The treatment of infertility with Chinese medicine is a significant part of my practice. It is not uncommon these days that women in their mid- to late- thirties are attempting to have their first child. It is also, quite frustratingly for these women, not uncommon to experience difficulties in becoming pregnant. In order to best serve this need, I have pursued further education with leading experts in the Chinese medicine fertility and obstetrics fields like Zita West, Debra Betts and Dr. David Bray.
As pregnancy is indisputably one of the most important events in many women’s lives, Chinese medicine has focused on infertility as being a crucial ailment to manage. Acupuncture, herbal medicine, Qi Gong exercise and specific types of dietary therapy have all proven successful to aid women to conceive.
A woman’s menstrual cycle is a complex interplay of hormonal signal and feed-back mechanisms that ultimately prime her for the possibility of pregnancy. This complexity can become a liability when genetic factors, age, fibroids, endometriosis or external stressors start to affect the relative balance of any of these hormones. Hormone therapy, IUI (intra-uterine insemination) or IVF (in-vitro fertilization) treatments are commonly used conventional medicine techniques to attempt to either circumvent or rectify hormone irregularities.
Chinese medicine also views the woman’s menstrual system in terms of being a complex system that is subject to external or internal stressors. We tend to use a different language to describe physiological and pathological changes in the woman’s cycle. Yin or yang deficiency, stagnation of Qi or Blood, deficiency of Blood or Essence, Damp or Phlegm retention or Heart and Liver Fire are common TCM “diagnoses.” (Organs and key concepts are capitalized in order to distinguish a TCM term from a conventional medical term.) Treatment plans are based on these diagnoses and also on the basis of a TCM conception of the phases of a woman’s cycle.
Recent work being conducted in China and North America uses a combination approach, whereby a conventional medical definition of the phases of a woman’s cycle (menstruation, follicular phase, ovulation and luteal phase) are used to further refine TCM treatment. For instance, during menstruation a TCM practitioner may use herbs the “move Blood” to promote a full shedding of the endometrium, and hence prepare the uterus for a fresh and healthy new lining. This treatment also has the effect of easing menstrual cramps. After menstruation, the practitioner might then choose to nourish Blood and yin until ovulation, providing the proper environment for the development of the follicle. With this “new” understanding of the relationship between TCM and conventional medical perspectives on infertility, a conventional diagnosis can become a valuable part of a TCM treatment plan.
It should be noted, however, that as in the case with all TCM treatments, the exact acupoints, herbs or meditations given will all be based on the assessment of the individual and her specific constellation of signs and symptoms. It is rare that the treatments for two patients will be exactly the same, even if they suffer from the same type of illness.
TCM and IUI and IVF Therapy
There is growing evidence (both anecdotal and in formally conducted studies) that the combination of TCM therapies like acupuncture or herbal medicine with IVF or IUI can increase the chances of this therapy helping to achieve a pregnancy. Currently, acupuncture is the TCM treatment of choice for this complementary approach over Chinese herbal medicine, probably due to the fact that herbal medicine represents a great unknown to most MDs. There are, however, some excellent protocols that have been published in the U.S. and Australia that outline the clinical experience of doctors of TCM who have been able to work in conjunction with IUI and IVF therapy.
Acupuncture assists these clinical procedures in quite a number of ways. Prior to the pharmaceutical treatments that a woman will be placed on for IVF or IUI, it is often wise to take acupuncture treatments to help regulate the menstrual cycle and build up vital reserves of yin, yang and Essence. After therapy, acupuncture can be used to reduce anxiety and to help provide conditions that will secure a healthy pregnancy.
Miscarriage is a disconcertingly common occurrence, one that can be devastating physically and emotionally. TCM has a long history of treating the woman both before she is pregnant to ensure she is as fit as possible before conception and to a lesser extent during pregnancy to help stabilize a potentially precarious pregnancy.
The combination of herbal and acupuncture therapy is often the most effective to treat a woman with a history of miscarriage. They help to replenish lost Essence, yin, yang and Qi as well as to re-balance and restore the flow of Qi that was disturbed. Acupuncture can be a powerful balm for the troubled emotions of those suffering the loss of miscarriage. It is also interesting to know that there is a property of specific herbs that is said to “calm the restless fetus,” an ancient reference to the ability of a herb to help to stabilize pregnancies and benefit the health of both mother and fetus.
What about Dad?
Naturally, conception involves (however briefly) the male essence as well as the female. It is important that both partners be as healthy as possible in order that a healthy and viable pregnancy occur. TCM is effective in the treatment of men with low sperm volume, motility or liquefaction and can also aid in the boosting of overall libido. Acupuncture, herbal medicine and Qi Gong meditation exercises can all help to manage stresses which may be concurrent with the attempt to conceive or that may indeed be a cause in the inability to conceive. TCM is non-judgemental in its approach to the treatment of men in cases of infertility.
Obstetric Treatment Following Successful Conception
Pregnancies can be the time in a woman’s life when she feels most healthy. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all women. Fortunately, acupuncture is able to provide solutions for many of the common concerns that may happen during this time, including nausea, back and symphysis pubis pain, mild bleeding, headaches and migraines, depression, insomnia and edema / water retention.
Acupuncture can be very impressive in its ability to help a woman into labour. This being said, there is growing concern among obstetric acupuncturists that merely doing labour induction points may not necessarily lead to a better birth, especially when the baby is in an incorrect position (breach or posterior) or if the cervix is not “ripe.” To prevent complications during labour brought on by these sorts of factors, it is recommended to receive treatments as part of a “pre-birth” package, whose goal is to lead up to a less complicated birth. I recommend treatments starting at around 36 weeks, usually on a weekly basis. Following birth, Chinese medicine is able to assist in recovery as well as to manage potential problems with post-partum depression, lactation and mild post-partum bleeding or lochiostasis.
Treatment Options Available at AJM Acupuncture
I offer a full range of TCM treatments for infertility for both potential mothers and fathers. This includes acupuncture, Qi Gong meditation exercises and Chinese herbal medicine – both in tablet form as well as the more potent (but less popular) loose “tea” format. I have designed my working schedule to be as flexible as possible, providing evening appointments to accommodate working people.
Acupuncture is currently priced at $140.00 for the initial consultation and $90.00 for follow-up appointments.
After completing my B.A. (Hons) at McGill I entered and finished the Doctoral Program of TCM at the Toronto School of TCM. On completion of exams I moved back to Alberta, where I achieved my Registered Acupuncturist status and opened a practice in St. Albert in early 2002 and moved to Edmonton in 2014. I am continually honing my skills in my practice, through personal reading and research and through continuing education. I continue to practice martial arts, as late focusing on internal training and Qi Gong.