Facing fertility problems can be a very stressful experience. I have always had an interest in this area of health and have worked with many couples trying to conceive. But it wasn’t until I battled with infertility myself that I really understood how deeply it can affect you. I now know first-hand that it can take you to some very dark places. The experience has made me passionate about helping people in the same predicament.
In my case, a combination of issues meant the odds were not looking good, even with IVF. I’m sure that following a pre-conception program of acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine, and continuing the acupuncture to support the IVF cycles, was instrumental in having a successful pregnancy. Other things helped too, which I will go into later.
First, let’s look at how Oriental medicine boosts fertility.
Oriental medicine looks at the body as being governed by the flow of energy (Qi), which in turn influences the flow of Blood. (The concept of Blood in Oriental medicine is a bit broader than that in Western medicine, so we are talking about more than just the fluid that we know as blood in the West.) The smooth flow of Qi and Blood in the meridians (energetic channels) is vital to the various organ systems working harmoniously together. This is especially true when it comes to the reproductive system. Oriental medical theory sees the Kidney, Liver and Heart organ and meridian systems as being particularly important, but others can be involved as well.
By regulating Qi and Blood flow, Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine help regulate the menstrual cycle and calm the mind, so that your body is in the optimum state to conceive and carry a baby. One way that this works is by increasing the blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, something that has been measured in scientific studies.
Preparing the ground.
In Oriental medicine, we see preparation for pregnancy as being very important. In the same way as a farmer would carefully prepare the soil to grow crops, we work on your internal environment so that it is ideal for an embryo to implant and grow for the next nine months. I recommend a pre-conception program of around 3 months, as this is the time an egg takes to mature in the ovary. During this time we focus on observing your body’s natural signs, regulating the menstrual cycle and calming the mind, as well as looking at any lifestyle changes that may be beneficial.
Similarly, it takes between 2 to 3 months for sperm to develop, so this time-frame works well for men too. Ideally, both partners should come in for treatment for best results.
Specific fertility issues.
Many conditions affecting fertility can be helped with Oriental medicine. These include endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and sperm problems.
A recently published review of several studies showed that women taking Chinese herbal medicine for fertility problems were 3.5 times more likely to conceive than those having drug therapy alone.
Supporting IVF or ART (assisted reproduction technology).
In some cases, IVF or ART are needed, and acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine work well with these treatments. In fact, research shows that they can improve the success rate of IVF, particularly in poor responders (when few eggs develop in response to hormonal stimulation) and women over 35.
Again, it is important to prepare the body adequately before having these invasive procedures. During this time, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are useful. When the IVF cycle starts (hormonal injections begin), we usually continue with acupuncture alone, to avoid interactions with fertility drugs. It is important to have acupuncture at key times in the IVF cycle, with a treatment before and after embryo transfer being very important in maximising the chances of implantation. We also tailor the acupuncture program to the type of IVF cycle (long down-regulation, antagonist etc.).
Acupuncture increases blood flow to the reproductive organs, helping follicle development, and preparing the endometrium (lining of the uterus) for implantation. It may also help stop the uterus from contracting after the transfer, thereby helping implantation. It also has a key role in balancing the emotions and counteracting stress. Which is useful, as undergoing IVF can be extremely stressful, and you may find yourself on an emotional rollercoaster.
What else can help with fertility issues?
Here are some of the things I found useful:
- Research. Spend some time educating yourself about any diagnosed fertility problems, so that you can ask the right questions of your health care team. If further medical help is needed, think carefully about the best specialist and clinic for you. I can help you with some factors to consider.
- Have your diet looked at by a Naturopath. Many nutrients and supplements are important in boosting fertility. But you need a dietary approach that is sustainable and that doesn’t add to your stress. If you need to lose weight (and this can be important in some types of fertility issues), slow and steady is best.
- Relaxation / stress reduction. This is important in dealing with infertility, especially if you need ART or IVF. Keeping a balanced frame of mind can be difficult but is important from an Oriental medicine point of view. Yoga worked well for me, but for others the answer might be reflexology or massage. Some people deal with stress through exercise, and this is certainly beneficial. But it’s important not to do intense exercise from a few days after ovulation (or after the embryo transfer if you are doing IVF) until the end of the cycle, as this can be counter productive.
- Find an outlet. Talking with friends or family that understand, online discussion forums, counselling – these can all save your sanity.