Whether you are just starting to try, are trying and struggling, or have started IVF acupuncture and Chinese medicine can be of enormous benefit to you. Gynaecology became a specialist area in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) over 700 years ago and has been successfully helping women with all sorts of fertility related problems ever since. The aim of TCM is to maintain the health of body and mind by maximising the potential of all body systems, and stresses that no system can work to its potential if other systems are struggling – for example your chances for fertility are reduced if your digestive system is not working well, or you are stressed, or have skin, circulation, menstrual or a myriad of other issues. No system works in isolation and working on all systems improves fertility pure and simple.
Like so many things we take our fertility for granted until it doesn’t work and then often realise how little we know about it, how little we know about our cycle, our ovulation, cervical mucous, antibodies, sperm morphology – hey wait a minute this is getting complicated!! Let’s break it down and help you understand how TCM can help you.
Just starting out
When you have decided the time is right for you and your partner to start trying for a baby there a few things that you can set in motion straight away. These all apply to BOTH of you!
- Eating well. Look at your diet and see where changes for the better can easily be made. Increase fruit, vegetables, and home cooked meals, decrease processed foods, sugar, coffee and alcohol. This will take pressure off your digestive system and this alone will make you feel better, give you more energy and make you feel calmer – Why? Because all the systems work together. There is no need to go crazy and give everything up because this can put too much stress on you emotionally.
- Weight loss/gain. Being over or underweight can interfere with your hormones. The conversation that goes on between the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the ovaries is a complicated one and can be altered by the stress put on the body by extreme weight gain or weight loss. Losing just 5kgs can improve the quality of your cycle.
- Exercise. We know that we need to exercise to keep our weight down and keep us fit but we underestimate just how important exercise is. We see what it can do for us on the outside but there is not a system in the body that exercise does not improve – digestion, circulation, hormonally, neurologically, reproductively, cognitively and emotionally- all these systems are improved because of the increase in the circulation of blood, energy and nutrients to all the cells in the body.
- Regulating the cycle. The ‘perfect’ cycle is 28 days long, lasts for 4-5 days and has few discomforts. We don’t all have a perfect cycle but what we do need is a regular cycle around 28 days (26-35 is good) with as few symptoms as possible. What this tells us is that the hormones are working well and this is of paramount importance. Having your hormones working for you increases your chance of conceiving from the get go. Chinese medicine is very good at regulating the cycle, with herbs, acupuncture or both. So whether you have a long cycle, an irregular cycle, no period at all getting your cycle sorted is a great place to start.
- Having PCOS is sometimes only diagnosed when your period fails to arrive after coming off the pill. Commonly the absence of a regular cycle and difficulty losing weight are factors leading to the diagnosis of PCOS with ultrasound confirmation. Women contemplating IVF due to PCOS can benefit from having acupuncture for at least 2 months prior to starting to help improve egg quality and to promote ovulation.
Endometriosis. Besides causing periods to be very painful and heavy endometriosis can interfere with the integrity of the lining of the uterus and therefore hamper implantation or if growing over the over can damage ovarian tissue and impact ovarian reserve. Acupuncture can be an effective treatment for endometriosis and can therefore improve pregnancy rates in IVF patients with endometriosis.
Fibroids. Fibroids and polyps are quite common and often cause no problems but they can get in the way of implantation. Chinese medicine can help shrink these or if they are more problematic surgery may be indicated.
6. We often wave our hands as if to say yeah, yeah I know about stress but there is nothing I can do about it. FACT: stress negatively impacts fertility.
Stress can reduce your chances of falling pregnant naturally, impact sperm quality, reduces pregnancy rates with IVF. Stress messes with our hormones, endorphins, and adrenaline whereas Acupuncture it is widely agreed reduces anxiety and helps you relax and these benefits are sometimes overlooked.
- Egg Quality.
There is a lot of discussion about egg quality and ‘ovarian reserve’ – whole forums are dedicated to such topics. The simple truth is that we cannot change the number of eggs in reserve but we can maximise the potential of the eggs. During the time the egg is maturing each cycle, or during an IVF cycle, acupuncture helps by improving the flow of blood, energy, and nutrients to the egg and therefore can improve oocyte quality. By improving the flow of blood, energy, and nutrients to all the other systems, by balancing hormones, by improving your mood and stress levels in the body acupuncture can free up energy that can be used to support the eggs. This is especially important for older women where ‘egg quality’ has been singled out as the main issue. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help to maximise the potential of the ovaries.
- Sperm Quality:
Whereas women are born with all the eggs they are ever going to have sperm production is ongoing, happening day in day out and therefore is more affected by environmental and lifestyle factors. Research shows that acupuncture and Chinese herbs can improve the quality of sperm. There is evidence to suggest that in couples under 35 with unexplained infertility that 50% of the time the sperm is the issue and historically we under treat male infertility.
WHEN SHOULD YOU START TREATMENTS?
BEFORE: (1-2 months)
Ideally you should start acupuncture treatments before you commence on the IVF programme, that way you start the cycle in optimum health. This cannot be overstated.
- Treatments before the cycle starts focus on your constitution. This is fundamental!! There is something happening in your system that is hindering or preventing conception and we want to address this before an embryo is returned to that system.
- To improve sperm quality ideally start treatments as far in advance as possible as the sperm produced today does not surface for 3 months.
DURING A CYCLE (weekly)
- Once the cycle has commenced we want to ensure that the egg quality and quantity is as good as we possibly can. (More emphasis is placed on quality rather than quantity)
- After egg collection treatments focus on the endometrium – quality and thickness as well as replenishing your reproductive energy following the hormone therapy
BEFORE AND AFTER EMBRYO TRANSFER
- Before and after embryo transfer has become an established practice since research came out in support of it. Ideally both treatments are on the day of transfer.
- Supportive treatments leading up to pregnancy test. Once the embryo is replaced science ends and nature takes over. Acupuncture can support the embryo at this critical time.
PRIOR TO PREGNANCY TEST AND EARLY PREGNANCY
From embryo transfer until the pregnancy test is usually 10-14 days. This is both a stressful time of anticipation and a critical time in the development and implantation of the embryo. Treatment here focuses on relaxing the uterus, decreasing inflammation, soothing frayed nerves, improving blood, nutrient, and energy supply
AFTER A POSITIVE PREGNANCY TEST
First rejoicing!! Again a very delicate time so recommended weekly treatments until past 8 weeks, more or less depending on the individual situation for example someone with a history of multiple miscarriages may need require more treatments.
Once pregnancy is established i.e. after 8weeks then treatment is only needed symptomatically- morning sickness, migraines, back pain etc.
AFTER A NEGATIVE PREGNANCY TEST
The failure of a cycle is disappointing at best devastating at worst and reasons can be many. Acupuncture can both help clear the system of the IVF drugs, re-establish the natural hormones and send energy to ‘tired’ ovaries as well as helping bring back the calm and relieve anxiety
HOW DOES ACUPUNCTURE WORK?
The first thing you have to understand is that we are all made up of energy. Yes skin and bone and blood and muscle but the thing that makes it all work is energy. The average adult heart beats 110,000 times a day, the lungs inflate roughly 17,000 times, blood circulates smoothly and endlessly, digestion digests, nerves innervate and it’s all controlled by the big power station – the brain. Energy is what keeps everything in the body moving. When energy runs smoothly and is plentiful every cell is better perfused and oxygenated which means health is optimal but when energy is not running smoothly our health suffers our wellbeing suffers. Lots of factors play into this of course
- Inherited factors i.e. you can inherit a weak digestion or poor circulation, even fertility issues.
- Lifestyle/ environmental factors i.e. Diet, exercise, even socioeconomic factors.
- Pathological factors i.e. Health issues like infections, immunological and hormonal factors.
And of course these issues can compound each other and make up each of our unique individual health palette i.e. weak digestion combined with poor lifestyle choices…
However the interesting thing is that the energy flow is not necessarily equal in each body system, or constant in each body system, they are separate. Meaning all the systems can be working well but one is fundamentally weaker than the others.
The Chinese recognised this thousands of years ago.
They recognised that each system is separate and each has its own level of energy.
That these individual systems are influenced by constitutional and environmental factors
That these systems can be individually influenced
That if all the systems are energetically balanced our feeling of wellbeing is enhanced.
Over time they developed a sophisticated system that was able to influence the flow of energy in our bodies in a precise and elaborate way.
This is known as the channel or meridian system – each channel relating to a body system and to a lesser extent organ. Along each channel there are points where the energy in that system can be influenced – these are the acupuncture points.
This complex system takes into account all body systems and functions as well as mental and emotional functions. It comprises of 14 major channels with 465+ acupuncture points that can be used in endless combinations.