Can acupuncture help improve a woman’s fertility?
After ten years in practice treating hundreds of fertility patients, as well as continued training in acupuncture and herbal treatments for fertility challenges, I have a clearer understanding of what I can and can’t offer you as a practitioner.
To start, acupuncture is extremely effective for stress relief. Whether or not stress plays a role in fertility challenges, and personally I think that depends on the specific individual’s physiology, it definitely impacts a woman’s quality of life. Women struggling with fertility experience the same amount of stress as women with cancer. This stress can lead to depression and anxiety, and may prompt a woman to quit trying to conceive. A new patient working with me should expect to see marked improvement in her overall mood and sense of well-being within the first three weeks of treatment.
Most women want to know if acupuncture will directly impact their fertile potential. I believe the answer is yes. There is strong evidence that acupuncture, and traditional Chinese medicine (which encompasses acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and various dietary and lifestyle recommendations), can impact a woman’s overall fertility. For example, the use of traditional Chinese medicine during an IVF cycle was associated with a twofold increase in live births in this retrospective study (Rubin 2015). Researchers have also demonstrated that electro-acupuncture on women with PCOS and irregular periods can result in improved menstrual frequency and significant changes in serum testosterone levels (Jedel 2011). However, these studies underscore the fact that it takes a significantly greater number of treatments to see an impact (between 10-16 treatments) than it does for conditions like low back pain, migraine, or mood issues. For this reason, I recommend that women see me for between 12-16 treatments to address their fertility concerns.
Why so many treatments?
I think there are likely two interrelated reasons why treating fertility issues takes longer than other conditions. First, acupuncture works by modulating the nervous system. The nervous system is quite reactive. Think of how easily our experience of sensations like pain come and go, or how rapidly our emotions fluctuate from moment to moment. The endocrine system (our hormones) is more stable and slower to react. The two systems are linked, so modulating the nervous system through acupuncture will eventually modulate the endocrine system. It just takes more time than it does to treat something like low back pain.
The second reason is that it takes a primordial follicle about twelve weeks to develop into a mature follicle ready for ovulation. There is some research to suggest that acupuncture improves fertility through its impact on a woman’s hormone levels rather than directly impacting egg quality. However, developing follicles do play a large role in hormonal feedback loops. I believe it is reasonable to assume that you will not see the greatest impact on your fertility from acupuncture until at least twelve weeks into treatment–the amount of time for a follicle to fully develop. (Incidentally, it takes roughly the same amount of time for sperm to develop and be released from the reproductive tract, so acupuncture guidelines for male factor infertility are the same as for women.)
Will acupuncture help me and my fertility concerns?
That is more a complicated question to answer. It depends in part on the reasons you are struggling with fertility and in part on your goals. I feel confident that acupuncture will move your body to a greater place of health over the 12-16 weeks we work together, whether you have a diagnosis of PCOS, unexplained infertility, premature ovarian failure or diminished ovarian reserve, endometriosis, or recurrent pregnancy loss. Based on existing research and my own clinical experience, I believe acupuncture will improve your odds of having a baby. Some of my patients conceive naturally, some are successful with IUI, some have needed to use donor eggs. Many patients start with me after failed clomid, IUI or IVF cycles. After several weeks of acupuncture, that intervention (another round of clomid, another IUI or IVF cycle) is often successful.
If you choose to work with me, I promise to support you. Together, we will move you to a more empowered approach to your fertility on your journey to becoming a parent.