How Can Acupuncture Help Fertility?


Approximately 1 in 6 couples have trouble conceiving. A combination of factors can contribute: delayed motherhood, toxins in the environment, and stressful lifestyles that affect the balance of hormones. Some studies show that acupuncture can help fertility by reducing the effects of stress and balancing the hormones. It may increase blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, increase the uterine lining, prevent the uterus from contracting, lessen the side effects of drugs used in IVF, strengthen the immune system, decrease chances of miscarriage, and improve quality, quantity, and motility of sperm.

RESEARCH ON ACUPUNCTURE AND FERTILITY
Most if not all the studies of acupuncture's effects on fertility have been very narrow in scope, primarily only looking at the effects of acupuncture on IVF patients within the narrow time frame of pre and post embryo transfer. These studies still manage to show positive results. The earliest and perhaps most well known study was done in Germany in 2002 by Wolfgang E. Paulus. The pregnancy rates of 2 groups of women undergoing IVF were compared. The group receiving acupuncture 25 minutes before, and 25 minutes after embryo transfer had a pregnancy rate of 42.5% compared to 26% for the non-acupuncture group.

Dieterle et al. evaluated the effect of real acupuncture vs. sham acupuncture. The real acupuncture group had significantly higher ongoing pregnancy rates: 28.4% vs. 13.8%. In a retrospective clinical study by Paul C. Magarelli, M.D., Ph. D., the impact of acupuncture on embryology characteristics of IVF patients were measured including number of eggs generated, embryos fertilized, embryos transferred or frozen. 208 cycles were reviewed, 95 received acupuncture and 113 were controls. Patients randomly chose acupuncture to complement the IVF treatment. 2 acupuncture protocols were used. IVF protocols were done in 1 clinic by 1 physician. The MD was not aware of who received acupuncture in addition to IVF. After 3 years, the data was collected and analyzed. Pregnancy rates for the acupuncture group were statistically higher (12%) than the control group. And multiple pregnancies and ectopic pregnancy rates were lower. There was no statistically significant difference between the 2 groups in regards to number of eggs retrieved, number of eggs fertilizing normally, number of embryos implanted or frozen, and day of transfer. The researchers concluded that there were no noticeable statistical differences between embryology characteristics in patients. The data suggests that the mechanism of acupuncture on IVF outcomes is related to effects on the uterus in which the embryos gestated rather than in direct changes to eggs retrieved and embryos created.

Regarding male factor infertility, acupuncture can improve sperm production and motility. In a study reported in 2005 researchers looked at the effects of acupuncture on the structural health of sperm in men with infertility of unknown cause. 28 infertile men received acupuncture 2 times a week for 5 weeks, and 12 men received no treatment. Sperm samples were analyzed at the beginning and end of the study. Significant improvements in sperm quality in the acupuncture group were noted. Treatment was associated with fewer structural defects in sperm and an increase in the number of normal sperm.

All of the above research was published in Fertility and Sterility, the journal of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine

CLINICAL APPLICATIONS
As a clinician, I see fertility patients at different stages of their journey. Some come after repeated miscarriages, some come to maximize their chances while undergoing IVF, and some come after trying to conceive naturally without success. I use acupuncture, Chinese herbal formulas and dietary therapies to bring their system into balance. Chinese medicine with its holistic, individualized, and whole body health approach de-stresses and harmonizes the hormones and nervous system. Each patient is treated not according to a protocol or a preconceived set of points the way research patients are, but according to their individual imbalance.

Clinically I have found that women with unexplained infertility respond best to acupuncture. The Chinese medical diagnosis for this kind of infertility often involves "liver qi (pronounced chee") stagnation". Whenever an organ is mentioned in Chinese medicine, it implies the organ's related meridian, and therefore the function of the organ's chi or energy, not organic level dysfunction. A meridian is a pathway along which qi or energy flows. Stress in the form of depression, irritability, anger and frustration causes liver qi stagnation. A patient may be in a life situation such as a job where they feel stuck, long work hours, and have a history of birth control pills. Physical symptoms can be irregular cycles, spotty, perhaps painful periods, emotional pms, headaches, and premenstrual breast tenderness. Liver qi stagnation affects blood flow in the pelvic cavity. Acupuncture along with Chinese
herbal therapies can clear stagnation in 3-9 months, although I have had cases where they were resolved within a month.

Chinese medicine is also very effective at strengthening a patient's constitution. For example if a woman has had multiple miscarriages, it is very important to build her kidney qi. Kidney qi involves kidney and adrenal function. This qi is associated with bone and bone marrow. From the marrow blood is made. Women's physiology is very dependent on bloodboth the quantity and quality. Blood nourishes, strengthens, and holds the fetus. Kidney qi is harmed by cold-cold weather, cold foods and cold drinks. It is interesting to note that there are more IVF successes in the summer. Adopting a warm lifestyle such as keeping warm, and eating warm foods like soups and stews, and taking herbs that have a warming nature will help build kidney qi, and increase fertility. Chinese medicine emphasizes the health and well being of the mother and father. Classical Chinese medicine advises the couple to prepare for pregnancy through good nutrition and "looking at beautiful pictures, and listening to beautiful music". The point
being made here is that a healthy pregnancy is the outcome of healthy, relaxed parents. Chinese medicine's emphasis on health and well being is behind its success in fertility.

My-Hanh Weinberg is a licensed and nationally board certified acupuncturist. She graduated from the Traditional Acupuncture Institute in Columbia, Md. in 1992 with a Masters degree in acupuncture. She holds a B.A. in economics from Virginia Tech. You can read more about her and her practice at http://www.eightbranchesacupuncture.com/

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