The American Fertility Society defines infertility as occurring when “a couple has one year of regular intercourse without contraception and has been unable to conceive.” Statistics show that one in five couples over the age of 30 have difficulty conceiving. Traditional Chinese Medicine has a long history of enhancing fertility for both men and women. In fact, fertility treatments using acupuncture and herbal medicine were first recorded in early Chinese medical literature by Zhang Zhong Jing, a famous physician from the Han Dynasty.
For women, acupuncture’s influence on improving fertility outcomes is believed to be related to its’ ability to reduce stress, regulate hormone levels, and improve blood flow to the ovaries and uterus.
Simply reducing stress can have a profound impact on fertility. By stimulating the production of endogenous opioids, acupuncture can inhibit the central nervous system’s biological stress response. A recent study in Human Reproduction found that women with the highest levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that’s found in saliva when you’re stressed, were 29% less likely to get pregnant. The study’s author concludes that stress may affect an egg’s ability to move through the fallopian tube or may interfere with implantation in the uterus.
With regard to regulating hormones, acupuncture is believed to have a neuroendocrine effect which impacts a three-way axis between the two areas of the brain involved with hormone production (the hypothalamus and pituitary glands) and the ovaries. This has a regulatory effect on both the menstrual cycle and ovulation. It’s worth noting that this neuroendocrine effect is thought to be how acupuncture influences issues surrounding male infertility. Research has shown that acupuncture may improve sperm production, sperm quality, and motility.
Acupuncture is believed to improve blood flow to the reproductive organs by inhibiting related sympathetic nerve activity. With increased blood flow to the region, the ovaries receive greater hormonal stimulation and the lining of the uterus is able to absorb more nutrients and hormones which help it grow thicker and subsequently be strong enough to hold onto an implanted embryo. This not only increases the chances of becoming pregnant, but may also help those who are at risk for miscarriage or have a history of chronic miscarriages.
If a woman is no older than her early to mid-thirties, it may be worthwhile to try acupuncture and herbal medicine alone before investing in expensive and invasive fertility treatments. Whether being used alone or in conjunction with conventional fertility procedures, a three-month course of twice weekly acupuncture treatmentsis the optimal treatment protocol recommended to maximize results. Up to six months of treatment may be necessary for some women to ready their body for pregnancy. Note that for men the sperm maturation process takes 70-90 days, so the three-month recommended course of treatment also applies to them.