During my first trip to an acupuncturist in London two years ago, I was asked to stick out my tongue and heard a lot of, “aha, hmmm.” After a while, this was followed by: “Did you almost die as a child?” He could have pushed me over with a feather at that point. Yes, I did almost die twice from spinal meningitis—which struck viciously at six months and then again when I was eleven years. Somehow, this man’s training in Chinese medicine gave him the tools to see the evidence of that trauma in a line on my tongue. Later when he placed needles (which didn’t hurt, by the way) along my abdomen, clavicle and toes and lit them, I had to trust that he knew what he was doing and these points would help boast my immune system—my reason for going. The experience was relaxing and my allergies appeared to lesson a bit. I stopped seeing him, however, due to the expense—which was $100 a visit. Going every week was eating too much into my budget.
The cost may be worth it, however, for those trying to have a baby. According to studies published in the last two years in the journal, Fertility and Sterility, acupuncture increases success rates of traditional fertility treatments. In one study, for instance, luteal-phase acupuncture, (done just after ovulation and through the remainder of a menstrual cycle) when used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization (IVF) or intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), increased pregnancy rates significantly over those who underwent IVF or ICSI alone. (For more information about IVF or ICSI, see: Fertility Treatments Demystified.) In another study, acupuncture was shown to improve the effectiveness of embryo transfers when done on the day of the transfer.
So, the magic question is how does acupuncture increase a woman’s fertility? According to Lara Rosenthal, MS, Lac., a New York-based acupuncturist and Chinese herbologist specializing in women’s health and fertility, acupuncture works because it is much more than a one-time treatment involving needles. The ancient practice of acupuncture is a holistic approach that delves into a person’s lifestyle and habits—helping them incorporate healthier changes.
“We have basic guidelines with Chinese medicine to enhance fertility. Your reproductive system depends on the whole person being as healthy as [they] can be,” Rosenthal explains.
When a person begins to drink less alcohol, to exercise more, and to channel stress in healthier ways—their odds of having a baby go up dramatically. That’s why Dr. Rosenthal always gives her patients “homework” to do between weekly sessions. The acupuncturist, who is also a faculty member at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, chats with her clients about what they eat, how often they drink alcohol, and other issues that can affect their fertility. (See related story: Top Ten Ways to Hurt Your Reproductive Health.)
“I ask patients to keep a basal body temperature chart—not to predict ovulation, but for my benefit … to get a sense of what’s happening hormonally …. I often see women in their thirties who are not eating well, are stressed out with work, and have lost their center,” she says.
Beth Petersen, a Virginia-based mother of one-year-old twins, used acupuncture along with fertility treatments when trying to get pregnant and highly recommends acupuncture to others. Her acupuncturist also helped her to embark on healthier habits.
“She advised me to stay away from dairy, wheat, sugar, alcohol, etc. Her thoughts were that it’s better for your body, etc. I tried to follow up as best as I could, but I LOVE sugar. My doctors weren’t concerned about my health since I was in pretty good shape, thirty-five, and active (yoga, walking, etc.),” Beth says.
“Most of the time, people who see me finally get pregnant when they are feeling great—when they’ve really taken charge of their lives,” Rosenthal adds.
This doesn’t mean that acupuncture is a cure-all that can help all couples conceive. Rosenthal is quite clear that age counts.
“Age is a major factor no matter what approach you take. The biggest challenge in your forties is chromosomal issues—which no one can help. No one knows how to bridge that gap yet,” she explains.
That doesn’t mean that acupuncture can’t help improve women’s fertility and that women in their forties aren’t having babies—they are and Rosenthal has helped clients in that age range. She just likes them to be aware of all the factors and risks involved.
In the end, acupuncture can do no harm and certainly seems to help many people change for the better and embark on healthier habits.