Treating Infertility with Chinese Medicine
By Carrie Elizabeth Sklar
|For the 4.5 million couples experiencing infertility each
year, acupuncture may be just what the doctor ordered. Acupuncture
can increase fertility by reducing stress, increasing blood
flow to the reproductive organs and balancing the endocrine
system, according to several studies and medical research.
Acupuncture can improve almost every cause of infertility. While
40 percent of infertility is caused by problems in the female,
such as anovulation and endometriosis, another 40 percent is caused
by problems in the male, such as low sperm counts or motility.
The remaining 20 percent is caused by unknown factors.
How Does Acupuncture Do It?
One of the ways acupuncture increases fertility is by reducing
stress, which is often a key factor in the fertility of both men
and women. When people are under stress, the hormone cortisol
is released in the brain. This alters the brain's neurochemical
balance, thus changing hormone levels and disrupting the pituitary
balance that is key to the reproductive cycle.
Because of the delicate balance between the hypothalamus, pituitary
and reproductive glands, stress is capable of preventing a woman
from ovulating entirely. Stress can also cause spasms in both
the fallopian tubes and the uterus, which can interfere with movement
and implantation of a fertilized egg. In men, stress can alter
sperm counts, motility, and cause impotence.
Acupuncture counters the effects of stress and cortisol by releasing
endorphins in the brain, which exert a calming effect.
More Causes of Infertility
Hormonal balance does not have to be disrupted by cortisol to
cause infertility. The most common female infertility factor is
an ovulation disorder, in which the release of a mature egg from
the ovary is prevented, usually because of a hormonal imbalance.
Without enough progesterone, for example, the fetus is unable
to attach to the uterus. High levels of prolactin, the hormone
that stimulates the production of breast milk, can also prevent
High levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) can also impair
the female's ability to become pregnant. However, according to
San Francisco infertility specialist Miki Shima in the February
2004 issue of Alternative Medicine, "if your FSH levels are
nine or below, and there are no physical obstructions, traditional
Chinese medicine alone can substantially improve your odds"
An imbalance in reproductive hormones can also negatively affect
male reproductive function, such as sperm motility and production.
However, the fertility drugs that stimulate ovulation in women
by regulating the hypothalamus and pituitary, the glands that
control reproductive hormones, don't perform nearly as well for
men (success rates are about a third of those for women), nor
have they been approved for men by the FDA.
According to Shima, men over the age of 45 are likely to have
low sperm motility as well as misshapen sperm, which can prevent
conception. Shima, who is the president of the Japanese-American
Acupuncture Foundation, says, "both of these problems are
very responsive to Chinese medicine and supplements."
While the fertility drugs commonly prescribed for women can produce
a 20 to 60 percent pregnancy rate, they also commonly include
such side effects as abdominal tenderness, bloating, fluid retention,
weight gain, and nausea. Some studies show that they may also
cause breast cancer.
More on Acupuncture for Infertility
Acupuncture, by contrast, produces few or no side effects while
performing the same function as the drugs do: stimulating the
hypothalamus to effectively balance the endocrine system and its
Deborah and Pete Mokris know from personal experience how much
acupuncture can increase both sperm count and sperm motility.
According to Deborah, "We tried zucchini flour pollen, vitamin
C, standing on my head after lovemaking and every old-wives tale
we came across. Pete's sperm count and motility remained low:
about 7 million to 14 million motile sperm. We did intrauterine
insemination twice. Our hopes rose and fell as the negative results
It was then that Pete started getting regular acupuncture treatments.
"After two months of treatment, we had another semen analysis
done," Deborah said. "The sperm count had skyrocketed
to 117 million with a 65 percent motility! We went for one more
intrauterine insemination, and again it was unsuccessful. It was
then [that] I decided to try acupuncture. Within three weeks of
treatment, I conceived."
Acupuncture also increases fertility by strengthening the immune
system, which can play an important role in conception. Studies
show that the endorphins released by acupuncture can raise the
amount of white blood cells, T-cells and anti-bodies in the body,
which increase the body's level of immunity. According to Chatelaine
Magazine, 20 to 25 percent of miscarriages are due to immune system
Shima agreed with these findings in Alternative Medicine: "Where
Western medicine concentrates solely on the reproductive organs,
Chinese medicine works to strengthen ad balance all systems of
the body, using a combination of acupuncture, herbs and nutritional
Acupuncture can also increase fertility by increasing blood flow
in the body. This can provide a woman's reproductive organs with
more nourishment and can increase the density of the uterine wall.
For women who cannot become pregnant because of endometriosis,
in which the uterine lining grows outside the uterus, acupuncture
can increase blood flow to relax and quiet the endometrium - something
Western doctors achieve through progestogen hormonal therapies.
"The main reason why a lot of doctors are so excited about
acupuncture is the relaxation of the uterus," said Donna
Keefe, a licensed acupuncturist and faculty member at Pacific
College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, Calif. In her private
practice, Keefe treats about 32 patients a week for infertility.
What Does the Research Say?
Increasing the flow of blood throughout the body can also help
with male fertility problems. If men are experiencing problems
with impotence, an increase in blood flow can increase potency.
According to a study conducted by the Guangzhou University of
Traditional Chinese Medicine in which 29 patients were treated
for sexual impotence with weekly acupuncture from 1997 to 1999,
72 percent recovered normal sexual function.
Short of assisted reproductive techniques, Western medicine doesn't
offer many solutions to men with low sperm counts or motility.
Keefe said that acupuncture can increase motility as quickly as
the night a couple wants to conceive.
Other studies show that when used in conjunction with in vitro
fertilization (IVF), acupuncture is even more successful at increasing
fertility. IVF involves the mixing of sperm and egg outside the
human body. After fertilization takes place, the fertilized egg
is surgically placed in the woman's uterus. While the average
cost of each IVF procedure is $12,400, the American Society of
Reproductive Medicine reports that it has a 25 percent success
rate in women under 35.
Researchers at the Christian-Lauritzen-Institut in Ulm, Germany
reported this year that acupuncture can increase the success rate
of IVF. Of 160 women undergoing IVF, half were given acupuncture
both before and after the procedure. The pregnancy rate for the
80 women who received acupuncture was 42.5 percent, while those
who did not receive acupuncture had only a 23 percent success
A study published in the April 2002 issue of Fertility and Sterility
magazine also supports the fact that acupuncture increases fertility.
Researchers examined 80 patients who received acupuncture while
undergoing IVFs. After six weeks, 42 percent of the women who
received acupuncture became pregnant, compared to 26 percent who
became pregnant without acupuncture.
More from Acupuncture Fertility Experts
Shima's personal experience with infertility corroborates this
evidence; according to Shima, "Many of my patients are women
undergoing IVF or egg donation, and I've found that adding acupuncture,
supplements and herbs to the mix can raise their success rate
by 15 to 25 percent."
According to Raymond Chang of Cornell University and Meridian
Medical in New York in an interview with Reuters Health, studies
show that women who used acupuncture without any other fertility
treatments were just as likely to conceive in the same period
of time as women who took fertility drugs.
Keefe said that she always prefers when her patients try to conceive
naturally rather than using IVF. Along with acupuncture, Keefe
usually prescribes Chinese herbs to increase nourishment.
"Infertility is usually due to some sort of imbalance,"
Keefe said. "Herbs nourish that balance - they nourish the
blood. Acupuncture moves qi, which facilitates the movement of
blood, but acupuncture doesn't build blood. And of course the
menses are based on the condition of the blood."
Keefe will occasionally also instruct patients to use food therapy,
exercises such as qi gong, and stress reduction techniques to
increase fertility. However, when receiving acupuncture in conjunction
with an IVF, Keefe never prescribes Chinese herbs because their
effects on fertility drugs haven't been researched.
One of the reasons Keefe prefers her patients to attempt natural
conception is because of the hormonal imbalances procedures like
IVF can cause.
"When you go into an IVF, you shut down the body's natural
processes and use hormones to produce a false cycle," Keefe
said. "That can be hard on a woman's hormonal system."
Problems With IVF
VF can sometimes create complications for the unborn child. According
to the Wall Street Journal, more than 12 scientific papers have
been published in the past year suggesting a connection between
fertility treatments and low-birthweight infants or disorders
such as hypospadia, heart malformations, chromosomal abnormalities
or other major birth defects.
Keefe said that some of her patients report that their insurance
companies won't cover IVF, an already expensive procedure, because
of possible health risks.
"We don't know if [IVF] may cause ovarian cancer,"
Keefe said. "There just hasn't been enough research."
Acupuncture vs. IVF
One of the obvious benefits of acupuncture is that it lacks the
side effects associated with IVF and other Western fertility treatments,
such as hormonal therapies and surgery. And considering its success
rate, acupuncture may even make other treatments unnecessary.
Keefe said that she began treating a patient who was considering
an IVF, and after seven acupuncture treatments, she became pregnant
before she could even undergo a surgical procedure. Keefe also
spoke of another patient who had tried six IVFs with no success,
but after three months of acupuncture, had recently conceived.
With patients who try to conceive naturally, Keefe estimates that
she has an 80 percent success rate, though the number of acupuncture
treatments needed and the length of time it takes each couple
to conceive varies, since every individual is different. Shima
recommends at least four months of weekly acupuncture treatments.
Dawn Morrin was preparing to go on fertility drugs to conceive
when she decided to try acupuncture first.
"It was only six weeks after beginning the acupuncture that
I found out that I was finally pregnant," Morrin said. "After
20 months of waiting, we were elated. Acupuncture was the only
thing I had changed in my lifestyle during that last cycle, so
I firmly believe that it was our saving grace."
Acupuncture is also extremely cost-effective in comparison to
IVF. While one IVF treatment can cost over $12,000 - with no guarantee
of success - the average cost per individual for one acupuncture
treatment is between $40 and $100.
However, when patients do chose to have IVF, Keefe said that
it's best to get acupuncture treatments both before and after
the procedure. While the IVF may disrupt the body's natural cycle
and cause undue stress, receiving acupuncture in conjunction with
that process helps keep the body balanced, increasing the chances
Keefe said that she continues to treat her patients throughout
the first trimester. These continued treatments keep stress levels
down to avoid miscarriages, as well as help with the nausea and
back pain commonly experienced by women during pregnancy.
A Natural Solution
Many couples already know that conceiving a child can be hard
enough without the added risks and discomfort of using hormones
and IVF. Acupuncture allows pregnancies to occur the safest, most
comfortable way there is: naturally.