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Many couples struggle with issues of infertility, and last week I voiced my concern about the one-size-fits-all approach that most conventional infertility centers take, along with their reluctance to offer simple, inexpensive, and safe nutritional and alternative therapies first.
The exact opposite of “everyone’s the same” therapy is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). As a conventionally trained physician, this took me a while to comprehend. When I first worked with my TCM colleague Mari Stecker I asked for a good herb for a cold. She smiled and explained that Chinese medicine doesn’t work that way. In TCM, the practitioner selects herbs (and acupuncture points) based on the patient’s specific needs. An herbal blend for one woman seeking help for fertility issues is often completely different for the woman across the hall with ostensibly the same medical problem.
The TCM combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine has been used for centuries to treat infertility. It’s helpful to understand that the system of Chinese medicine doesn’t treat specific diseases, in a Western medicine sense, or abnormal blood tests and x-rays. Rather, a TCM practitioner when examining her patient is looking for problems with the flow of qi (pronounced chee), the individual’s subtle energy or life force. It’s from blockages, stagnation, depletions, and imbalances of qi that our otherwise smoothly running bodies go on the fritz.
In her initial evaluation of your pregnancy problem, a TCM practitioner first obtains your detailed medical history and then performs a physical exam, with emphasis on the appearance of your tongue and quality of your pulse. All this is to seek out issues with the flow of your qi that may be interfering with fertility.
Inserted into your skin at very specific points, the extremely thin and virtually painless acupuncture needles stimulate and move your body’s qi along paths called meridians. Combinations of herbs, usually taken as an infusion or tea, complement the effect of acupuncture. When your body is balanced and healthy, your chances of conception are significantly increased.
Studies in Chinese medical journals suggest that TCM can be helpful in…
• Regulating periods.
• Regulating hormones and improving ovulation.
• Improving the quality of eggs.
• Improving the quantity, quality, and motility of sperm.
• Addressing specific issues such as fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), no-ovulation cycles, recurring miscarriage, and elevated follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
• Improving the results of fertility treatments such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF).
• Helping PMS and painful periods.
TCM can be used alone to treat infertility or to complement conventional fertility treatments. By improving blood flow and relaxing your uterus, acupuncture increases your chances of healthy conception as well as reducing the stress that comes with the whole process. A study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility (April 2002) compared women undergoing IVF who received acupuncture with those who did not. Women receiving acupuncture had a pregnancy rate of 42.5%, while the women who didn’t had a pregnancy rate of 26.3%. Another study, in Ob. Gyn. News (January 2005), showed that the use of acupuncture during IVF reduced the rate of miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy. For these reasons, a small but increasing number of reproductive specialists are recommending that women receive acupuncture throughout their fertility treatments.
Here are a couple of success stories we’ve recently seen at WholeHealth Chicago:
• Melanie, 39, had had trouble getting pregnant on her own so she went to a fertility specialist. Because of her age, it was recommended that she begin immediately with IVF (a suggestion, by the way, I strongly disagree with). After three cycles of IVF and steadily increased doses of fertility drugs, she was still not pregnant. We recommended weekly acupuncture treatments for two months before considering another IVF. On her fourth IVF cycle, she became pregnant and now has a healthy baby girl.
• Karen, a woman in her mid 30s, decided to try Chinese therapies before committing to an infertility center. She’d already undergone hormone testing and had been told that everything was fine. An interesting point in her medical history was longstanding and very severe PMS and painful periods. After three months of Chinese treatments, her symptoms were greatly reduced and in the fourth month of treatment she became pregnant, ultimately delivering a healthy baby boy.