Acupuncture for fertility
Though there is some debate over the benefits of acupuncture for fertility, some patients find the complimentary treatment very therapeutic, relieving stress and helping to be in the right mindset for their fertility treatment. In this blog, fertility and pregnancy expert Zita West takes a look at the science behind acupuncture therapy and how it can be beneficial for fertility treatment.
The process of trying to conceive can be lengthy, intricate and emotional for many couples. While media attention often focuses on women delaying conception until their late thirties and forties as the cause of complications with fertility, this is not the only issue at play with sub-fertility. Other causes for infertility include lifestyle factors such as being over or under weight, smoking, heavy drinking and stress. Contributing conditions include blocked fallopian tubes, endometriosis, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), compromised sperm quality, and many more. In recent years, more complex tests have been developed to assess genetic problems and immunological disorders that may interfere with potential pregnancy by preventing implantation or causing early miscarriage. However, many couples are only offered investigations after years of trying for a baby. Often these investigations are delayed and protracted and can contribute to any pre-existing stress.
The Fertile Ground of Acupuncture
Acupuncture can offer a positive and beneficial treatment either to enhance the chances of natural conception or to support in the process of assisted conception. Studies in recent years suggest acupuncture can benefit fertility outcomes by:
- Lowering stress hormones and regulating FSH
- Improving blood flow to the pelvic area, ovaries and uterus
- Reducing contractions of the uterus
- Regulating the immune system
While the West has tended not to engage with as many clinical trials on acupuncture for natural fertility, there is positive evidence to establish plausible explanations as to how acupuncture may benefit fertility (Gerhard 1992 and Stener-Victorin 2000, 2008, 2010).
Firstly, studies have suggested that acupuncture regulates fertility hormones. Stress and other factors can disrupt the function of the Hypothalamic Pituitary-Ovarian Axis (HPOA), causing hormonal imbalances that can negatively impact fertility. Research suggests that acupuncture affects hormone levels by promoting the release of beta-endorphin in the brain, which affects the flow of the gonadotrophin-releasing hormone by the hypothalamus, the follicle stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland, and the oestrogen and progesterone levels from the ovary (Ng 2008, Huang 2008, Lim 2010, Stener-Victorin 2010).
Secondly, more studies have investigated how acupuncture increases blood flow to the reproductive organs. While stress has the negative effect of constricting the ovarian arteries, some studies suggest acupuncture inhibits this sympathetic activity, improving blood flow to the ovaries (Stener-Victorin 2006, Lim 2010), enhancing the environment in which ovarian follicles develop. Furthermore, some believe that acupuncture also increases blood flow to the uterus (Stener-Victorin 1996, Huang 2008), improving the thickness of the endometrial lining and increasing the chances of embryo implantation.
Thirdly, further studies have researched into acupuncture’s ability to counteract one of the most common causes of female infertility, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). By reducing sympathetic nerve activity and balancing hormone levels, acupuncture can reduce the number of ovarian cysts, stimulate ovulation, enhance blastocyst implantation and regulate the menstrual cycle in women with PCOS, according to Stener-Victorin (2000, 2008, 2009) and Zhang (2009). It may also help to control secondary effects such as obesity and anorexia (Lim 2010).
More from renowned pregnancy and conception expert Zita West.
With over 30 years' experience in fertility as a practicing midwife, acupuncturist, nutritional advisor and author of ten fertility and pregnancy books, Zita West is considered one of Europe's leading experts in pregnancy and conception. There is lots of fertility advice from Zita on our website, including Zita’s 7 top tips for boosting fertility, her blog on supporting your immunity from home, and recommendations on nutrition while trying to conceive.
Acupuncture for IVF
While acupuncture has been linked to enhancing natural fertility, it is also used in the preparation for, and during IVF cycles, to help optimise the uterine environment and enhance egg quality during treatment, for all of the reasons outlined above.
It is suggested that acupuncture treatments should start three months prior to IVF, scheduled weekly throughout the cycle up to the time of egg retrieval. However, a published study has also reported the positive effects of acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer (Acupuncture and assisted conception, Review, The Cochrane Collaboration, 2009). Informal feedback from some gynaecologists confirms that acupuncture can have a hugely calming effect on patients: something which is vital both immediately before and after embryo transfer.
If you are interested in acupuncture to support your fertility journey, speak to your local clinic – they may have recommendations for local acupuncturists who specialise in fertility. If your local CARE team do not have a recommended acupuncturist, you can also search the Zita West Acupuncture Affiliate Network for an acupuncturist near you. The Zita West Acupuncture Affiliate Network is a national network of Zita West affiliated acupuncturists who specialise in all aspects of male and female reproductive health, and are all personally trained by Zita West.