Sarah Thompson of Sacred Vessel Acupuncture and Functional Medicine specializes in fertility care all the way through postpartum care with a primary focus on pregnancy. Sarah recently shared how acupuncture and functional medicine can help surrogates in their surrogacy journey.
What is Acupuncture?
Traditional Chinese Medicine is an ancient medical theory rooted in a long and rich history. Acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles into specific acupuncture points. Modern Acupuncture is based on the understanding of how Acupuncture affects the biochemistry of the body. The insertion of small needles into strategic Acupuncture points elicit a series of endocrine, hormonal and biochemical reactions in the body. We combine the ancient knowledge with the modern knowledge to bring together the strengths of both medical models to improve treatment success.
What Is Functional Medicine?
Functional medicine takes Western physiology that we all know and love and combines it with clinical nutrition. We look at the different physiological processes of the body. When we’re looking at fertility, we’re looking at how the ovary works, the growth of the end endometrial lining and the hormones responsible for that, and how nutrition plays into those functions in the body.
You have over 20 years of experience working with medical doctors in the fields of pain management and OB/GYN. How do you work hand in hand with these doctors while treating a pregnant patient?
I’ve been at this for a long time and I’ve definitely practiced in medical offices, which has been fantastic. I worked in an OB/GYN clinic for a number of years and that allowed me to understand their modalities of treatment. We often collaborate with physicians and midwives, discussing patient care and what we are doing nutritionally to support these women. We work together to make sure we meet our goal of a happy, healthy pregnancy, a happy, healthy birth and a happy, healthy baby!
You also became a doula. Why?
I worked with women in different facets of fertility and different facets of pregnancy. It was always a hard thing for me to part with my patients when it was time for labor. Now as a doula, I can offer continuity of care from IVF transfer or conception all the way through delivery. We get their body prepared for labor and I get to be there with them to support them through that process.
Have you worked with surrogates?
We’ve definitely helped surrogates prepare their bodies for the IVF transfer process so that they can accept that embryo successfully. We also care for surrogates through pregnancy to make sure that not only is the baby growing well, but that their body is also supporting the pregnancy correctly. We use a lot of functional medicine and acupuncture to help facilitate this.
Are there any specific points in the body that you are focusing on during pregnancy?
The maternal body changes drastically from literally the day of conception all the way through three months postpartum, a period known as the fourth trimester. There’s all these lovely little strategic spots through gestation that I focus on because they’re very important. These acupuncture points vary throughout pregnancy. One of our key points we emphasize is the happy baby point, which is on the inside of the calf muscle. It increases blood flow to the uterus which increases oxygen, adrenaline and nutrient flow into that baby.
How can surrogates prepare themselves for birth?
The best thing you can do when preparing for birth is to start early. Focus on nutrition throughout pregnancy because it makes a big difference in how that birth goes. I have a new book, Functional Maternity, that talks about the disciplines of functional medicine throughout pregnancy. A whole chapter is dedicated to preparation for childbirth because it’s so important. Traditionally, we think of preparation for childbirth as being the last couple weeks of gestation starting at 36 weeks. The actual changes in maternal physiology that go into labor and delivery, however, starts at around 28 weeks. So, with our surrogate mothers and moms in general, we really want them to do certain things starting at 28 weeks to understand how their body is changing and what they need to be doing nutritionally. This allows those changes to occur optimally when they are in labor so delivery can go smoothly.
What are some key pregnancy benefits of using an acupuncturist?
Throughout pregnancy, there’s a number of things acupuncture can successfully treat. Morning sickness is a big one. Acupuncture is very beneficial for reducing morning sickness throughout the first trimester. We can change neurotransmitter function and hormone function at different phases in gestation. Pregnancy acupuncture is a really good option for women experiencing depression and anxiety because it’s non-medicated. We’re not worried about putting medications in the body, which could affect the growing baby. In addition, there is an excellent study that came out of Stanford years ago that found acupuncture is more effective at mitigating postpartum depression than medication. So, that’s something that we use acupuncture a lot with. The other thing is we can help facilitate the hormones that go into the activation of labor. If we have conditions where induction is a possibility, we can help move the body along a little bit and perhaps avoid induction. Hypertension is another condition we commonly treat with acupuncture and have good success rates.
Why is it so important for a mom to take care of herself while pregnant?
One of the things I find with maternity care in general, and maybe even more so in a surrogate situation, is we focus so much on the health of the baby that we kind of miss the mother. The woman and her health matters during the pregnancy, because if they’re not taking care of themselves and their nutritional status, their health will follow them throughout the rest of their life. This is why caring for mothers is just as important as caring for that baby.
We focus a lot on the fourth trimester in our All-In Surrogate Care and Compensation Package. How can acupuncture help recovery in the postpartum fourth trimester?
Acupuncture can help to balance those hormones post pregnancy. One of the big hormone issues we see postpartum is a drop in estrogen and it’s not because the mom doesn’t produce estrogen anymore. It’s because some estrogen was being produced by the baby. So, a postpartum mother has been on an estrogen high for the last several months and then she experiences an estrogen low after the baby’s birth. We can really help her body start to resolve that gap on its own with acupuncture. That’s an example of how acupuncture can play a role in changing hormones and how they are processed.
How can women prepare for birth physically and emotionally?
The biggest tool in anybody’s toolbox is educating yourself to know what’s going to happen in the body and what to expect. I’m a big fan of watching videos. Surrogates have had pregnancies and births before. While they understand that process a little bit, every pregnancy is different, which is why having somebody who can help guide you becomes very important. Lastly, nutrition is key! Nutrition management is an important missing aspect in many lives that can improve our birth outcomes.
Do you have any advice for breast milk pumping?
Make sure that the pumping mom gets enough Vitamin D. We talk a lot now about Vitamin D deficiency being a big issue in pregnancy and, more importantly, postpartum. Mothers need to consume a minimum of one thousand international units of Vitamin D for the breast milk to contain the minimum 400 international units that the baby needs to grow correctly. A lot of pediatricians are now supplementing babies with a liquid Vitamin D supplement since so few women are meeting that demand of Vitamin D in their diet. A lot of the foods that are rich in Vitamin D are things like mushrooms, seafood, and organ meats, like liver. These are also fantastic foods for the postpartum period in that fourth trimester. Nobody is a big fan of organ meat anymore, but it helps women recover from childbirth and contains all the vitamins and minerals that were lost during that third trimester and the birth experience itself. It is a fourth trimester power food!
Do you have advice for a woman who is considering becoming a surrogate?
In fertility management, we always say preconception nutrition is more important than pregnancy nutrition, and the same thing applies to surrogacy. What a surrogate does in those months before transfer really makes a difference on how that pregnancy is going to go for her. We have to make sure her body is in a good position to take on that embryo and to carry it full term. There are nutritional deficiencies that can inhibit that embryo from transplanting or increase the risk of miscarriages in that first trimester. Iodine deficiency is a big one and hypothyroidism can be a big trigger for a loss. Iron deficiency in the preconception phase tends to not resolve itself throughout pregnancy. We look at making sure that women have consumed enough iron before pregnancy, so we don’t have to add in supplements later on if we don’t have to, which puts her body in a better position to handle pregnancy.
How can people find you?
We offer nutritional support in the preconception phase, through pregnancy and postpartum in our office in Fort Collins, Colorado and by virtual appointments. If you want more information on the different aspects of functional medicine and how it affects the different phases of pregnancy, please read my book, Functional Maternity, which is designed for both practitioners and women who are interested in learning more.