Helping patients prepare for pregnancy, and providing support throughout the process, is one of the most rewarding parts of my practice.
For parent-hopefuls, the months leading to conception can be replete with pregnancy plans and hopes. For many though, the process is more trying than anticipated. Infertility — defined as the inability to conceive after a year of regular unprotected sex — is increasingly common, affecting one in eight couples in the United States. Many couples seek assistance initially through their primary care provider or reproductive endocrinologist when addressing their fertility challenges; Eastern traditions also contribute richly in both therapeutic and supportive roles and should be considered as a first-line approach.
Ayurveda — the traditional medicine of India — and Chinese medicine have long histories of fostering fertility. Whether conceiving traditionally or via routes including donor eggs, donor sperm and in vitro fertilization, Eastern medicine provides approaches that address male and female roles, emphasize pre-conception preparation and diagnose and treat patients’ unique challenges.
Acupuncture, as well as herbal and nutritional support, can set the stage for successful conception among fertility-challenged couples without need for more invasive and costly IVF or intra-uterine insemination in many cases. Furthermore, while fostering fertility, acupuncture also calms and revitalizes.
Eastern medicine works advantageously as an adjunct to Western fertility treatments, as well. In fact, acupuncture is often recommended by IVF clinic, as peer-reviewed, published studies indicate that acupuncture before and after embryo transfer increases rates of conception.
Approximately 85 percent of infertility has an identifiable cause, the most common of which is ovulatory dysfunction, though male factor infertility and tubal disease are also relatively common.
Many women who come to me with irregular or absent periods have also been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, conditions with which infrequent ovulation is correlated. Other women failed to resume ovulation after years of birth control or after a pregnancy.
Acupuncture and herbs help address each of these situations. Herbs are particularly influential.
Beginning work with a provider six months prior to conception — natural or assisted — is ideal, as the preparation period provides time to address underlying patterns.
Polycystic ovary syndrome
Anovulation, the most common cause of infertility, is most often due to polycystic ovary syndrome. There is no single test that identifies PCOS. Rather, a woman is diagnosed with PCOS when she presents with at least two of the following: (1) a history of menstrual irregularity; (2) high levels of androgen (male hormones); and (3) cysts on the ovaries, identified via ultrasound. Symptoms may, though not always, include menstrual irregularity, excess facial and body hair growth, acne and weight gain.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, PCOS patterns reflect blood stagnation, qi stagnation and phlegm-damp. Individualized herbs and acupuncture help strengthen the function of the body’s organs in order to mobilize phlegm damp and regulate the qi and blood in the reproductive system, fostering a more regular cycle.
Sometimes Western providers encourage women with anovulatory PCOS to take ovulation-stimulating drugs. Both controlled studies and my experience with PCOS patients suggest that combining Chinese herbs with Clomid, for example, increases ovulation and pregnancy rates. For instance, one such study found that Clomid alone augmented ovulation and pregnancy rates to 66 percent and 37 percent, respectively, whereas Clomid and herbs combined boosted rates to 87 percent and 66 percent.
Other causes of infertility
Other disorders that adversely affect fertility include Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and endometriosis, among others. Additionally, some women endure recurrent unexplained miscarriages. All of these situations have been shown through studies and my experience to benefit significantly from Chinese medicine and acupuncture interventions.
Though I have focused primarily on the woman’s role in fertility challenges, IVF clinics have estimated that 30 to 40 percent of infertility or sub-fertility in couples can be attributed to the male partner.
Male fertility is often easier to enhance with Chinese medicine than its female counterpart, such that it is prudent to maximize the male half of the puzzle.
In my work with patients with fertility challenges, almost all have ultimately achieved pregnancy, ushering a healthy baby into the world. The preconception time is a golden window of opportunity to prepare body, mind and spirit for baby-to-be.
For couples hoping to embrace pregnancy in the next six months, I would recommend connecting with an experienced herbal practitioner and acupuncturist with a background in fostering fertility as a first step in their successful journey toward a healthy baby.
— Annie Lindberg is the owner and licensed practitioner at The Point Acupuncture and Ayurveda in Madison Park.