Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART)/In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) clinics worldwide utilize the most advanced, cutting-edge techniques and equipment available to facilitate many people’s dream of having a baby. Many also recognize that some alternative therapies can be helpful when used in conjunction with their technology-driven approach. One therapy that has shown great promise in helping those struggling to conceive is acupuncture. Acupuncture is just one of several modalities under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, but it is likely the most well known and utilized.
What Is Chinese Medicine?
Chinese medicine (CM) is a complete medical system dating back well over 2000 years. Historically used to treat all manner of illness, disease, disorder and infirmity, the practice of Chinese medicine is underpinned by three basic tenets: it is holistic; it strives to ascertain the root cause of disease; and it empowers healing by restoring balance.
- Chinese medicine is holistic. It sees all aspects of being – body, mind, and spirit – as inter-related, interdependent, and mutually supporting. Everything is connected, so illness or disharmony in any one aspect will necessarily affect the others.
- Chinese medicine always seeks the root cause of illness. All aspects of being are connected through a complex system of relationships and correlations. By understanding these correlations, a practitioner can determine whether a particular individual’s back problems, for example, are the result of acute trauma, an imbalance in internal organ function, or psycho-emotionally driven behavioral patterns.
- Chinese medicine empowers healing by restoring balance. Each of us is born with unique, constitutional strengths and weaknesses. We each respond with different levels of sensitivity to changes in the environment around us. And each of us develops identifiable internal imbalances as a result of our beliefs, behaviors and habits. It is the job of a skilled practitioner to parse how each of these aspects is contributing to an individual’s particular problem, and to determine what treatment is needed to correct the imbalances.
Chinese medicine also has a long and established history of treating women’s reproductive health issues. CM gynecology first became a distinct discipline in the imperial court of the Song dynasty – over 700 years ago.
What Is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture involves the insertion of extremely thin, pre-sterilized needles through the skin at specific locations on the body, known as acupuncture points. As one of several treatment modalities under the umbrella of Chinese medicine, it’s a gentle, holistic approach to healing and wellness.
According to acupuncture theory, illness is caused by disruptions of the flow of energy in the body. These disruptions cause the internal organs to become imbalanced. Needling the appropriate acupuncture points releases the blockage, thus restoring balance, and enabling your body to heal. Current research acknowledges that acupuncture can help with various problems, but has been unable to ascertain exactly how it works.
Contemporary, qualified practitioners of acupuncture undergo rigorous training. Top-tier degree programs in the U.S., Europe, and Asia include studies in both Chinese medicine theory, and acupuncture theory and practice, as well as substantial education in western medicine subjects such as anatomy & physiology, pathophysiology, clinical medicine, nutrition, pharmacology, medical imaging, and lab data analysis. The best schools require at least 1000 hours of supervised clinical training. If you decide to work with an acupuncturist while you’re doing IFV, make sure that they’re trained and licensed to international standards.
How Acupuncture Can Help With Infertility
Whether you’re preparing to have a baby, have already chosen to utilize the services of an ART/IVF provider, or have already had a positive pregnancy test, an acupuncturist trained and experienced in working with fertility and reproductive disorders can help. How can acupuncture help in your situation? Read on to find out.
Preparing to Conceive
Alleviate Stress: Stress is part of life. Struggling to conceive doesn’t help matters. By negatively affecting one’s reproductive function, stress makes having a baby even more difficult. Women who are chronically stressed have reduced fertility in general, and lower implantation rates during IVF procedures. Men who are chronically stressed often have lower sperm motility, and a higher ratio of malformed sperm. Acupuncture excels at reducing stress. Evidence suggests that it can balance sympathetic/parasympathetic function, raise endorphin levels, and reduce the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol, allowing both body and mind to relax.
Enhance Reproductive Function: Optimizing egg quality by supporting the ovaries is another way to facilitate conception. Acupuncture can improve blood supply to a woman’s reproductive tract, ensuring optimal nutrient and hormone levels, and maximizing energy supply to the growing embryo. These benefits are particularly important for eggs that are coming from older ovaries.
Studies indicate that acupuncture can also benefit sperm quality, particularly in cases where there is low motility, or high numbers of abnormal forms. Acupuncture helps by increasing blood flow through the small blood vessels of the testes, improving delivery of nutrients to developing sperm, and promoting optimal sperm vitality.
Regulate Sleep Cycles: The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. The quality, and quantity, of your sleep influences sex hormones, ovulation, immune factors, weight gain, mood, stress levels, longevity, and stamina. Acupuncture has a proven track record of helping people establish consistent, sound sleep patterns.
Reinforce Digestive Function: It goes without saying that the ability to absorb nutrients from what one eats is crucial to the health of both mother, and baby. So that nutrients are absorbed and utilized well, a properly functioning digestive system is an important focus of treatment. Acupuncture can directly address specific digestive issues such as bloating, bowel disorders, reflux, cravings or low appetite.
Balance Immune Function: A woman’s immune system plays a crucial role in both the process of implantation and the development of the placenta. A blood test that is positive for certain immune factors can indicate that there may be subtle imbalances in the immune environment of the uterus, which make it hostile to establishing a healthy pregnancy. By modulating the stress response, and increasing blood concentrations of endorphins and other neurotransmitters, acupuncture can positively effect immune function.
Optimize Body Weight: Optimizing body weight goes a long way toward improving fertility. And losing just a few kilograms is a manageable target for most. By raising metabolic function, and reducing your appetite, acupuncture can gently shift your metabolism a little bit in the direction of burning off fat stores, thus stimulating ovarian activity, improving egg and sperm quality, and increasing fertility.
Calm Emotions: Feelings such as frustration, anger, loss of hope, and self-doubt often arise, especially if you have been trying for a baby for a long time. While sometimes quite debilitating, the experiencing of such emotions – by both women and men – is quite normal given the circumstances. By applying theories and protocols developed centuries before the advent of talk therapy, a skilled acupuncturist can actually facilitate your ability to process and release painful feelings.
Embarking On ART/IVF
During Any Phase of the IVF Cycle: Anxiety, fatigue, moodiness, abdominal swelling and discomfort, and numerous other side effects are reported by many women during their IVF cycle. Acupuncture can be used to manage many of these side effects. By relieving stress, relaxing your body, and calming your mind, women report feeling a greater sense of control and fewer physical symptoms.
Before & During the Medication Phase of IVF: Clinical trials suggest that use of modalities that increase blood supply to the uterus and ovaries, and provide beneficial regulation of hormones, may facilitate follicle development and implantation. A significant increase in pregnancy rates was reported in these trials also. By circulating blood, improving pelvic health, and balancing your hormones, acupuncture during the weeks leading up to, and after, embryo transfer can improve egg quality and implantation rates.
After Egg Collection: Soreness, cramping, bloating, and constipation are common following egg collection. Having an acupuncture treatment a day or two after pickup can reduce local tissue trauma and effectively relieve pain. By improving blood circulation, and calming pain and agitation, your body will recover more quickly.
Preparation for Frozen Embryo Transfer: Many IVF clinics like to transfer embryos into a natural environment. Embryos that have been frozen and successfully thawed, that are then transferred into a uterus in its natural, optimal state, at exactly the right time, have a greater chance of implanting. Using acupuncture for two to three cycles prior to transfer has been shown to improve the structure of the uterine lining, and significantly enhance implantation and pregnancy rates.
On the Day of Embryo Transfer: A landmark 2002 study compared women undergoing IVF who also received a specific pre- and post-transfer acupuncture treatment, with those who did not. Now known as the Paulus Protocol, it demonstrated increased pregnancy rates among the group who received acupuncture immediately before and after embryo transfer. While subsequent studies have been unable to replicate the original, they have indicated that women who integrate acupuncture into the IVF process on a more long-term basis had a significantly higher likelihood of becoming pregnant.
After A Positive Pregnancy Test
Acupuncture can positively influence the entire course of your pregnancy. In the first few weeks, it can reduce the likelihood of failed implantation or miscarriage, relieve anxiety, and mitigate common symptoms such as morning sickness, breast tenderness, increased urination, and fatigue.
During the second trimester acupuncture can reinforce digestion, and keep your system running optimally while your baby develops. It can also be a useful remedy for many pregnancy-related disorders such as constipation, headaches, back pain, dizziness/fainting, fluid retention, hemorrhoids, or mood swings.
And the application of acupuncture once per week in the four to six weeks prior to your due date can not only shorten labor, but reduce the incidence of medical induction and emergency cesarean rates. In many cases acupuncture can also be used to correct breech or posterior birthing position, as well as encourage cervical ripening and the start of labor in women scheduled for a medical induction.
Chinese medicine, and acupuncture, look at the human body, the development of disease, and the process of healing and wellness very differently than Western medicine. To the inexperienced, its theories and concepts may seem simplistic and unscientific. But upon deeper examination, one discovers that CM’s explanations reflect the causalities we see in the natural world around us every day. And they begin to make sense.
Chinese medicine takes a macro view of the world, while western medicine takes a micro view. While they may seem to be at odds with each other, in actuality they are quite complementary. And while there have not been enough large-scale scientific studies in the West to prove that Chinese medicine provides a cure for infertility, practitioners who are trained to international standards can offer treatments that are based on the existing evidence, their training and experience, and the experience of doctors working in gynaecology clinics and hospitals in China over many hundreds of years. But it’s important to realize that acupuncture is not a quick fix. It’s a gentle, holistic therapy that, with time and effort, has been able to help many women achieve their dream of having a baby.