FSF Interviews – Jessica Bourke
Jessica Bourke took an indirect route into the health industry. Twelve years ago, her uncle, who was working as a finance trader in the USA, attended an interesting lecture about the impact of a healthy diet and lifestyle on mental performance. He relayed what he had learnt to Jessica, who was completing the second year of her Law degree. Jessica was so fascinated by what she heard that she decided to begin studying acupuncture, while simultaneously finishing her Law degree. Upon its completion, she flew to China to undertake post-graduate advanced acupuncture training in the 6th Peoples Hospital in Shanghai. Later that year, she opened her private practice in Ireland and attained her qualification in nutrition shortly thereafter.
Jessica has always been interested in reproductive health even though as a mother of two children she never had any fertility issues herself. In her clinical practice, Jessica consults with male and female clients who are trying to conceive. She continues to treat women throughout their pregnancies working closely with other fertility professionals.
What would be a typical patient attending your clinic?
“Probably a 35 year old woman who is suffering from primary infertility, meaning she has never been pregnant despite trying for several years. Increasingly, I am also seeing women with secondary infertility, who may have had success first time around but are having serious difficulty conceiving again. This is often down to hormonal imbalance or nutritional deficiencies that were a sub-clinical issue on their first pregnancy but became clearly evident in the post-natal period. A good example of this would be Hypothyroidism, which is extremely common in Ireland”, Jessica explains.
Jessica suggests that the main issue for women with fertility issues is often hormonal imbalance.
“The Endocrine (hormonal) system is extremely complex and a slight imbalance in one Endocrine organ may have a knock-on effect elsewhere in the body. E.g. the adrenal glands, impacting sex hormone production. Naturally diet, lifestyle issues, and stress make their mark as well. When we are stressed our body uses up our nutrient reserves, and favours survival, instead of producing adequate amounts of the sex hormones. There are also plenty of people with nutritional deficiencies, for instance of vitamin D due to lack of sunlight exposure”.
Infertility is often viewed as a taboo topic. According to Jessica that is unfortunately true in spite of how common fertility issues have become.
“It is now estimated that one out of six couples can’t get pregnant and this number is expected to increase. One reason for these statistics may be due to increasing awareness about fertility issues and women are seeking out help, rather than suffering in silence. On the other hand, the average age of a woman having her first baby is now 31-32 years, where as thirty years ago, most women were conceiving in their twenties. However, I don’t believe age has to be the defining aspect of a woman’s fertility, particularly if she is in good health”, she clarifies.
The move towards natural home births
Natural home births have become more popular lately, and this has led to heated debates about its advantages and disadvantages. Some say it’s necessary to give birth in the hospital in case of complications, others say that many complications occur because of medical interventions within the hospital environment. Jessica planned to have both her children at home. With the birth of her daughter, the midwives noticed some meconium (a sign that the baby may be in distress) so she was transferred in to hospital to give birth there. Jessica was more than happy to do this as her primary concern was the health and safety of her baby. The delivery was straightforward and without any need for an epidural.
Second time around with her son, everything went smoothly and she was able to give birth to her son naturally at home.
“It is clear from the scientific literature that the more medical interventions that arise during the labour, the more complicated the process becomes, which can leave women feeling out of control of the situation. During the economic downturn, financial constraints led to an increase in the number of women availing of home birth options, particularly for second-time mothers and the reports on their experiences have been overwhelmingly positive”.
One of the advantages of a home birth is faster recovery for the mother. A mother’s health before and during her pregnancy can hugely influence her child’s health.
“For me personally, I wanted to avoid the use of medication unless absolutely necessary and to be in the comfortable environment of my own home whilst having my baby. My second labour lasted 3 hours from start to finish, so by the time my daughter came home from Montessori she found she had a little brother. My recovery was very fast, I was up and about the next day and felt myself again by day four. My midwives were somewhat baffled by this and kept asking me what I ate and how much I exercised, they even asked to take a look in my fridge”, Jessica laughs.
Breast-feeding is an important factor for children’s health and the mother-baby -relationship.
“Over 99% of the children in Norway are breastfed. In Ireland babies are often weaned off the breast within the first few months. My attending midwives, who visited the Norwegian facilities, believe the uptake of breast-feeding over there is so high because the hospitals have adjoining buildings where you can have babies in a natural environment that is designed to feel like a mother’s own home. This may be why mothers find it easier to breastfeed, as stress certainly doesn’t help”, she suggests.
Most of us are aware that diet during pregnancy is important for the developing baby. But alcohol and caffeine are not the only things that should be off the menu.
“If a mother eats high-fat, sugary food during pregnancy, there is evidence that she may be predisposing her future child to certain food cravings and a tendency to put on weight easily. Every mother has a huge responsibility for the health of their child and the time to make changes is well in advance of conception, ideally 4-6 months beforehand”.
Many people are wondering what nutrition to give their young children. What recommendations would you have?
“Nutrition is an important issue with kids. What I have noticed is that my children are almost never sick. I breastfed both children until 2 years old. Our whole family is vegetarian, and we don’t eat any processed sugars, dairy and only small amounts of wheat. It is an interesting fact that within two hours of eating processed sugar, our white blood cell activity is reduced by up to 50%, making it easier for viruses to take hold. We would generally eat a high fibre diet that includes a lot of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. Studies show that we should be eating 9-13 vegetables a day for optimal health, the old ‘five a day’ rule is actually a minimum, rather than an optimum daily amount”, Jessica informs us.
Environmental issues hindering sperm quality
Many men are uneasy about the idea of influencing the quality of their sperm, even though there are many things that may be done to improve it.
“It takes approximately 74 days to synthesize the sperm from start to finish. It’s important that there is a high sperm count, with plenty of progressive ‘swimmers’. The shape and DNA integrity of the sperm are also crucial. According to the literature, higher doses of certain antioxidants like selenium, vitamin C and E may help”, Jessica indicates.
Apart from nutrient intake, men can do plenty other things as well.
“There have been several studies showing that keeping mobile phones in the trouser pockets and sitting computers on their lap, may negatively influence the quality of the sperm and thus fertility. I’ve even had to tell a few cyclists to give up their hobby as the cycling is impeding the blood circulation to the perineal area, thus affecting sperm health. Men should also avoid synthetic materials like plastic while warming up food or drinking hot beverages due to the presence of damaging xeno-oestrogens”.
When it comes to the use of natural herbal remedies, some of them may be effective but their use has been prohibited.
“Natural herbs are often very useful, but unfortunately many herbs that had been used safely for decades have now been banned by the European Commission. Maca is one of the most popular herbs used to increase stamina and infertility due to its adaptogenic effects. The good news is that there are plenty good quality food products that impact fertility and I would recommend medicinal mushrooms like cordyceps, reishi and chaga that have wonderful, immune enhancing properties”, she advices.
Blue or the red pill?
Earlier this year Jessica wrote a cook book together with her brother Jordan Bourke, who is a chef and food stylist, based in London.
“Our aim in writing this book was to prove once and for all that healthy food does not have to be bland and tasteless. All of our recipes are sugar, wheat and dairy free, yet still indulgent enough to be served at a dinner party”, she explains enthusiastically.
Jessica’s opinion is that we have the health information available to us, and it’s just a matter of choice.
“It’s like in the movie, ‘The Matrix’, when Neo had to make a decision between the blue or the red pill. What’s stopping us from living our healthiest life? Why not make changes now to reduce the risk of developing cancer or heart disease in our 50s? I have noticed that people are becoming ill at a much younger age than before. For instance cancers that only used to be a problem for people in their 50-60s are now affecting 30-40 year olds. If we each assume responsibility for our health then hopefully the future will a lot brighter, for ourselves and the precious, next generation ”, Jessica concludes.