanted outcomes later on, including pre-term delivery and low birth weight of the infant. Hyperemesis gravidarum requires treatment. Acupuncture help for morning sickness is a natural alternative to drugs used to treat nausea.
Top 5 Symptoms of Morning Sickness
The symptom of nausea during early pregnancy is often what first lets a woman know she might be pregnant. Feeling queasy, dizzy, sensitive to smells, an aversion to certain foods, and occasionally vomiting are the most common signs of morning sickness. The sensations can be likened to those of motion sickness, or having a hangover. Many women report having a metallic taste in their mouth, and/or more saliva, which can contribute to feeling nauseated.
Severe morning sickness is a more serious problem. Signs of hyperemesis gravidarum include:
- Vomiting 3-4 times per day or more
- Feeling light-headed or dizzy after vomiting
- Dehydration: thirst, dry mouth, not having to urinate normally
- Heart beating fast, heart palpitations
- Losing weight during pregnancy (more than 10 pounds)
Some women may be at higher risk for hyperemesis gravidarum if they are: having multiples (twins or triplets), if their mother also had severe morning sickness (genetics), or if they generally tend to have a more sensitive stomach, even when not pregnant. Stress, lack of sleep, and hot weather can all trigger more nausea during pregnancy.
Medical Treatment for Morning Sickness
Nausea and vomiting during pregnancy is challenging to treat effectively, as care must be taken to avoid drugs that could harm the mother or the developing fetus. Often women are not treated for severe morning sickness until they have become so sick and dehydrated from vomiting that they need urgent care. At this point, a woman may need to be hospitalized and treated intravenously for dehydration.
There has been a somewhat standard practice of people recommending and using over-the-counter antihistamines or antiemetics like Pepto-Bismol to help quell nausea. In a 6-year study of women with hyperemesis gravidarum, researchers found that women who had used medications like Benadryl during pregnancy were more likely to experience adverse outcomes. A combination of vitamin B-6 and doxylamine is sometimes recommended. This drug combination is sold as an OTC sleep aid. Phenothiazine is sometimes prescribed for women with morning sickness, but it’s efficacy and safety for this use has not been studied extensively.
These medicines are used because they seem relatively risk-free, but they still carry the risk of side effects, like drowsiness, headaches, dry mouth, etc. In many cases, they are not totally effective. Acupuncture and TCM herbal formulations offer relief from nausea and other pregnancy issues without any negative side effects.
How Can Acupuncture Treat Nausea?
According to TCM, Qi (life force energy) moves through the body along meridians, channels that connect the organ systems. The Chong meridian connects the reproductive organs to the brain and the heart. This particular energy channel is related to all concerns having to do with female reproductive health and gynecological conditions, including menstruation and pregnancy. Its relation to the heart means that it is also connected to feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, and palpitations.
Each woman’s experience of morning sickness is different, so a TCM practitioner will look carefully at each individual patient to determine the specific imbalances causing the nausea and address them appropriately with acupuncture and herbs.
In TCM theory, morning sickness and hyperemesis gravidarum are related to the stomach, spleen, and liver. When a woman becomes pregnant, blood and Qi are strongly directed towards the pelvic area to nourish the womb (uterus) and the developing fetus. This surge of energy will also affect the digestive organs, potentially causing stomach problems. This is more likely to happen to women who have had weak digestion previously, perhaps due to a lack of proper functioning of the spleen. Likewise, the direction of more blood to the reproductive organs can cause a decrease in Yin energy in the Liver, thus increasing Yang energy. Liver fire can also trigger imbalance in the Stomach, leading to nausea and vomiting.
A specific acupressure/acupuncture point on the wrist is especially helpful for reducing nausea. This acupoint is known as PC6, or Nei Guan, 内关, which translates as “Inner Pass.” You may have seen special bracelets or wristbands recommended to help reduce nausea due to morning sickness (or motion sickness or postoperative nausea related to opioid medications). These products are designed to stimulate this acupressure point for nausea. While applying gentle pressure to this point can certainly be beneficial for women experiencing morning sickness, acupuncture treatment that includes this point and others is even more effective.
A systematic review of published studies related to the use of PC6 stimulation for nausea and vomiting found that this treatment produces clinically effective results, not only for pregnant women, but also for patients in cancer treatment and other people experiencing severe nausea.
A randomized trial conducted in Sweden to study the use of acupuncture treatment in conjunction with standard medical treatment for women with hyperemesis gravidarum found that acupuncture was not only very safe and free of side effects, but that women who received acupuncture were able to get over their severe nausea and vomiting more quickly than women getting only the standard treatment.
A study conducted at a maternity hospital in Australia compared women who received acupuncture for morning sickness to groups receiving placebo treatment or no treatment. The women who received acupuncture reported significantly less nausea and retching.
Top 5 Tips to Help Morning Sickness
Naturally, pregnancy is a time to embrace new lifestyle habits that are beneficial to both mother and baby. Eating a healthy diet during pregnancy can be especially difficult if you are feeling nauseous. Getting enough nutrition and rest during pregnancy is vital.
- Eat plain, “bland,” warm foods. Avoid anything that is spicy, salty, fatty, fried, or cold.
- Eat smaller meals/snacks at regular intervals throughout the day, so as to avoid the stomach being empty or too full, and to keep blood sugar levels steady.
- Sip water slowly and regularly. Don’t gulp down large amounts of liquid all at once.
- Sip ginger tea, made by steeping a few slices of fresh ginger.
- Actively prioritize stress reduction. Anxiety can exacerbate the nausea of morning sickness. Take frequent rest breaks. Ask your TCM provider to show you some gentle meditative exercises like Tai Qi or Chi Gong that can help relieve stress and nausea.
Talking with a trusted healthcare professional who understands what you’re going through can be helpful for calming anxieties about your pregnancy. Finding an experienced acupuncturist who can help you through any and all of the symptoms and worries that may come up during pregnancy, birth, and postpartum care can help to ease stress and discomfort.
Acupuncture Near Me for Morning Sickness
Acupuncture is an excellent modality not only for helping to relieve nausea due to morning sickness; TCM is a holistic form of medicine that can help women throughout pregnancy. Many discomforts and concerns may come up as a woman anticipates birth. Working with an integrative health provider who has a thorough understanding of gynecology and obstetrics from both Eastern and Western medical points of view can be beneficial to the physical and emotional health of both mother and baby. At Art of Wellness, we have over 30 years of experience helping women attain better reproductive health: from painful periods, to fertility issues, through pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause.
*This article is for education from the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine only. The education provided by this article is not approved by FDA to diagnose, prevent, treat and cure human diseases. It should not stop you from consulting with your physician for your medical conditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine is based on Qi, which is an invisible force that usually cannot be observed by modern science. Because science focuses on testing ideas about the natural world with evidence obtained through observation, these aspects of acupuncture can’t be studied by science. Therefore acupuncture and Chinese herbs are often not supported by double-blind, randomized trials, and they are considered alternative medicine therapies in the United States.