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Boosting Fertility With Traditional Chinese Medicine

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). When a couple is struggling to conceive, TCM is not usually the first approach that comes to mind, perhaps because people are simply unaware that TCM has been responsible for countless successful pregnancies over the thousands of years of its existence.

As a conventionally trained physician, TCM 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 challenge.

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 for infertility, the 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 increase significantly.

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 accompanies the 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.

Fertility success stories at WholeHealth Chicago
Mari Stecker and Cindy Kudelka, our TCM specialists, delight in stories that start with fertility challenges and end with healthy babies. During your first visit, you’ll be evaluated as a unique individual and a customized treatment plan will be developed. Here are some of their examples of how TCM helped couples successfully conceive, with identities changed to ensure privacy.

Melanie, a 39-year-old attorney, had trouble getting pregnant on her own so she went to a fertility specialist. Because of her age, it was recommended that she start IVF immediately (a suggestion, by the way, I strongly disagree with). After three IVF cycles and steadily increased doses of fertility drugs, Melanie was still not pregnant. We recommended weekly acupuncture treatments for two months before she considered another IVF cycle. On her fourth IVF attempt, she became pregnant and now has a healthy baby girl.

Karen, a librarian in her mid 30s, decided to try TCM therapies before committing to an infertility center. She’d already undergone hormone testing and, though she’d been having trouble getting pregnant, had been told everything was fine. An interesting point in her medical history was longstanding and very severe PMS and painful periods. After three months of TCM treatments, her symptoms were greatly reduced and in the fourth month of treatment she became pregnant, ultimately delivering a healthy baby boy.

Jenny, a 31-year-old freelance science writer, had been trying to conceive for eight years. She had a lot of health complications, including chronic pelvic and abdominal pain, that prevented her from doing even basic daily activities. Over the previous six years, she’d been diagnosed with endometriosis, fibroids, polyps, underactive gallbladder, irritable bowel syndrome, irritable colon, acid reflux, and gastritis. Multiple abdominal surgeries followed.

Jenny came to our office for weekly treatments, which included taking customized Chinese herbs to alleviate pain, harmonize her digestion, and regulate her period. Just one menstrual cycle later she was pregnant. Jenny’s pregnancy was considered high risk because of her health history, especially because of the pelvic and abdominal pain. Throughout her pregnancy she saw us for acupuncture treatments to alleviate the pain and cope with severe nausea and vomiting. At the end of her third trimester, she had a scheduled C-section and gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

Mother of a four-year-old, Lana, 34, came to our office after being diagnosed with premature ovarian failure. At the time of her first appointment, she hadn’t had a period in more than five months. She’d started having irregular periods after she stopped breastfeeding her daughter four years earlier. When she came to see us she also had the symptoms of pre-menopause. She’d been told by her MD that neither IVF nor other assisted fertility treatments would result in a pregnancy and that she shouldn’t bother trying for another baby because she wasn’t ovulating.

The day after we first treated Lana she got her period. Delighted, she continued with weekly acupuncture and also took our personalized Chinese herbal formulas, which we modified as her symptoms changed. In addition, she was monitoring her basal body temperature daily.  Over the next few months, Lana’s pre-menopausal symptoms diminished, she started feeling like herself again, and her periods became more regular.

Six months after her initial visit, as Lana was leaving on vacation, she stopped in to pick up enough Chinese herbs to last the duration of her trip. When she returned, she told us her basal body temperature had spiked and remained really high. As we looked at her temperature chart, it appeared that Lana had ovulated while on vacation, and that her elevated temperature indicated a pregnancy. When we suggested this to her, she didn’t want to get her hopes up, but later that evening took a pregnancy test with a positive result. Lana followed up with her OB-GYN, who confirmed her pregnancy and, based on some additional lab work, prescribed progesterone to help prevent a potential miscarriage. At the end of her third trimester, Lana gave birth to a healthy baby girl.

CPA Judy, 38, had been trying to have a baby for years. She’d gotten pregnant twice in her early 30s, but had miscarried during the first trimester with both pregnancies. She and her husband had gone through a range of tests, all of which were normal. They decided to try IVF, but after four fruitless cycles started thinking about adoption.

Overall, Judy was in good health aside from some difficulty sleeping and period-related symptoms of irritability, breast tenderness, and bloating. Chinese medicine was her last hope, and while she really didn’t think that acupuncture could help her she told us she needed to know that she’d tried everything before giving up. Judy began weekly acupuncture treatments along with taking Chinese herbs specially blended for her. Almost immediately, she began feeling more relaxed and was sleeping better. Then, a month after starting treatment, she came in for her appointment and was visibly upset.

Unbeknownst to us, she’d started the adoption process several months earlier, since she’d essentially given up on the idea of getting pregnant. Her upset was caused by the adoption falling through. We continued treatment and after two months of acupuncture, Judy became pregnant. Given her previous miscarriages, she was cautiously optimistic. We continued treatment throughout her pregnancy and, right on schedule, Judy gave birth to a healthy baby boy.

33-year-old Heather, an IT specialist, came to see us because she and her husband wanted to start a family. She’d had two early-term miscarriages in the space of two years and wasn’t hopeful of conceiving until a friend suggested she try TCM. Heather was skeptical, even though both she and her husband had seen Western medical practitioners and had both been pronounced healthy. While discussing her overall health and medical history, Heather told us how much stress and pressure she was experiencing at work. It was disrupting sleep and she had digestive issues as well.

After a few weeks of treatments, Heather started sleeping more soundly and told us she didn’t feel as overwhelmed emotionally. Over time, her digestive problems began to regulate as well. After three months of weekly treatments and customized Chinese herbs, Heather got pregnant. We continued treatments throughout her pregnancy and she carried to full term, delivering a beautiful baby girl.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD
Mari Stecker, LAc
Cindy Kudelka, LAc

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