One of the most common things I am asked is whether acupuncture can be used to assist somebody going through IVF. It’s a good question and worth taking a closer look as it seems to be something that comes up A LOT in my conversations with patients, friends and family when I talk about my work. Before I begin however, I wish to add that I cannot discuss IVF without some mention of some of the mechanisms involving infertility, which contribute to the need of some people in seeking IVF to assist them in the process of getting pregnant. You’ll find some mention of the causes of infertility scattered in several portions of this article as you read through it.
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According to the Collins Online Dictionary, IVF (In-Vitro Fertilization) “is the process of helping a woman to have a baby in which an egg is removed from one of her ovaries, fertilized outside her body, and then replaced in her womb".
Stress and Infertility
In my practice, I have often observed that people with the most difficulty trying to get pregnant often live in a hurried, timeline driven environment. They are stretched trying to juggle the limits of meeting workplace demands or projects, while sometimes also juggling the needs of their families while, also at the same time, working on finding rare pockets of time just for themselves to take a breather during their already jam-packed week. By the time they make the decision to get pregnant, there is so much going on in their lives that its hard to consolidate their scattered energy in order to literally, “create a new life.”
Stress and anxiety are probably the biggest obstacles in getting pregnant and for most women, the multi-tasking that tends to accompany juggling the needs of others vs their own needs tends to drain much needed energy reserves (which is comprised of what Acupuncturists commonly refer to collectively as Qi and Blood). Without the ability to replenish supplies of Qi and Blood (something that the body can do naturally but which requires space and time to properly do this), healthy eggs, regularly timed periods of ovulation and richly developed uterine linings cannot be produced or regulated as well.
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Stress tends to disrupt the body’s natural hormonal and neurotransmitters that signal to the body when it is time to develop a healthy uterine lining, when to have a period (when pregnancy does not occur), and when to produce follicles from which a healthy egg can develop and be released during ovulation. In short, the signals get interrupted and things that happen when they shouldn’t start to occur. And the not so great news is - this gets more and more commonplace as a person ages. Things slow down and the stress in life compounds the slowing down and signal disruption process.
For most people wanting to but not successfully getting pregnant, IVF plays an important role when getting pregnant naturally among the noise of daily life is just not cutting it anymore. And acupuncture’s role in all of this you may ask? Acupuncture plays a fundamental role in making the IVF process smoother by reducing the stresses of undergoing IVF and making the body’s ability to replenish its natural reserves of Qi and Blood work more efficiently.
The process of IVF can be time-consuming and can involve many steps. Sometimes, these steps involve recruiting the use of hormone therapy drugs and medical procedures and tests during the IVF cycle that a patient is gong through. Its easy to get lost in the myriad ways of getting to the goal of becoming pregnant and having a healthy pregnancy and delivery.
I’ve found that acupuncture helps my patients take some of the pressures of finding their way through the maze of procedures off their minds by Literally.Slowing.Them.The.Hell.Down. Their treatments become permission to unplug and take themselves out of the madness of daily living. In other words, when one unplugs, one literally allows the body’s natural cycles to take over and learn to turn on (or off) as it has always naturally done until the whole process of “adult-ing” in our busy world took over in our lives.
The Role of Qi, Blood and Jing in Fertility
Acupuncture restores the ability of the body to better produce Qi, Blood and something called Essence (Jing), which is the basic building block of what produces healthy eggs in women and healthy sperm in men. Jing can be thought of as the “primordial, soupy material” that contains all the genetic information that we inherit from our parents and that we pass on to our offspring. Jing also contains the genetic information needed to turn on the cycles of hormone production when we reach our reproductive years. Qi, Blood and Jing can be replenished when we rest, slow down and make time to look after ourselves. Conversely, these three components can be wiped out when we constantly drive ourselves to be switched on all the time and we push ourselves beyond our natural limits to achieve and complete artificially mandated goals without any regard to taking the time to stop and rest a bit.
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When we wear these stores of Qi, Blood and Jing down, we start to experience problems with producing good quality and healthy eggs (or sperm); periods become irregular or skip cycles all together; some women may experience heavier than normal uterine bleeding off their normal expected cycles; and some men may experience a lower than normal libido and report physical and mental fatigue.
Acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s natural ability to heal, to restore and balance anything which can get thrown off by unnatural timelines and irregular eating or sleep times in our rush to cram all we need to do in a mere 24 hours. Though IVF can stimulate the body to produce certain results through the use of hormones and medication, we cannot forget that this stimulation is still out of the normal bounds of what the body can naturally do.
The energy that the medication stimulates within the body to produce a desired hormonal response also depletes that same body’s Qi, Blood or stores of Jing; the basic materials from which hormone therapies used in IVF still depend on to stimulate a response from, at an artificially speeded up pace on the pathway to becoming pregnant. In other words, the stores of Qi, Blood and Jing are still crucial during IVF and because they are constantly being stimulated by the different medications and medical procedures that a patient goes through and as a result, depleted.
So how does it all come together?
Before starting IVF:
I often tell me patients that even prior to starting to do IVF, it is important to calm down, let the body relax and drop its guard to slow down the adrenaline-fueled response to hurry through life. Acupuncture has been known to reduce inflammatory markers in a person’s body, increase “feel-good” endorphins that the body’s neurotransmitters naturally produce when one is happy and to turn off the production of cortisol which the body produces when it is under stress and interprets that stress as “impending danger”. Just getting one to two anxiety-reducing treatments before even sitting down with an IVF specialist helps start the process off on the right foot.
Egg Retrieval (before and after):
Just prior to egg retrieval (a process in which a woman uses hormone therapies to stimulate the production of multiple eggs in her ovaries and whereby these eggs are retrieved and then frozen for fertilization at a later time), acupuncture can be used to ensure that she produces several good quality, healthy and genetically viable eggs that can be harvested for fertilization. This is an important step when the patient in question has a history of not ovulating on time, doesn’t always have a regular period or who may produce several eggs but none of which matures enough to be released when she does ovulate.
Right after egg retrieval, acupuncture can assist the patient in reducing the discomfort following the retrieval procedure. Some symptoms of discomfort include: bloating, flatulence, tenderness on the abdomen, pelvic aches and pains, anxiety and/or minor bleeding.
At a later stage, after the retrieved eggs have been fertilized and allowed to develop for a few days, the patient is called back by the IVF specialists to have the best quality and best developed fertilized embryos transferred back into the woman’s uterus where the developing embryo can implant, attach and grow from.
Embryo Transfer (before and after):
I do tell my patients that just prior to embryo transfer, having two to three acupuncture treatments to effectively calm the patient down and thicken, grow and retain the rich network of blood vessels in her uterine lining all help in contributing to a healthy developing pregnancy. This is an important step in patients with a history of poor uterine development, multiple missed periods, frequent miscarriage or fibroids as acupuncture points are selected to not only increase the density of blood vessels within the uterus but, they are also used to prevent the premature sloughing off of the same blood vessels before the embryo can be implanted there.
Right after embryo transfer, treatments essentially help the uterus create a warm, hospital home for the newly developing baby and calms the mother down so that the home can continue to grow and nourish the fetus during this critical stage of pregnancy. The patient may be put under a regime of progesterone to help chemically an artificially maintain the integrity of the uterine lining post transfer.
However, due to the ability of acupuncture to stimulate the body’s natural reproduction of Qi, Blood and Jing, blood cells and the energy that is required to send those blood cells to the uterus for further reinforcement of the uterine lining, can be continuously produced so that this process of uterine thickening can carry on even well past the time the specialists take the patient off chemical progesterone. I usually advise my patients to continue doing weekly treatments for the first 12-14 weeks (depending on that patient’s gynacological history) of pregnancy as that is usually the most crucial stage of development for a growing embryo and where a woman’s stores of Qi, Blood and Jing are most in need of constant replenishment in order to consistently and continuously provide for the developing fetus.
So, in a nutshell, IVF can be very effective in helping couples conceive and deliver a healthy baby.
However, acupuncture can take the IVF process a few steps further and improve on it by making the whole process of IVF much more comfortable and allowing both partners to be able to recover faster (both physically and emotionally) from several components of the IVF cycle. By doing so, the process of getting pregnant and going through the process of labour can be so much more rewarding and both the woman and her partner can stay more present during the pregnancy and enjoy the journey to welcoming a baby into their lives so much more. That in itself, is beyond priceless.
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