Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years to enhance fertility. The practice of placing thin sterilized needles in specific acupuncture points, typically in combination with customized herbal formulas, targeted nutrition, and lifestyle modifications, has long been believed to treat some of the causes of infertility.
While acupuncture is still used to help couples conceive naturally, studies now show it can also be helpful during assisted reproductive technology cycles like intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF). Using acupuncture in conjunction with modern fertility treatments combines the best of Eastern and Western medicine, to work together toward the goal of conception.
Here is some of the science behind how working with an acupuncturist while trying to conceive can help:
1. Promoting ovulation
One of the most common reasons a woman cannot conceive is lack of ovulation (anovulation) or very irregular ovulation. One reason for anovulation is polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a collection of systemic factors creating congested ovaries that do not ovulate at all or ovulate very irregularly. PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder and affects as many as 5 million women of reproductive age in the U.S.
Another reason for anovulation is hypothalamic amenorrhea, a technical name for when the brain and ovaries do not communicate and the ovaries are taking a nap. This is what happens when some women rapidly lose weight, are on too restrictive of a diet, or their BMI is too low and their periods stop. In both cases, hypothalamic amenorrhea and PCOS, studies show acupuncture can help women begin to ovulate regularly. For example, in one study, women with PCOS who received acupuncture treatments for 10 to 13 weeks saw an increase in ovulation frequency, compared to women who only received therapeutic counseling. It is believed this is because acupuncture can stimulate beta-endorphin production, which in turn can stimulate hormones that initiate ovulation and menstruation.
Incorporating targeted nutrition, supplements, and herbs under the guidance of an acupuncturist can be especially helpful for managing the other symptoms associated with these conditions as well, such as acne, insulin resistance, maintaining a healthy BMI, and digestive disorders.
2. Increasing blood flow to the uterus and ovaries
3. Improving IVF success rates
There is some evidence that acupuncture may help improve implantation rates when performed around the time of an embryo transfer. For example, one study looking at women who regularly saw an acupuncturist in the months leading up to and during her IVF had better live birthrates than patients who did not do acupuncture or who only had acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer. Another recent study found that acupuncture performed three weeks leading up to and during IVF ovarian stimulation helped increase the number of mature eggs retrieved and fertilization rates. As more studies are performed exploring this integrative approach, we will have a better understanding of the many ways acupuncture can help.
4. Reducing stress and anxiety
One of the most commonly reported effects of seeing an acupuncturist regularly is a reduction in perceived stress and anxiety. Acupuncture sessions, whether for back pain, headaches, fertility issues, or anything in between, help activate the side of the nervous system associated with relaxation, called the parasympathetic division (aka “rest and digest”). Its opposite, the sympathetic division (aka “fight or flight”), often runs on overtime when we are stressed. Since blood to the reproductive organs is deprioritized when we are in “fight or flight,” this switch to “rest and digest” during acupuncture helps fertility patients. It can also improve sleep quality, digestion, energy levels, and more.
5. Reducing Inflammation
Inflammation is emerging as an underlying factor in infertility. Conditions like endometriosis, PCOS, hidden infections, autoimmune diseases, and other inflammatory states can negatively affect fertility in multiple ways, including possible egg and sperm quality, endometrial receptivity, and some types of miscarriage. This is why switching to an anti-inflammatory diet and including more antioxidants in your daily routine is sometimes helpful for fertility. It is also one of the many ways that acupuncture has been shown to have a positive impact on the body as it helps manage inflammation levels.
If you have been trying to conceive for more than a year (if you are under 35) or six months (over 35), in addition to trying acupuncture, you should also consult a reproductive endocrinologist. Working with an acupuncturist who can help you understand specific ways to alter your diet and design a supplement/herbal combination that is customized for your case can not only improve fertility outcomes (naturally or with IUI/IVF), but it might also help reduce stress and improve quality of life along the way.