(This is the 2nd article in a series on fertility. Part 1, The ABCs of Fertility: Acupuncture, Babies, and Chinese Medicine was published on this site in November, 2005.)
Assisted reproductive technology (ART) has improved greatly in recent years, and increasing numbers of couples have benefited from the scientific advances. At the same time, more and more people are turning to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), either alone or in conjunction with their Western treatments to improve their chances of conceiving and delivering healthy children.
In this article, I will try to help you to understand when to use TCM, when to use ART, and when to use them together.
ART works with an eye on the numbers, thereby increasing your chances of a viable pregnancy. In contrast, Traditional Chinese Medicine is holistic, seeing the interconnectedness of all the body's systems. When healthy and balanced, you are more likely to get pregnant and produce a healthy child. The goal of acupuncture is to return your body to a state of health. The effects are cumulative; they take time; the results get better and better. Even if your Western doctor does not understand the benefits of acupuncture, most physicians now agree that it does not cause harm.
BENEFITS OF TCM
TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) techniques provide the following benefits:
- improves the function of the ovaries which allows the development of better quality of eggs and embryos
- can regulate hormones and ovulation
- increases blood flow to the uterus
- helps thicken uterine lining if it is too thin
- strengthens the immune system
and, for the men:
- lessens side effects of drugs
- improves semen quality and quantity
In a paper presented at the 12th World Congress on Human Reproduction, a group of physicians described acupuncture as the variable that contributed to significant improvements in the number of live births, the lowered miscarriage rate, and improved IVF outcomes. These same doctors have reported prior success with patients who experienced longer histories of infertility and additional successes with patients who had good prognoses. In a recent article in Psychology Today, the author suggests acupuncture and writes, "you may want to consider some natural assists to fertility. You won't be alone. As many as three-quarters of people undergoing conventional treatments for infertility use some form of alternative therapy as well."
WHAT ARE YOUR OPTIONS?
If you want to become pregnant, what are your options? The following chart will help you to figure out how and when to incorporate TCM into your pregnancy plans.
Group # 1 - You can try TCM before going the Western fertility treatment route if you are:
- A younger woman – under 35 years old
- A woman who has only 1 minor impediment, such as, mild endometriosis, an irregular menstrual cycle, mild PCOS (Polycystic ovary disease) , or a hormone imbalance
- A couple in good health with unexplained infertility and/or no detectible abnormality
- Include the lifestyle and diet changes as well
Group # 2- You may want to combine ART with your TCM if you are:
- A woman over 35 years old
- A woman who has several of the minor impediments listed above that can interfere with pregnancy
- A woman whose partner has mild abnormalities in sperm count or quality (he ought to consider TCM treatment)
- Feeling like you are running out of time
Group #3 – You ought to definitely use ART with your TCM treatment when your are:
- A woman over 40 years old
- A woman with major impediments, such as blocked tubes
- Partnered with a man who has seriously low sperm count or poor quality
These decisions would be carefully made in discussions with your TCM practitioner and your M.D.
THE TREATMENT PROTOCOL
The majority of the recommendations from Part 1 of this article apply to couples undergoing ART as well as those who are not. When you are doing TCM exclusively, you may need to give it 3-6 months to ready your body for pregnancy. It takes that long. If you plan to combine TCM with other treatments, I recommend that treatment begins 3 months before fertility procedures commence and continues throughout your western treatment. Ideally, patients come twice a week. If the problem is sperm quality or quantity, this plan is useful for men as well as women because the period of sperm maturation takes between 70-90 days. While these procedures are ideal, I have had many people come in just prior to IVF, or during an IVF cycle, and they have still had improvement.
If a woman is undergoing IVF, I want a woman to get treated on the day of the transfer, before and after, or as close as possible. I encourage women to continue with treatment after a positive pregnancy test once a week for the first trimester to help prevent miscarriage. Women who have more difficulty getting pregnant have a slightly higher rate of miscarriage.
What does TCM treatment look like? Procedures other than acupuncture that might be included are: cupping; electric stimulation; and moxibustion. Herbs are also a very useful and an important component of TCM, especially in gynecology. Acupuncture points and protocols vary from patient to patient because each person has different needs. For example, with a woman suffering from endometriosis, we would focus on moving the blood, whereas with a woman who is not ovulating, we would concentrate on nourishing the blood. Treatment is completely designed for you as an individual, depending on the factors noted above, your health and your goals.
Liang, Lisang. Acupuncture and IVF. Colorado: Blue Poppy, 2003.
Magarelli, Paul et al. "Acupuncture:Impact on Pregnancy Outcomes in IVF Patients," 12th World Congress on Human Reproduction, Venice, Italy, March, 2005.
Ibid. "Acupuncture & IVF Poor Responders: A Cure?" Proceedings from the 2004 Pacific Coast Reproductive Society annual meeting in Palm Springs, 2004.
Ibid. "Acupuncture and Good Prognosis IVF Patients" Proceedings from the 2004 ASRM meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2004.
Oliwenstein, Lori. "On Fertile Ground" Psychology Today November/December, 2005, pgs 64-65.
About the Author
Jennifer Dubowsky, L.Ac., M.S.O.M. is a licensed acupuncturist who works in Chicago, Illinois. Jennifer earned her Masters of Science Degree in Oriental Medicine from Southwest Acupuncture College, an accredited four year graduate program in Boulder, Colorado. She received her diplomat from the NCCAOM, the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and completed an internship at the Sino-Japanese Friendship Hospital in Beijing, China. Jennifer has also completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology.
If you have any comments or questions, she can be reached at 312-399-5098 or tcm007(at)aol.com