Next month, another Mother’s Day will come around which will include me since I am definitely a mother. I mark the occasion with sons and now a daughter-in-law! I’ve been lucky in life to have been pregnant, given birth and to have experienced parenthood with all its challenge, reward - and love.
The happiness in the reason for the day has me thinking about a particular happiness in my practice: working with hopeful moms-to-be, some just coming to the decision to start ‘trying’ and some coming after a time of 'trying' - even a long time of ‘trying’. Moms - and dads - come for treatment to increase or restore fertility and then they continue to come for support during their pregnancies. For those undergoing additional fertility methods like IVF, acupuncture increases their chances for pregnancy too. On behalf of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, let it be known: we can play a helpful and success-fulfilling role in bringing fertility where it seems hard to be.
Chinese herbs and acupuncture have a long history of use promoting fertility. Can Americans benefit from the experience and the results afforded by East Asian medicine to treat infertility? Clinical studies conducted in China indicate that about 70% of all cases of infertility (male and female) treated by Chinese herbs and acupuncture resulted in pregnancy or restored fertility. These are cases of infertility that include obstruction of the fallopian tubes, amenorrhea, absent ovulation, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, low sperm count, and non-liquefaction of semen. Depending on the particular study and the types of infertility treated, success rates range from about 50% to more than 90%. We don’t see quite that percentage of success in the United States with East Asian medicine therapy but that is because the Chinese integrate both traditional and modern methods of medicine somewhat easily and have a long experience and confidence in using herbs and acupuncture. Nevertheless, practitioners here (and this includes my own practice) have had many experiences and success in treating infertility.
No single herb is considered the ‘miracle’ fertility herb. Instead, herbal formulas have been developed with the purpose of correcting the functional or organic problem that is causing infertility.
Formulas vary for men and for women, but there is overlap in the compositions of the formulas. Some “exotic” ingredients are found in some fertility formulas but for the most part, ingredients are roots, barks, leaves, flowers, and fruits.
Using the language of traditional Chinese medicine diagnosis, infertility presents with one or more of these three significant factors:
1. DEFICIENCY. Our delicately balanced system of hormones is not able to sufficiently or properly influence and direct the sexual and reproductive functions. The symptoms may show as lack of or infrequent or irregular menstruation, impotence, frequent urination, weakness and aching of the back and legs, difficulties regulating body temperature. Deficiency syndromes are treated with tonic herbs (ginseng, astragalus, dong quai) and tonifying acupuncture points that nourish qi and blood especially.
2. STAGNATION. The sexual and reproductive organs are blocked and prevented from functioning despite normal hormone levels and normal ability to respond to hormones. When ‘qi’ and ‘blood’ are ‘stagnant’ or blocked in some way, proper circulation to the tissues is impossible. The signs of this condition can be muscle tension, anger that feels restrained, chronic inflammation, formation of lumps (cysts and tumors) and digestive problems with abdominal pain or bloating. Blood stagnation often occurs after a childbirth, surgery, injury or serious infection. When there is severe pain (like very strong and debilitating menstrual cramps) or lumps or swellings that are hard (rather than soft and fluid filled) we think, stagnation. Stagnation is treated with points and with herbs that are ‘moving’ and directional.
3. HEAT. Infection or inflammation can cause organs to function abnormally. Heat syndromes in males may produce abnormal semen quality. Gynecologic infections can cause female infertility by blocking the passages, altering the mucous membrane conditions, or influencing the local temperature. For this presentation, we use herbs that reduce, clear and inhibit infection and inflammation and with acupuncture protocols that do the same.
In each of these three conditions, the purpose of the acupuncture treatment and an accompanying herbal formula is to correct the underlying body imbalance in order to restore normal function. Western medicine will diagnose tubal blockage (which usually corresponds to blood STAGNATION) and infection (which corresponds to HEAT) and in many cases successfully treats these causes of infertility. Western medicine does not generally assess or diagnose DEFICIENCY presentations and many of the STAGNATION presentations as we know them in Chinese medicine. With herbs and acupuncture we address these issues with our patients and improve the potential for achieving and maintaining pregnancy all the way to giving birth.