How does acupuncture for fertility actually work?!
Most interesting things start with personal experience, and acupuncture - for me at least - is no exception. In fact, it had a profound effect on me and turned me from a sceptic in to a fully fledged convert...
Like most people, when I started on my journey to having a baby I had heard that ‘acupuncture was good for fertility’. How? I had absolutely zero idea, but, enough of my friends (who had kids) swore by it, and by this point I realised I had quite substantial imbalances and polycystic ovaries (PCOS), so, I was very willing to give anything that could help shift this back to a more normal balance a go.
What happened was pretty startling:
Not only was my acupuncturist the first person to tell me I was pregnant (right after a negative - and incorrect - initial pregnancy test) but eight weeks into my pregnancy he told me that I was having a boy (right again!).
To me, acupuncture has always had an air of mysticism about it, and frankly while I was undergoing treatment I wasn’t keen to get in the way by delving into the science. Sometimes you just have to trust the process. That being said, when you come from a different approach (the Western approach) sometimes ‘differences’ can manifest as ‘mysticism’ (especially when it is not explained in detail) which can give rise to scepticism. As always, at Better Babies we are keen to have an open and evidence-based approach. Turns out that modern research is siding increasingly with the benefits of acupuncture - particularly as a treatment for some of the underlying causes of hormonal imbalance and therefore infertility….
So, when I got the chance to have an audience with Laura Boscawen BSc, BSc, BTEC5, LicAc, MBAcC: a member of the British Acupuncture Council with a specialism in fertility in order to really try and understand how it worked, I jumped at the chance.
Luckily for us, not only does Laura have a background in Western science, but like me, she also suffers from PCOS and came to acupuncture after treatment by an acupuncturist help correct her imbalances (which manifested in irregular periods). So, we thought she was the perfect person to unravel some of this ‘mysticism’ and reveal how acupuncture can help a journey to getting pregnant and having a healthy baby.
Here are some snippets we learnt:
It's all about balance:
The first thing that Laura explained is that in acupuncture you don’t look at the disease, instead, you look at the signs and symptoms and more specifically for the underlying imbalances that cause them. Diseases can manifest in many different symptoms but most important is getting to the root cause. Essentially disease is caused by fundamental imbalance so assessing and correcting this is the main aim. The first thing to look at therefore is the ‘internal climate’, something that is impacted by all kinds of factors - including lifestyle and emotions.
Qi (Energy) flow:
According to Chinese medicine, energy flow within the body runs through Meridian channels. Where you have a ‘block’ you can get a problem. Acupuncture itself (the practise of inserting needles into specific areas) is essentially the practise of trying to unblock and stimulate these areas.
Each point or ‘node’ is an area of condensed nerve endings. When these are stimulated a signal will go to the brain which will then respond by increasing the supply of things like endorphins (dopamine & serotonin), opioids, microcirculation, oxygen, nutrients etc and essentially causing a reaction. All in order to ‘unblock’ and to clear the channels.
How do we know the right area to target the ‘block’?!
One of the most interesting things about Chinese medicine is its pure longevity. This has been around for thousands of years - far longer than traditional Western medicine. Consequently, there have been many many years of trial and error to arrive where we are now and a much greater understanding of how stimulating a particular area on the body can lead to an unblock affecting another.
In fact, if you’ve had acupuncture before, you may have felt one particular needle more than another - that can be a signal of a more substantial block (although that doesn’t mean if you don't feel the others it isn't working!)
The power of emotions….
Unlike Western medicine which is far more mechanical and typically much more siloed, Chinese medicine believes that emotion can be a very powerful force and source of imbalance and therefore disease in the body. In fact, the brain in western medicine is equivalent to the heart in Chinese medicine. Emotions are considered as powerful modulators of our internal climate - something that our modern lifestyles can knock off balance.
This includes of course the modern plague of ‘stress’. Laura told us of a study that showed those with higher stress levels had a 30% less chance of conception success. On the whole, Western medicine is slow to attribute emotional conditions or stress a major or the major/principal cause of any disease outside very few. Chinese medicine takes this much more seriously as a form of imbalance and disease - particularly when it comes to fertility.
The real power of stress on fertility:
That being said, most of us intuitively know that stress in particular or emotional upset has an effect. On a simple biological level it triggers our fight or flight response cutting off resource to our reproductive organs and making it very hard to have a baby (click here for more). Chinese medicine looks at it slightly differently. According to Chinese medicine stress directly causes what is known as Liver Qi (pronounced ‘Chi’) stagnation.
Liver Qi stagnation is seen as a major cause of female infertility:
Essentially this restricts energy flow through the body. Qi moves the blood and can become sluggish or stuck when we have emotional issues or stress. The liver also plays an important role in fertility and is strongly associated with the menstrual cycle for women. Symptoms include: painful/abnormal periods, lower abdominal pain, breast distension around your period, irritability, depression and headaches.
It doesn't stop there:
Prolonged and repressed emotions are very powerful more broadly as a source of imbalance in the body. Overthinking/excessive worry for example can manifest in digestive issues. Fear/stress/overstimulation impacts the kidneys and crucially the kidneys are where Jing is stored.
Why ‘Jing’ is important:
It’s all about the ‘reproductive centres’. Jing being a principal area. Jing is the vital fertility essence and energy. Part of this (the congenital essence) is inherited from your parents and is crucial for fetal and childhood development. So - stress, fear and overstimulation will not only impact your liver Qi but also your kidneys, the home of this all important Jing.
Another crucial part of the reproductive base within Chinese medicine. This is something you have probably heard of. The balance between ‘male’ and ‘female’ energies within us is an important one. Yin is the basis of fertile fluids, the follicular phase and key for boosting the thickness of the endometrial lining. All crucial for getting and staying pregnant. As women’s role in society shifts, and in some ways as women take on more ‘masculine/ yang’ characteristics we can get imbalances. Once again it is these (and other) imbalances that can cause us to have problems if unchecked.
Like most things, it is about getting it ‘just right’ without too much of an imbalance in any particular area. This applies to the forces of ‘cold’, ‘hot’ and ‘damp’. Laura says she sees more and more ‘cold’ in the uterus these days which can manifest in the body with symptoms such menstrual pain which is relieved with heat application. Other signs: you have a longer menstrual cycle, you have a pale complexion and perhaps a sluggish digestion. Being ‘too hot’ can be exemplified by having a temper, reacting strongly to things, having a short menstrual cycle with heavy periods, you often are thirsty and hot and ‘too damp’ can manifest in excess weight, lack of energy, allergies, candida and even PCOS.
How to correct some of these imbalances?
Not only does Chinese medicine focus more on diet than Western medicine, but it extends to how we consume food. The right way? Eating three meals a day, calmly and mindfully is crucial. The (very sensible) theory is that eating calmly helps the body absorb as many nutrients as possible - which after all, is the whole point of eating. Too often we are dashing between things, eating on the go, frantic and/or distracted. Eating at our desks, whilst doing something else is not the way to get the most out of our food and usually means energy is diverted away from digesting food. Obviously what we eat is important too. Specifically nutrient dense/seasonal food.
Now this is where Western and Chinese medicine seems to be more aligned. Too much extreme exercise is not good - and is something that Laura says she sees more of in her practise. Particularly it causing problems for conception. Ultimately a lot of running/extreme sport produces stress/ adrenalin and cortisol in the body which invariably leads to imbalance. Moderate exercise can help stress and can help speed up a sluggish metabolism as well as increasing productive of Qi and blood flow.
How does a practitioner understand what your imbalance is?
This is where it gets a bit more complex! One way is to check the ‘pulses’. There are as many as 40 qualities within the pulses and interestingly a baby manifests as ‘phlegm’ (true story!) and damp within the body and makes the pulse ‘slippery’.
No acupuncturist will treat in the same way:
Given that every person is individual with their own set of imbalances, treatment is very personalised. Similarly one practitioner may work for one person and not so much for another - having rapport and feeling comfortable with whoever is doing your treatment is very important according to Laura.
How quickly will you see the effects of acupuncture?
Once again this is variable, realistically however you need to go at least four times to see the effects on average. That being said it is largely dependent on how long you have had whatever issue you’d like to be addressed. A long term chronic issue will take a lot longer to treat than an injury incurred a week before. When it comes to fertility ideally you want to go at least three months before trying to boost and support the body.
What about herbs?
These can be very powerful and are not particularly well regulated, therefore Laura advises that you check out the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine before taking herbs given to you. That being said, used in the correct way they can be very positive and provide you a ‘daily dose of acupuncture’. They can play a very powerful role in internal climate regulation and on the whole the side effects are less than those experienced by those prescribed by western medicine. If you are taking other medication however alongside this it is imperative that you talk to your doctor and also disclose to your acupuncturist.
This is obviously the briefest snap shot in to a very complicated millenia old practise. If you’d like to give it a try, check out the British Acupuncture Council (if you’re in the UK) to find an approved person near you or get in touch with Laura:
This article is for informational purposes only. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research and from referenced and sourced medical research. Before making any changes we strongly recommend you consult a healthcare professional before you begin.