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  • Why Fertility Nutrition Starts in the Gut

    By Beth Heller, M.S.

    Cauliflower is a fantastic fertility food.  Walnuts, lean protein and berries are terrific too.  But if you do not consume, digest and assimilate these foods effectively they cannot help your fertility.   This process of consumption, digestion and assimilation  (and we’ll also add elimination) is what nutritionists call gut function.  Good gut health is important for many health conditions, including fertility. Let’s take a closer look at these variables:

    Consumption: Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda place a great deal of emphasis on how we consume our food.  On the surface this means mindful eating, not eating in the car or standing in front of the microwave.  In addition, choosing food that is locally grown and in season is recommended by these traditional systems.  The taste buds, too, are an important part of the gut.  To be fully satisfying, traditional medicine systems teach a meal should contain six vital tastes:  sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent.  In fact, “western” scientists are now learning that certain tastes convey specific health benefits.  For instance flavonoids, the powerful antioxidants found in red wine, green tea and citrus that are believed to convey important health benefits, are bitter in flavor.   Interestingly,  our taste for bitter foods increases with age – as our body’s innate antioxidant systems are losing their efficacy.  Nutrition researchers even hypothesize that a preference for bitter taste in aging animals may be evidence of an evolutionary advantage.  Sadly, our Western diet emphasizes primarily the salty and sweet tastes – leaving the pungent chilis and bitter melons and fruit to other cultures.   Bottom line:  we should consume food mindfully – from eating in a calm environment to paying attention to the range of flavors in the food we eat.

    Digestion: In yoga’s sister medical science Ayurveda, we are taught to stoke “agni”  (digestive fire) prior to meals.  This can be done with yoga, exercise and in cases where the digestive fire is weak,  an herbal aperitif. The digestive fire is so important that Ayurvedic lore says “if agni is strong we can convert poison into nectar; if agni is weak, we convert nectar into poison.”  Eating too much can also dampen agni, just like throwing a big log on a fire.  Eating too many cold foods can also dampen agni.  Use the Appetite Scale at the end of this blog to help you use agni to your advantage.  For optimal digestive power, eat when you are at a level of 2-3 and stop eating when you are at 7.

    Assimilation :  The old adage is true.   The best way to get optimal amounts of vital nutrients is to eat a balanced diet filled with minimally processed fresh foods.  This is because the macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) as well as the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and other beneficial chemicals) in food work best in combination with each other. Food sensitivities, health conditions and even chronic stress can impact how we assimilate nutrients.   For instance, when we are very nervous we may find that food just “sits” in our stomach like a rock.  This is because the flight or flight stress response has down-regulated the digest/nest body functions and is shunting blood to the skeletal muscles rather than the stomach.

    Elimination :  When food rushes through the digestive tract (diarrhea) or stagnates there (constipation) we experience discomfort.  Poor digestion may also put us at risk for disease.  Diarrhea may speed food through the gut too quickly for vital nutrients to be absorbed.  It can also wreak havoc on the beneficial bacteria in our gut.  Constipation, on the other hand, allows for potentially toxic substances (including hormones and carcinogens) to be “re-digested” from fecal matter and returned to the body.  Imbalances in the intestinal and vaginal flora can also make women vulnerable to conditions like bacterial vaginosis that are associated with infertility and early pregnancy loss.  We can support gut bacteria by eating sources of soluble fiber (oats, lentils and beans) that support “good” bacteria and limiting the consumption of refined sugar and saturated fat, that nourish “bad” bacteria.

    So, this week as you fill your refrigerator and your plate with fertility-friendly foods, notice   how you are consuming your food and  pay attention to your gut function.  Eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full.  Enjoy a full range of flavors at every meal – searching beyond your habits for pungent, sour and bitter flavors.  Finally, pay attention to how your body is eliminating waste and strive for the Goldilocks’ approach of “not too fast, not too slow.”   These actions can be truly transformative.

    Working with an integrative nutrition specialist trained in fertility can be very helpful for resolving issues related to menstrual and reproductive function.  Call 312-321-0004 to learn more about Pulling Down the Moon’s nutrition specialists.

    Agni Gauge:

    0 Starving

    1 Hunger Pains

    2 Very Hungry

    3 Hungry

    4 Could Eat

    5 Neutral

    6 Could Stop

    7 Full

    8 Uncomfortable

    9 Over-Filled

    10 Stuffed

  • Yoga Sequence for PCOS – Boosting Agni

    Beth Heller, M.S.
    PCOS shows itself in different ways in different women.  For this reason, therapeutic yoga can be very helpful because it is individualized.  This simple sequence of poses help women with PCOS by stimulating the digestive fire as well as stretching tight muscles in the hips and low back, potentially enhancing the flow of life energy and blood to the region of the ovaries.   The pose is called Prasarita Padottanasana and we’ve added a twist to stimulate the abdomen.  Stimulating agni, the digestive fire, does not necessarily mean the stimulation of appetite.  Agni is responsible for the proper digestion and metabolism of food and, from the yoga perspective, greatly aid in maintaining a healthy body weight and deriving optimal nutrition from our diet.

    In step one, we take a wide-leg stance on our yoga mat and fold forward to place our hands on a block or the floor.  The back is flat and the legs are as straight as possible without forcing.  Take  10-20 breaths here before moving deeper.  As you breathe, work to lengthen your spine from tail bone to the crown of the head.

    In step two, reach the right hand up, twisting open to the right.  Keep lengthening through the spine and you twist.  Hold for 10-20 breaths as you revolve.  If it’s uncomfortable to look up at the right hand, turn your eyes to the horizon or just look down.  Release back to position 1.  Step three, reach the left hand high and hold for 10-20 breaths.  Release and rest.  To come up, heel-toe your feet in and come up to standing.

    If you are interested in learning more about the ways therapeutic yoga can support PCOS, join us for our PCOS Action Plan seminar on June 5 from 1-3:30 p.m. in Chicago.   Learn more here.

    Step 1 Prasarita Padottanasana

    Step 2: Right hand reaches up

    Step 3 Left hand reaches up

  • Laughter Yoga for Fertility? No Joke.

    by Beth Heller, M.S., RYT

    On April 26 we are offering a free Laughter Yoga class at Pulling Down the Moon in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week .  I can imagine that some people might be offended by the idea.  Infertility is no laughing matter.

    On some level that’s true – but on another it couldn’t be farther from the truth.  I can remember sitting out on the steps in front of my RE’s office after a bad ultrasound the day before Mother’s Day early on in my fertility journey.  I ran into my friend Heather at the office – she was starting her second IVF cycle – and she sat with me as I cried.

    “On the bright side, Beth,” she said.  ”We can go out together on Mother’s Day and drink martinis and eat raw fish!”   The need to avoid sushi was something that had concerned both of us about being pregnant back in the days when we thought pregnancy would be easy to achieve.  Now raw fish was our consolation prize.  I don’t know why but that struck us both as enormously funny at the time and we laughed until we could barely breathe.  Sad as I was that my cycle had failed, I felt worlds better after that laugh.

    The ability to laugh is one of our most profound self-healing skills.  Little kids laugh simply because it feels good and it makes them happy.  As adults we lose this spontaneity and, in turn, lose connection to the well-spring of physical, emotional and even spiritual benefits of laughter.  ”Mirthful laughter” has been  shown to help reduce chronic pain, improve immune response, alleviate depression and improve cardio-vascular health .  To thicken the plot, it seems that laughter may improve IVF outcomes.  Researchers in Israel followed 229 women and found that a 15 minute visit from a trained “medical clown” immediately after embryo transfer increased the  pregnancy rate to 36%, compared with 20% for women whose embryo transfer was comedy free.

    So how might laughter help fertility?   Perhaps by stimulating the relaxation response.   When people are stressed they tend to take shallow breaths. Extending the exhale (which is exactly what laughter is –  HA HA HA HA – gasp for breath – HA HA HA HA) has a profound effect on blood chemistry.  Breathing patterns that emphasize the exhale increase blood CO2 levels.  This change in blood chemistry relaxes blood vessels and promotes blood flow to the brain as well as the release of oxygen from the hemoglobin into the tissues.   In addition, laughter stimulates beta-endoprhins, our feel-good chemicals.  Interestingly, these are similar benefits to those believed to result from acupuncture treatment that is also associated with improved success of IVF cycles.

    From the yogic perspective, laughter plays an equally important role.  Inside each of us, yoga teaches, is a core of joy.  This core is clouded by negative thought patterns and what we have allowed to become the daily grind of our existence.  If we can connect to that spark of  joy, yoga teaches, it can begin to transform – even “burn away” – the negativity that has grown up around it.  Laughter sparks that joy.  It begins a profound process of coming back to our own innate radiance.

    So, come and join us for Laughter Yoga on Tuesday April 26 from 7 to 8 p.m.  The class is free.  This class will combine breathing and spontaneous laughter that will create an amazing shift in the chemistry of your body and brain.  We provide a silly, safe and nurturing environment for you to explore this wonderful practice and leave smiling.

    Click here to register!

  • The Impact of Acupuncture and Exercise in Women with PCOS: Results from a New Randomized Controlled Study

    From the Domar Center/Boston IVF Blog by Dr. Alice Domar, PhD

    Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder in women of childbearing age. It can be characterized by irregular or absent menstrual cycles, acne, facial hair, and obesity. There is no consensus on the most effective long-term treatment of women who have PCOS. Treatment can include birth control pills in women who are not trying to conceive or the medication metformin in women who are trying to get pregnant. However, some women report side effects from these medications and metformin is not associated with an increase in fertility.  Many practitioners have focused on lifestyle interventions, specifically diet and exercise, and these are considered to be the optimal choices; research has shown that reproductive function is improved with a diet which is moderate in unrefined carbohydrates, coupled with exercise. This approach in fact is the basis behind the Domar Center nutrition director Hillary Wright’s new book, “The PCOS Diet Plan”.

    Many women who are experiencing infertility are interested in complementary or alternative medicine, specifically acupuncture. Anecdotal reports have suggested that acupuncture is associated with improvements in symptoms of PCOS. A study just published out of Sweden is the first randomized controlled study to study and compare the impact of acupuncture and exercise in women with PCOS.

    Eighty four women with PCOS were randomized to 16 weeks of low frequency electro-acupuncture, 16 weeks of regular exercise, or a no-intervention group.  Participants were assessed at the end of the 16 week intervention period and again 16 weeks later. Both the acupuncture group and the exercise group experienced significantly greater improvements than the no-intervention group but the acupuncture group experienced the greatest improvements in terms of menstrual frequency and improved hyperandrogenism.

    This study suggests that women with PCOS might well benefit from acupuncture, specifically electro-acupuncture. Although this study replicated previous research documenting the benefits of physical exercise, the acupuncture patients actually experienced more benefits than the exercise patients.  The authors of the study concluded that electro-acupuncture can be used to treat the varied symptoms of PCOS.

  • This Week at PDtM – New Classes and FREE Passes

    This week is an exciting week at PDtM.  We have two new drop-in classes on the schedule, iRest ™ Yoga Nidra for Fertility and our Reiki & Meditation Circle for Women.  Your first session in either of these classes is FREE so  sign-up now and give them BOTH a try.

    Ellen MacGran

    iRest for Fertility starts Tuesday April 5 and runs from 7 to  8 p.m.  Our teacher Ellen MacGran has a gentle, soothing voice and has trained extensively with Dr. Richard Miller, one of the foremost experts on yoga nidra in the country.  Yoga nidra, which means “sleep of the yogi,” is a guided relaxation practice that is done laying down and creates a state of deep rest for body and mind.  Men are welcome to join this class.  You can even bring a pillow and your favorite blanket.  Cost $15 drop-in.  First class FREE!

    Lisa Espinosa, Reiki Master

    Reiki & Meditation Circle for Women begins Thursday April 7 and runs from 5 to 6 p.m.  This beautiful class combines beginning meditation instruction, sitting practice and healing energy work.  Your instructor is Lisa Espinosa, Reiki Master.  Cost $15 drop-in.  First class FREE!

    Other wonderful events include two FREE patient education seminars:

    Fertility Cleanse Thursday April 7,  6 to 7 p.m. Click here to register for this free program sponsored by Fertility Centers of Illinois

    FEM Protocol Fertility Massage Class Sunday April 10, 12-1 p.m. Click here to register for this free program sponsored by Fertility Centers of Illinois

    Upcoming Events Include:

    Laughter Yoga


    When is the last time you experienced an amazing giggle fit or a gut-busting crack up? Believe it or not, new studies show that laughter may improve IVF outcomes. Beyond fertility, we know that laughter can improve brain chemistry, release feel-good chemicals called endorphins and even stimulate the relaxation response.

    Join Pulling Down the Moon Co-Founders Tami Quinn and Beth Heller for a Laughter Yoga practice that combines breathing and spontaneous laughter to elicit an amazing shift in the chemistry of your body and mind. This wonderful community event will lighten your heart and mind and connect you with the spark of joy that is present within all of us.

    Click here to register for Laughter Yoga.

    Therapeutic Yoga and TCM for PCOS

    If you have been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome this unique workshop will empower you to use two ancient healing systems, yoga and Traditional Chinese Medicine, to help manage the symptoms and adverse health consequences that are associated with PCOS.

    At this workshop we will explore PCOS from the perspectives of yoga and TCM, learn a therapeutic yoga program that addresses the specific health concerns of PCOS and meet other women who are learning how to be radiantly healthy despite PCOS. You will leave with tools to support your physical, mental and spiritual health.  Pre-registration is required for this event.  Cost:  $35

    Click here to register for Therapeutic Yoga and TCM for PCOS.