Infertility is more common than you might think. Roughly 12 percent of women have difficulty getting or staying pregnant—and that data doesn’t include men who have fertility issues as well.
Mental health professionals who work with fertility will tell you that struggling with infertility can register as a trauma—and that not many people openly talk about how difficult it is. Therapists and fertility counselors see first-hand how infertility affects their clients, but beyond the therapy room, infertility isn’t something people like to discuss.
For the most part, though, once a person is in therapy for infertility, they’ve been going through treatments for some time, and are feeling the full emotional weight of that. What would infertility care look like if we could address it before it gets to this point?
How Acupuncture for Infertility Works
Dr. Kumiko Yamamoto is an acupuncturist and fertility specialist in Los Angeles. She’s been practicing for more than ten years, and works closely with an infertility doctor in the LA area. She’s become an expert on acupuncture for infertility because she’s seen so much success in her practice. The key? Educating women early on about fertility and taking a holistic approach to treatment.
“Acupuncture can do really well for infertility treatments from an integrative medicine point-of-view,” she says, “because it offers some tools that are missing from the Western medicine model.”
Studies have shown that acupuncture can successfully regulate sex hormones in women like estrogen and progesterone. “That’s the beauty of acupuncture,” says LA-based acupuncturist Dr. Teresa Wlasiuk. “It does what your body needs.”
Many medical fertility treatment options include medications to help stimulate the body to produce more of the hormones needed for reproduction. But acupuncture, Dr. Yamamoto says, can offer a more gentle way. “By helping regulate all these systems in the body, acupuncture is really about supporting the system you already have,” she says.
Looking at a Patient’s Whole Health
One of the main tenets of acupuncture, regardless of what is being treated, is to remove physical blockages in the body to allow for increased blood flow. Blood flow and hormone production impact, and are impacted by, the entire body—not just the uterus and ovaries. This means that sometimes the treatment methods Dr. Yamamoto and Dr. Wlasiuk use might turn their focus away from fertility to make sure their patient’s entire body is healthy and ready for a healthy pregnancy.
For instance, Dr. Yamamoto says she often addresses her patients’ sleep patterns fairly early on in treatment. “If your hormones are out of balance and you’re also not sleeping well, those hormone levels probably won’t get better until your sleep gets better,” she explains. “It sounds like such a simple thing, but sleep is so important for rejuvenation. People often forget that. Your body is healing and recovering overnight while you sleep. Your adrenal system and your liver (which is the source of sex hormones) rejuvenate overnight.”
Other simple lifestyle changes, like addressing sources of inflammation and regularly exercising, have a big impact on overall health. Dr. Wlasiuk has a background in nutritional science, and she often suggests dietary adjustments for her patients that can impact their fertility, like drinking bone broth and taking other supplements that are nourishing for the body. Many acupuncturists will prescribe herbal medicine to their patients, but Dr. Wlasiuk encourages her patients to get the same benefits from the food they eat.
Even though it may seem that issues like your sleep schedule or digestive problems are unrelated to infertility, all the systems of your body are interconnected. And because infertility treatments take time, it’s important to pay attention to things like your diet in the meantime. Both Dr. Wlasiuk and Dr. Yamamoto said they discuss things like diet and nutrition with their patients, but for someone who’s making a complete diet overall, it might be worth recommending your patient consult with a dietitian.
Stress has a physical impact on your body including hormone production, which is critical to reproduction. “Stress causes a hormonal imbalance in the body,” Dr. Yamamoto explains. “Acupuncture addresses all these systems that are really important for fertility, starting with the brain and the pituitary gland, which sits just underneath the brain.”
The pituitary gland is often referred to as the master gland, because it controls several other hormone glands in the body. Dr. Yamamoto calls it the manager of the entire system. “It tells your eggs when to grow, when to ovulate, and it connects your thyroid and adrenal systems to your ovaries and your uterus,” she says. “All these systems are constantly communicating, and acupuncture has been shown to help regulate this communication.”
Dr. Yamamoto and Dr. Wlasiuk have both had a lot of success using acupuncture for infertility treatment in their practices. One of the key reasons, they both say, is because it forces the body to relax. Like with stress, relaxing has physical implications on your body that go beyond mental relief.
Dr. Yamamoto explains that when your adrenal system and brain are overstimulated, like when your body is under stress, you have to signal to your body that it’s okay to relax on an evolutionary level—that it’s okay to let its guard down. “Acupuncture literally produces relaxation,” she says. “It lowers your cortisol and your adrenaline, so your body thinks, ‘Okay, I’m relaxed. I’m not running for my life. I can safely reproduce now.’”
Once that physical relaxation happens, the body is then able to redirect some blood flow where it’s needed most for reproduction—the ovaries and the uterus.
To Dr. Yamamoto, the connection between all these outside factors is actually quite clear. “When you think about it, fertility is really like gardening. You want healthy soil everywhere in the garden, not just under the one plant you’re trying to grow. You want the soil to have all the nutrients it needs, and not to be too wet or too dry,” she explains. “As acupuncturists, we’re asking what do we need to do, and what do our patients need to do, to cultivate that environment?”
Start with Early Education
Part of the reason a lot of women don’t think about how the other parts of their body impact their fertility is because there’s little education about what pregnancy really entails.
“Until you’re in your thirties, the whole focus is on how not to get pregnant,” Dr. Yamamoto says. “Women aren’t really taught how to look for things like their ovulation cycle, or what that’s even supposed to look like, and what happens to your body.”
So in her practice, Dr. Yamamoto makes foundational education about women’s health and pregnancy a focus with her patients. “One of my big focuses is letting women in our society know how to take care of themselves and their reproductive health, so we’re not dealing with fertility issues all of a sudden,” she explains. “If we can do the preparation much earlier, and teach women how to take care of their gardens all the time, pregnancy would be a lot easier for a lot of people.”
Proactive Fertility Care
Pregnancy and fertility treatments aren’t something most people spend a lot of time thinking about until they’re in that situation for themselves. But as Dr. Yamamoto says, early education and proactive treatment could help a lot of people avoid a lot of heartache.
Paula Torres, a regular client of acupuncture, is an advocate for proactive treatment—rather than the type of reactive care so many women receive. She’s been going to acupuncture in preparation for egg freezing since the fall of last year. Her doctor recommended she check her fertility as part of a routine test. That’s when they noticed something was wrong.
“I had never really thought too much about fertility, to be honest. Not until I found out there was a problem,” Torres says. She goes on to say that none of her previous doctors had ever recommended running this test. Her current doctor specializes in fertility, and Torres says her doctor does early fertility testing on all her patients—even if they aren’t actively trying to get pregnant.
Give the Body Time
As part of Torres’ treatment, her doctor recommended a lot of the same things that Dr. Yamamoto and Dr. Wlasiuk recommend to their patients—like clean eating, gentle exercise, supplements, and stress reduction in addition to acupuncture twice a week. It felt like an exhausting process at times, Torres says, but when she got her results, it felt worth it.
“There were times when it felt like doing all of the right things to focus on my fertility was consuming my life,” she says. “But I think it’s so important to stick with it. You have to give yourself time, give your body time.”
After several months of acupuncture for infertility treatment and the other lifestyle adjustments, she’s seen her follicle count double. “Personally I attribute my follicle count directly to the acupuncture,” she says. “Because I had been doing everything else for six months, and nothing really changed—but then I did acupuncture for three months, and I started to see big change.”
Although Torres is pleased with the progress she’s made so far, she wonders how much of this is preventable as she watches other people in their thirties struggle with infertility.
“I wish someone had told me earlier to run this test,” Torres says. “Even if you’re not planning on having kids any time soon, just have your doctor run a fertility test and see where you’re at, so you can be proactive about making a plan.”
Planting Seeds of Hope
Torres says she talks so openly about her fertility journey because she wants to encourage women to be proactive and look into their own fertility. “I’m so grateful to have caught my declining fertility early because I’m still able to do something about it. I had been saying I wanted to freeze my eggs for years, but there’s just so much mystery behind it that I put it off,” she says. “So now I’m trying to share my experience to demystify it for other people as much as possible.”
Because infertility is such an emotional and traumatic experience for so many women, people shy away from talking about it. But there are also so many stories of people who do have children after struggling with infertility, and telling those stories can offer hope to people who desperately need it.
“Going through fertility treatments is extraordinarily emotional for women,” Dr. Wlasiuk says. “And a lot of the time there’s not much I can say about that. All I can do is tell my patients the success stories I’ve seen, and try to be that hope for them. So to see them go from being so upset and hopeless to getting this positive test and having a baby is a really amazing process.”
Sometimes, Dr. Wlasiuk says, her fertility patients will bring in their ultrasounds, or bring their children in to meet her. “I’ve seen some pretty miraculous things happen. My first fertility patient ended up getting pregnant on her first ovulation cycle with me—with twins,” she says. “Every time one of my patients tells me they’re pregnant or shows me an ultrasound, I just start crying. It’s such a beautiful thing.”
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