fertility & acupuncture

Next weekend will be Mother’s Day which includes me since I am definitely a mother. I mark the occasion with my sons and a daughter-in-law to be. I’ve been lucky in life to be pregnant more than once, to give birth, and to experience parenthood in its beauty and challenge.

The happiness in the reason for the day has me thinking about a particular delight in my practice: working with hopeful moms-to-be, some coming to the decision to start ‘trying’ and some coming after a time, a long time even of ‘trying’ without success. We’ve seen a passel of babies popping out into the world! The moms come for treatment to increase or restore fertility and then continue to come for support during pregnancy. While undergoing fertility treatments, acupuncture improves your chance for success.

So many couples are making the rounds of fertility clinics in hopes of getting pregnant. On behalf of acupuncture and Chinese herbs: let it be known. We can play a helping and success-making role in creating fertility where it seems not to be.

Chinese herbs and acupuncture have a long history of use in promoting fertility. Can Americans benefit from the experience and the results afforded by East Asian medicine to treat infertility? Clinical studies conducted in China indicate that about 70% of all cases of infertility (male and female) treated by Chinese herbs and acupuncture resulted in pregnancy or restored fertility. These are cases of infertility that include obstruction of the fallopian tubes, amenorrhea, absent ovulation, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, low sperm count, and non-liquification of semen. Depending on the particular study and the types of infertility treated, success rates range from about 50% to more than 90%. We don’t see quite that percentage of success in the United States with East Asian medicine therapy but that is because the Chinese integrate both traditional and modern methods of medicine somewhat easily and have a long experience and confidence in using herbs and acupuncture. Nevertheless, practitioners here (and this includes my own practice) have had many experiences and success in treating infertility.

No single herb is considered the ‘miracle’ fertility herb. Instead, herbal formulas have been developed with the purpose of correcting the functional or organic problem that is causing infertility.

Formulas vary for men and for women, but there is overlap in the compositions of the formulas. Some “exotic” ingredients are found in fertility formulas but for the most part, ingredients are roots, barks, leaves, flowers, and fruits.

Using the language of traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis, infertility presents with one or more of these three significant factors:

1. DEFICIENCY. Our delicately balanced system of hormones is not able to sufficiently or properly influence and direct the sexual and reproductive functions. The symptoms may show as lack of or infrequent or irregular menstruation, impotence, frequent urination, weakness and aching of the back and legs, difficulties regulating body temperature. Deficiency syndromes are treated with tonic herbs and tonifying acupuncture points that nourish qi (like ginseng and astragalus), blood (like dang gui), yin or yang.

2. STAGNATION. The sexual and reproductive organs are blocked and prevented from functioning despite normal hormone levels and normal ability to respond to hormones. When ‘qi’ and ‘blood’ are ‘stagnant’ or blocked in some way, proper circulation to the tissues is impossible. The signs of this condition can be muscle tension, anger that feels restrained, chronic inflammation, formation of lumps (cysts and tumors) and digestive problems with abdominal pain or bloating. Blood stagnation often occurs after a childbirth, surgery, injury or serious infection. When there is severe pain (like very strong and debilitating menstrual cramps) or lumps or swellings that are hard (rather than soft and fluid filled) we think, blood stagnation. Stagnation is treated with points and with herbs that are ‘moving’ and directional.

3. HEAT. Infection or inflammation can cause organs to function abnormally. Heat syndromes in males may produce abnormal semen quality. Gynecologic infections can maintain female infertility by blocking the passages, altering the mucous membrane conditions, or influencing the local temperature. For this presentation, we use herbs that reduce, clear and inhibit infection and inflammation with acupuncture protocols that do the same.

In each of these three conditions, the purpose of the acupuncture treatment and an accompanying herbal formula is to correct the underlying body imbalance in order to restore normal function. Western medicine can diagnose tubal blockage (which usually corresponds to blood STAGNATION in Chinese medicine) and infection (which corresponds to HEAT) and in many cases can successfully treat these causes of infertility. However, Western medicine doesn’t really assess and so it fails to diagnose DEFICIENCY presentations and most of the other STAGNATION types as we know them in Chinese medicine. We can address these issues for women hoping to improve their chances of getting pregnant with herbs and acupuncture, counteracting DEFICIENCY with tonic treatment and resolving STAGNATION with moving and regulating treatment.

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