Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Infertility

From Babies After 35 founder, Dr. Shannon M. Clark:

After two failed embryo transfers, including a donor egg transfer, I was defeated and ready to give up. Once my husband and I decided to try one more time, I started therapy with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to improve uterine blood flow and help with relaxation. I am not sure how much my decision to try alternative therapy played a role, but I do know that after two years of infertility treatments, I was pregnant with twins.

I sat down with my acupuncturist and fertility coach, Chris Axelrad, to ask him some questions about acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine as adjunctive therapy for infertility. Here is what he had to say…

What forms of infertility can acupuncture and/or herbal medicine treat?

Chris Axelrad: Chinese Medicine, which includes acupuncture, can assist with any type of infertility situation as long as the person is producing eggs or sperm, or will be a carrier for a pregnancy (i.e. as with donor egg).

The focus with Chinese Medicine is on how to strengthen nature. When nature has a clear pathway to operate within the body, the natural processes of egg and sperm maturation, uterine lining growth, embryo implantation, and ongoing pregnancy are able to move through to completion more easily.

While most people think of infertility as a problem with the reproductive system in particular, fertility issues can actually stem from anywhere in the body. In essence, the whole body is the reproductive system. That’s because the nervous, endocrine, immune, circulatory, digestive, eliminative, and all other systems contribute in some form or fashion to the end result of healthy egg and sperm, healthy uterine lining, embryo to implantation and development of a healthy pregnancy.

Even in the case of IVF with donor eggs, the woman who will carry the baby can benefit from acupuncture and Chinese Medicine in preparation for a healthy pregnancy. In fact, I have successfully treated many cases where there was a prior failed embryo transfer with donor eggs and the woman was able to conceive with the subsequent embryo transfer.

Cases where acupuncture and Chinese Medicine would likely not be of benefit would be complete ovarian failure, post-menopause, or severely low count sperm count or azoospermia (no sperm).

When should a woman experiencing infertility consider using these alternative forms of treatment?

Chris Axelrad: I think women should always look into ways to strengthen their bodies, clear hormonal pathways, and generally improve their health, regardless of where they are in their lives. Even if someone isn’t trying to conceive or they just started trying it’s always a good idea to focus on being as well as possible. Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine offer a proven, very low-risk, and very effective path towards increased wellness and well-being.

What are the benefits of acupuncture?

Chris Axelrad: Acupuncture is a powerful modulator of neuro-endocrine function. It has been demonstrated to move the nervous system towards a more relaxed state, even in animals. For instance, there was a study several years back on mice with medically-induced PCOS. The mice that were administered acupuncture demonstrated a fundamental shift in how their brains were regulating their hormones.

Another documented effect of acupuncture is increased secretion of endorphin. Endorphin is essentially the body’s own opiate. It both relieves pain and induces a deep state of relaxation. When the body is relaxed, healing speeds up and circulation into small blood vessels is increased. The deep abdominal organs also receive more blood flow during a relaxed state. All of these factors are can help improve the overall chance for conception and a healthy pregnancy.

What are the benefits of herbal medicine?

Chris Axelrad: Herbal medicines, when used skillfully, can be a very powerful ally in terms of boosting the body’s natural functions. They consist of a combination of very specialized molecules (some of which are unique only to a particular plant), nutrients, and other compounds that have anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and other healing properties.

Herbal medicines have been demonstrated to have a profound impact on depleted glands, sluggish circulation and damaged tissues. They have also been studied for their ability to up- or down-regulate hormone clearance in the liver, soothe inflamed mucous membranes, suppress cough, calm allergies, and relieve pain. In fact, many modern pharmaceutical drugs were originally developed based on the active compounds found in Chinese herbal medicines. These would include aspirin, statins, decongestants, and aphrodisiacs.

How do you work with the infertility specialist? Is it typical for a woman to already be under the care of a specialist when they see you?

Chris Axelrad: I have great relationships with the infertility specialists I work with. Typically, I will refer cases to them when I feel the acupuncture and other natural strategies are not getting the desired results. I am grateful to have them as a resource for my patients.

They will also refer cases to me when they are having trouble with fertilization, egg quality or quantity, implantation, uterine lining growth, and other issues that are difficult to solve medically or where the medications simply aren’t yielding results. They also see great value in the stress-reducing aspect of acupuncture since we know that excessive stress can block natural healing functions of the body, including the function of conception and implantation.

I would say the women I see are 50% self-referred and 50% referred by a specialist. As the word spreads more and more about acupuncture’s benefits for fertility, more and more people are seeking it on their own, either as a first option or to use in conjunction with conventional medical treatments for infertility.

I’m seeing a definite trend towards more physician referral. I think that is simply due to the fact that “results don’t lie”. While we may not fully understand the exact mechanisms behind how acupuncture and herbal medicine are able to help, there is no denying that patients who choose to add it to their fertility treatments achieve better outcomes across the board.

Does acupuncture hurt? And is there a risk of infection or other diseases?

Chris Axelrad: In the hands of a skilled practitioner, acupuncture should never hurt. There is a sensation when the needle is inserted, but it is not painful. Many of my patients describe it as a bug bite or a light pinching feeling. The important thing is that acupuncture needles are not like injection needles. There is no incision or cut made. It is simply a puncture that does not cause any pain or bleeding.

There is no risk of transmission of infection of any kind if acupuncture is practiced according to modern standards. All licensed acupuncturists in the US are required by law to use sterile, single-use, disposable needles.