Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine used to improve fertility and possibly treat infertility. But how exactly is sticking little needles into the body supposed to help you get pregnant? How does it work?
There are two ways to ways to answer this question. We can answer this question from the so-called Eastern perspective. In other words, with what traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) say about acupuncture and fertility. We can also answer the question from the Western point of view: What does the medical research suggest about acupuncture? How can acupuncture help those with infertility?
How Acupuncture May Work, According to Traditional Chinese MedicineI asked Jill Blakeway -- licensed acupuncturist, certified herbalist, Clinic Director of The YinOva Center in New York City, and co-author of the book Making Babies: A Proven Three Month Program for Maximum Fertility (Little Brown, 2009) -- to explain how acupuncture works.
According to classical Chinese philosophy, Blakeway says, we have channels of "energy" called meridians that run through our bodies. "They are often compared to rivers running through the body, in order to nourish the tissues," she explains. "Stagnation in the flow of these energy rivers is like a dam that is backed up."
According to traditional Chinese medicine, disruption of the flow can lead to physical and emotional illnesses, including infertility. These meridians can be affected by needling specific points, also known as acupuncture points. By needling the acupuncture points, the flow of the energy gets "unstuck" and is allowed to flow in a free and balanced way.
How Acupuncture May Work, According to the Current ResearchOf course, the Western, scientific explanation is quite different. The truth of the matter is that no one is sure how acupuncture works. But there are theories.
One theory is that by needling points on the body, chemicals and hormones are triggered and released. "These chemicals either change the experience of pain, or they trigger a cascade of chemicals and hormones which influence the body's own internal regulating system," Blakeway says. "The improved energy flow and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture stimulates the body's natural healing abilities, and enhances physical and emotional well-being."
Research has shown specifically that acupuncture increases the amount of beta-endorphins flowing through the body. Beta-endorphins are feel-good hormones that help lessen pain. Exercise is also known to boost the amount of beta-endorphins in the body. If you've ever experienced a "runner's high," you've enjoyed a boost of beta-endorphins.
But some interesting research on acupuncture points may imply that it's more than just beta-endorphins and hormones at play. In a research study at UC Irvine, researchers used MRIs to look at the brain while patients received acupuncture treatment.
"Traditionally, acupuncturists have used a point on the little toe to address eye pain," says Blakeway. "The point is chosen because it is on the same meridian as the eye." What's amazing is that in this study, when the point on the foot for eye pain was stimulated, the part of the brain that regulates vision lit up.
Acupuncture and Infertility
The research on acupuncture and infertility is ongoing, and the topic is controversial. Some studies have been too small to prove a definitive connection to improved pregnancy rates, and some studies contradict each other in their results.
With that said, here are a few of possible benefits of acupuncture, according to the preliminary research:
- Improved pregnancy rates during IVF treatment cycles, when acupuncture takes place on the day of embryo transfer
- Increased blood flow to the uterus, leading to an improved endometrial lining
- Reduced stress and anxiety levels
- Possible improvement in ovulation for women with PCOS
- Possible improvement in sperm count and quality in men with infertility
- Possible regulation of gonadotropin-releasing hormone, which in turn could help regulate ovulation
To read more about the controversy and current research, check out this article on acupuncture and infertility:
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Manheimer E, Zhang G, Udoff L, Haramati A, Langenberg P, Berman BM, Bouter LM. "Effect of acupuncture on rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilization: systematic review and meta-analysis." British Medical Journal. March 8, 2008; 336(7643):545-9. Epub 2008 Feb 7.
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