I love Baltimore. There are so many amazing, committed people doing such beautiful work here.
One person who has been a guiding light for me is Lily Dwyer Begg. When I was pregnant with Celia and working full time, I knew I needed to stop attending (not to mention organizing) meetings, events and activities almost every day after teaching; grading papers late into the night. But I wasn’t ready to just go home at 4:30 either. Somehow, I ended up at Lily’s prenatal yoga class, and my problems were solved.
Over the next several years I learned so much from Lily. About anatomy. About parenting. About letting go.
While I was pregnant with Gary, I took her 80 hour Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training, which deepened my understanding of my own body but also of the range of experiences pregnant people can have and how helpful thoughtful movement can be. It was during this time that I developed our trio of salves for the childbearing year: Bountiful Belly Balm, Full Frontal Restorative Salve and Sweet Baby Massage Cream (though I worked on prototypes for my own use throughout both pregnancies and post-partum).
I have missed her classes profoundly in the past two years, but I have a hate-hate relationship with computers, and can’t yoke my mind to my body and practice yoga in their presence, so until she’s teaching in person again, I have to miss out (but you can join her! And you don’t even have to be in Baltimore! Check out her teaching schedule here: https://www.lilydwyerbeggyoga.com/group-practice).
So when I got the email that she was opening up this years’ Prenatal Yoga Teacher Training session with Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist Julie Everett, PT, DPT, CLT, I was psyched. I remembered Julie’s lecture from my own PYTT; she was knowledgeable, clear, practical and funny. Four hours of video chat sounded intense, but I decided it was a small price to pay.
I’m so glad I did it (despite the splitting headache I got from staring at the screen for that long. Oh the poor children on remote learning!). I was reminded of so much useful info about anatomy and body mechanics which will help me as I continue to grow my consulting practice. Our bodies are intra-connected in so many fascinating ways, and the more I learn about neuro-pathways, myofacial tissue and muscle groups the better I understand the possible sources of and contributing factors in issues ranging from Post Traumatiuc Stress to Insomnia to Arthritis and Inflammation to Organ Prolapse.
Pelvic Organ Prolapse occurs when the Uterus, Bladder or Rectum lose tone and sink within the pelvic bowl (a hernia is a type of prolapse). It can be caused by bearing down during labor, constipation, chronic coughing or even lifting things without “properly managing the intra-abdominal pressure,” as Julie put it. It is also linked to hormonal balance/imbalance. In extreme cases, the organ actually hangs outside of the pelvic bowl, through the vaginal, urethral or anal opening. Needless to say, this causes an array of problems.
Prevention is always the best strategy. Especially during pregnancy, it’s vitally important to move in gentle, strengthening ways so that the muscles and ligaments that hold the uterus in place get regular stimulation. This will help their ability to return the uterus to its rightful place after the birth. Keeping the stool soft is also important, so as to avoid pushing too hard to empty the bowels. Prescription stool softeners are not as safe as they are made out to be. Magnesium rich foods, like nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds, yum!), beans and greens should be a part of everyone’s diet, and occasional supplementation from a reliable source may be beneficial in keeping stool soft enough to pass easily. And, Magnesium has the added benefit of improving muscle tone!
During the presentation, I was surprised to hear Julie say that, although strengthening pelvic floor muscles is vital to stopping the progression of organ prolapse, nothing short of surgery can reverse it. From my understanding, the surgery is often not successful in the long run anyway. I hesitated for a moment, not wanting to interrupt her flow, but then typed into the chat “there are herbs that help restore and re-tone prolapsed organs!”
Both she and Lily expressed interest in this, so I decided to write a post about it, figuring they weren’t the only people who would be interested. Here, then, is an incomplete list of herbs that can help tone pelvic organs and aid their return to their proper places. If you know of others, or other body work that can be helpful, please put it in the comments!
This article is going to focus a lot on post-partum uterine prolapse, but I hope those suffering from other prolapses will be able to forgive me for that and find useful info for their own healing journeys!
I would strongly recommend that anyone dealing with organ prolapse combine an herbal approach with a series of visits to an excellent Myofacial Massage Therapist or Pelvic Floor Physical Therapist who can help release the myofacial tissue and facilitate the return of those organs to their state of harmony. Acupuncture also has ancient wisdom to offer on this topic, though I’m no where near qualified to tell you about it. And some types of Chiropractic practice can be helpful when realigning these organs.
Additionally, postural changes may help heal prolapse. While pregnant, we tend to tip our hips forward as the weight of the growing baby pulls on our spines and deepens the curve in our lower backs. This naturally softens the pelvic floor and shifts the center of gravity. Gradually working to regain balance in the pelvis post-partum can do a lot to help the organs find their rightful places. And, as I will discuss later, healing gut issues may also help make room in the pelvic bowl.
Red Raspberry Leaf (Rubus idaeus)
Red Raspberry Leaf is the best friend a uterus can hope for. Astringent and earthy, rich in minerals and phytonutrients, this gentle ally tones all smooth muscle, with a special affinity for the uterus. It’s never too early to start Nourishing Herbal Infusions of Red Raspberry Leaf; I make them for myself but share freely with my children and anyone who comes to my house thirsty. Drinking a few quarts a week throughout pregnancy is a great way to promote a smooth delivery and reduce your chances of prolapse. It also helps tone the uterus before pregnancy, and can be useful in encouraging conception.
But it’s not too late to late to enlist the help of Red Raspberry once prolapse has occurred. Drink infusions daily. Along with myofacial massage and/or acupuncture or other body work, this can restore organ tone and placement. I would start with a full quart a day if possible, and do that for several weeks before tapering down
Please note that tinctures and capsules will not work for this purpose. Neither will a teabag steeped in a cute mug for 15 minutes. You need to extract the deep magic to work this deep magic. 1 oz (about a cupful, but really, just get out the scale) of dried Red Raspberry Leaf in a quart jar, covered with freshly boiled, clean water and allowed to steep for 4 to 10 hours, is what we’re looking for here.
The easiest way is to make it at night, strain it in the morning and drink it throughout the day. If your house is warm or it’s Summer, keep it refrigerated after straining because it will quickly get funky. You can drink it with milk or honey or straight up. It is an astringent, so prepare to pucker up! I believe that experiencing the astringency in your mouth helps the astringent action in your body, so I try to have at least a few sips plain before I start playing mixologist.
In their fascinating book, The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine, Drs. David Frawley and Vasant Lad recommend combining Red Raspberry leaf “with small amounts of Myrrh” (p.139) for use as a douche to heal prolapse. Nothing should be inserted into the vagina after birth until the lochia discharge has stopped for several days, so this would certainly not be done for at least 4-6 weeks. And generally speaking, douching is not something I recommend, as the vaginal flora are in a delicate balance. However, using this combination in a sitz bath, especially while also taking the infusion internally, seems like a great move.
We have planted some Red Raspberry at our field in Berkeley Springs, but we won’t have much of a harvest for the first few years. Luckily, Red Raspberry Leaf is very inexpensive (I recently got a pound, enough for sixteen 1 oz infusions, from Frontier Organics for under $10) and easy to find. If you have Red Raspberries, or even Black Raspberries or Wineberries growing near you, their leaves are all very similar, and I encourage you to use the medicine growing near you. Explaining your problem to the living plant, asking for its assistance, and harvesting the leaves with intention and love will yield powerful healing!
Horsetail Grass(Equisetum arvense)
This fringed, grass-like plant is an ancient relic from prehistoric days with a tonic effect on the Urinary tract and all smooth muscle. High in Silicilic Acid (basically silicone), it’s great for building and rebuilding strong, supple tissue. It’s also astringent, and so helps tighten the muscle fibers, which can allow a prolapsed organ to refirm and, with the help of complimentary therapies, rise back into its proper position.
As the growing season progresses, the silicilic acid content increases, and can reach dangerous levels for regular use. If you have a patch growing near you, harvest only in Spring, and only take one cutting. Keep in mind that there are different species of Horsetail, some of which are poisonous, so make sure you know what you’re getting! If buying the dried herb, know your grower! We have planted horsetail, but again, wont have much to harvest for the first few years.
Horsetail grass is MUCH too strong to make the type of infusion described above for Red Raspberry. A teaspoonful of dried leaf in 8-12oz of freshly boiled water is plenty, though I still recommend a long steeping time to fully extract the minerals. It should not be used for more than a few weeks at a time.
It is generally considered too strong to use during pregnancy or breastfeeding, and if you have a history of kidney stones or other kidney disease, it’s important to consult with a qualified herbalist or physician with knowledge of herbs.
Burdock is a common “weed” with lots of fabulous benefits. Most commonly known as a blood and lymph cleanser, it’s really a whole medicine chest in disguise. If you want to get really healthy and really nerdy at the same time, read Susun Weed’s Healing Wise. She has a whole chapter on Burdock, and you’ll find so many ways to interact with this bristly ally.
In this chapter, she notes that, in England “Midwives help women heal acute uterine prolapse with frequent small sips of a brew made by soaking fresh burdock roots overnight in wine or hot water” (p. 99). I was intrigued, so I tried to find more info.
It seems there are several reasons Burdock could be an effective ally in this situation. First, it’s action of liberating stuck blood and lymph may help the uterus clear out old blood, which would help it shrink and return to its proper place. By supporting the liver to clear excess chemicals from the blood, it may help balance the hormones and allow the body to bring everything back into harmony.
I have another hypothesis, though. Burdock root, like Dandelion and Chicory roots, are high in Inulin, a starch. This is what’s now known as a pre-biotic, that is, a substance which feeds healthy gut bacteria, therefore encouraging more intestinal biodiversity. My hunch is that, as digestive health improves, there is less likelihood of distention of the colon and intestines, which could be pushing into the places the uterus and bladder are supposed to live. This would also be a case for a good diet of fresh foods, lots of well-cooked fiber and wild fermented foods while healing from prolapse.
Nicholas Culpepper, an English Herbalist, Physician and Ethnobotanist who lived in the 1600s, recommended placing some Burdock root on the head of a woman with a prolapse, to draw the uterus back up. I’m not sure it would work, but feel free to try if you’re so inclined! I don’t see how it could hurt.
Rare, At-Risk Herbs
The healers of Turtle Island (North America) had developed relationships with a number of plants that are specifics for assisting the pregnancy and birthing processes. (Some speculate that European Midwives and healers had allies for this time, too, but that this knowledge was lost when thousands of healers were killed and tens of thousands of others driven underground to make way for the so-called Enlightenment). Tragically, many of these native herbs have been over-harvested and are now nearing extinction in the wild.
False Unicorn, Blue Cohosh, Wild Yam, Black Cohosh, and Squaw Vine should be used with extreme reverence and only when all other options have been exhausted. Especially the first two should only be purchased from reliable sources that can prove that they are growing these plants, not harvesting from the wild. They are both extremely slow growers–we intend to plant both at our field this year, in wild-simulated forest settings. But even if they grow very well, they won’t be ready to harvest for many years.
I mention them because they are truly magical uterine tonics, and because both are in circulation already. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if 1 in 20 people who reads this has a bottle of False Unicorn or Blue Cohosh tincture in their cabinet already; purchased during a threatened miscarriage or in anticipation of a difficult labor, or just without knowing how close to endangered they were. It’s much better to use them or pass them on than to let them sit and lose potency!
These herbs are not at all interchangeable, and all have distinctly different actions. I don’t want to create undue demand for them by singing their praises too highly. I’ll just say that, if you try the three abundant herbs above, in conjunction with excellent diet and multiple visits to a Myofacial Massage Therapist or Pelvic Floor Pysical Therapist and your prolapse persists, schedule a consultation with an herbalist well-versed in these herbs and see if any of them may be right for you. I also recently read a fellow herbalists’ post on Our Lady’s Mantle, which sounds promising and grows abundantly. I don’t have personal experience with that herb, but you can read her post, consult with an herbalist or go talk to a plant and see for yourself!
The postpartum period is a time of intense transition. Allowing yourself to rest, be nurtured, and bond with your new baby is the best thing you can do to help your body grow into a healthy, glowing, beautiful Mom Bod (Mother Figure?). Early breastfeeding will help your uterus clamp down, invaluable for restoring it to its harmonious position. Midwives in India and Central America (and probably lots of other places) also massage the postpartum belly with oil and gently but firmly bind it to reduce the amount of space the organs have and decrease the chances that they’ll end up misaligned. This is very different from squeezing into tight jeans! Make sure your midsection is getting plenty of blood flow, and above all listen to your body.