Fertility specialist and acupuncturist Emma Cannon is known as the ‘baby maker’, thanks to her huge success at helping couples improve their health and conceive over the last 20 years. In 2009, she founded the Emma Cannon Clinic, in South London, where Western medicine, acupuncture, nutritional and lifestyle advice is offered as a single, utterly effective, holistic package. ‘When I was made redundant from my job in an oil business I knew I needed to find something that I was passionate about, that would make my heart sing,’ recalls Cannon, who has also written several books and launched a range of teas called Fertile. ‘My teas are aimed at nourishing the blood, warming the womb and moving stagnant Qi. They include high-quality herbal infusions so they are a great alternative to coffee.’ Here, Cannon talks to us about the links between food and fertility and why sometimes, doing absolutely nothing is good for the soul.
Why do you think the combination of Western medicine and Eastern practices is important? Each system has different strengths and weaknesses: the key is knowing how to use them together. For example, a fertility consultant doing IVF is very good at producing large amounts of eggs to collect but an acupuncturist is very good at calming the mind and improving blood flow to prepare the endometrium. Good nutrition is important, too, so preparing for IVF with suitable foods can make a difference.
What’s the biggest problem facing women who appear to be infertile? It varies so much: my mantra is ‘different patient, different treatment’. I think most systems are limited because they don’t recognise how different we all are. That said, the issues I see include, in no particular order: overwork, lack of sex, age, stress (which can be divided into sub-categories such as anxiety, fear and obsession), long standing gynaecology and ovulation problems.
How has the perception of infertility changed? There is growing awareness but people still confuse infertile with sub-fertile. In other words, there isn’t actually a fertility problem but the fertility is reduced due to factors such as age and lifestyle. An example of genuine infertility is a woman with no tubes or a man with no sperm. It’s good that we are talking about fertility more openly but certain topics – such as freezing eggs – get a large amount of attention in the media while male fertility and conditions such as Asherman’s (womb scarring ) are often ignored. There is also a lot of fear generated by overly simplistic headlines in newspapers.
How much power does a woman have over her fertility? If we connect with our bodies earlier in life and develop a relationship over a lifetime, we have more power than if we ignore our fertility until we decide we are ready. Knowledge is power. Our menstrual cycles are the only outward sign we have of our fertility so engaging with that can give a woman a great deal of knowledge about her body and her fertility.
Is there anything you wish you could say to clients but can’t? A lot of women would benefit from not working such long hours. Giving up work isn’t an option for most but I do think that women need time, just to be! We have gained many things but the impact on women of the loss of time has been a disaster for our fertility.
How does what we eat effect our general health? What we eat is the building blocks for good health. In my house, food is the first medicine and at the clinic we get extraordinary results from making changes to the diet. I give Chinese medicine type advice (for example, ‘you have too much damp in the body so cut out damp forming foods’) and Victoria Wells, my in-house nutritional therapist, focuses on more orthodox nutritional advice. She also looks after meal plans and is an expert on gut health and its role in fertility.
Why did you decide it was important to include recipes in your book, Fertility to Family? Patients always ask me for recipes and there is a lack of fertility focused food books. That book is very specialised for IVF and patients like it to be quite prescriptive – it helps them feel they are doing something by nourishing their bodies.
Are there any foods that are especially good for increasing fertility? Yes, but I don’t think of nutrition in that way. I tend to look at the climate of the patient and adjust the diet to improve the climate so when couples are trying to conceive and there are issues, I often use diet in a more medicinal way. For example, if a woman suffers from irregular or painful periods I would look for ways to address this through the diet. If a man has issues with his sperm, I would look at the diet and make some adjustments there.
To give you an example, I had a patient who had failed four cycles of IVF and sperm donation was the next step. The husband came to me and had so much internal heat in his body so I removed all heating foods from his diet (coffee, spices, chocolate, red meat, alcohol etc) and we treated him with herbs and acupuncture. Four months later his sperm had improved, they did IVF and were successful. Patients are amazed but improvements like this are normal in the clinic. Give the body the right conditions and many health issues improve.
What are your childhood memories of food? Growing vegetables, my dad walking up from the bottom of the garden with arms full of runner beans and my mum sighing, ‘oh no, not more runners’. Kippers which my dad had flown out to Germany because he was a General in the British Army and the Germans don’t do kippers. And avocados – I was obsessed with them.
Who taught you to cook? The army cook, who I had a crush on. I think the poor man was terrified; the General’s daughter thinking she was in love with him!
Your staple ingredients? Butter, bone stock, lemon and salt.
What would your last supper be? Organic roast chicken, roast potatoes cooked in goose fat, chicory braised in butter and lemon, purple sprouting broccoli and gravy.
What is your life philosophy? To thine own self be true.
What do you know now that you wish you had known 20 years ago? That my instinct will often lead me down the right path.
What life events have shaped you and how? Breast cancer. It made me determined to share my gifts with the world. We all have them but we are often afraid to shine.
What life advice do you give to your daughters? We come to this world with a gift – find out what yours is and share it with the world. Listen to the voice inside you: it knows better than anyone else. And nothing good happens after 2am (except child birth).
What healthy habits do you practice? So many but they include: yoga, acupuncture, skin brushing, using a neti pot and Epsom bath salts, weights and running, tennis and doing nothing.
Do you have a favourite retreat and what do you love about it? Viva Mayr. I go to study once a year and also to do the cure. Resting the digestive system and daily abdominal massage really works for me.
Favourite wise words? Those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind.