By Rona Luo
Just weeks after finding out I was pregnant, I started leaking urine every time I coughed, sneezed or laughed. This type of stress incontinence usually sets in during the third trimester, when the fetus puts more pressure on the bladder. However, my incontinence only worsened in the second trimester – I had to use the bathroom with increasing frequency, could only sleep 1.5 hours before waking up to urinate, and experienced a few mortifying incidents in public in which a cough brought on not just a leak but a complete emptying of my bladder down my legs.
According to conventional medicine, the solution for pregnancy incontinence is kegels and other pelvic floor strengthening exercises. While pelvic floor strengthening is absolutely essential, these exercises take 6-8 weeks to take effect, and not every type of pregnancy incontinence can be resolved with kegels.
At one point, my midwife suggested that I wear adult diapers (which are necessary postpartum), but I was determined to try addressing the issue with herbs. In Chinese medicine, our kidneys are responsible for both reproduction and processing urine. Kidney energy nourishes the developing fetus during pregnancy, and therefore, can become sapped and less able to perform its function of transforming fluids and holding urine in the bladder.
After consulting with my coworker and acupuncturist Amy Mosley, I added the following three herbs to the formula I was already taking to support my pregnancy – Tu Si Zi, Wu Wei Zi and Du Zhong. These herbs work together to nourish kidney energy and strengthen the kidney’s ability to hold urine in the bladder. Just days after starting these herbs, I was able to extend my sleep to getting up every two and half hours, and after a week, getting up every four hours. I never experienced complete bladder emptying again, and leaks became more minor. I cannot tell you how much this has improved my overall ease and helped me get more rest at night.
While these herbs are safe during pregnancy, it’s important to emphasize that they are not meant to be taken alone, but in combination with other herbs appropriate for the pregnant person’s specific constitution.
1. Tu Si Zi (Cuscutae Seeds / Dodder Seeds)
Tu Si Zi is a lovely herb that manages to tonify Kidney Yang energy while being neutral in temperature. Tu Si Zi supports fertility and pregnancy for people with weak kidney energy, and also “secures the urine,” in a variety of incontinence cases. Tu Si Zi has the added benefit of stabilizing the fetus and preventing miscarriage.
2. Du Zhong / Eucommia Bark
Du Zhong is the bark of a tree in the rubber family. Like Tu Si Zi, Du Zhong is a tonic for Kidney Yang energy, helps “secure the urine,” and also calms fetus and prevents miscarriage. Du Zhong is also great for back pain, a common complaint in pregnancy. This herb is warm in nature, and should be used with caution in people with internal heat.
3. Wu Wei Zi / Schisandra Seeds
Wu Wei Zi operates a little differently than Tu Si Zi and Du Zhong. Wu Wei Zi is a kidney tonic, but not specifically for kidney yang. Rather, Wu Wei Zi has a strong astringing function and helps to astringe urine. Wu Wei Zi has the added benefit of nourishing the heart and calming irritability, anxiety and insomnia. This herb is also mildly warm and should be used with caution in people with internal heat.
Please consult with an experienced herbalist if you’d like herbal support for stress incontinence. These herbs are helpful for pregnant people with the appropriate constitution, but different herbs may be necessary for different people. Careful monitoring of dosage is especially important when prescribing for pregnant people.