Acupuncture and Reproductive Health
Update November 2014, by Tim H. Tanaka, Ph.D. R.Ac., R.TCMP
What are the potential effects of acupuncture on the female reproductive system?
Acupuncture has been reported to promote the circulation of blood in the pelvic cavity and improve ovarian function.1 Studies have suggested that acupuncture treatment can be beneficial in promoting follicle production,2 enhancing uterine blood flow3,4 and improving uterine lining thickness5,6 and increasing endometrial receptivity during the implantation period.7,8
Can acupuncture help hormonal imbalances?
Many women visit our clinic concerning hormonal issues, including imbalances of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), estrogen, progesterone, prolactin, anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH), thyroid hormones, etc. Acupuncture has been suggested as a valuable alternative therapy for female infertility due to hormone disorders.9 Studies have also shown improvement of reproductive hormone secretion patterns in women with polycystic ovaries (PCOS).10,11
Can you tell me the difference between conventional methods and a traditional acupuncture approach to regulate menstrual cycles?
Assisted reproductive technologies (ART) provided by reproductive medical specialists are designed to override menstrual cycle difficulties by artificially controlling a woman’s cycle by administering cycle-altering hormone drugs. Acupuncture does not directly alter the female hormones; rather, it is considered to influence the hormonal regulation centers in the brain and autonomic nervous system such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian/gonadal (HPG) axis and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. As a result, a woman’s menstrual cycle can be better regulated over time.
Why is improving blood flow to my ovaries and uterus important?
Increased blood flow to the ovaries and uterus is considered to enhance ovarian responsiveness and the development of adequate uterine lining for embryo implantation. Blood-thinning medications such as low-dose aspirin, often prescribed by fertility specialists, are an example of a therapeutic attempt to increase blood flow in the uterine lining.12 Some specialists have also been prescribing vaginal sildenafil citrate (Viagra), in order to augment blood flow to female organs for women with thin uterine lining.13 As indicated above, acupuncture has been shown to increase blood flow to the ovaries and uterus without the use of medication.
How important is blood flow from a Chinese medicine perspective?
In Chinese medicine, proper flow of blood (and qi) is considered the most important factor for the body to freely function without pain or illness. Many female health concerns such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, dysmenorrhea, and amenorrhea are often associated with the Chinese medicine’s diagnostic criteria of blood stasis (stagnation of old blood). Signs and symptoms of potential underlying circulation problems include cold hands and feet, varicose veins, painful menses, and clotting blood in menstrual blood.
I am not getting my period after I stopped taking birth control pills. Can acupuncture help restore my cycle?
I encounter patients with this situation very frequently in our clinic. The oral contraceptive pill prevents your body from making the female hormones involved in ovulation and menstruation as the pill artificially mimics the woman’s natural monthly fluctuation of hormones. When you stop taking the pill, it can take some time for your body to return to a normal production of these hormones and generate a natural ovulation and menstruation monthly cycle. Most women experience a return of regular ovulatory cycles soon after stopping the pill. However, if your period does not return for several months, you may have what is known as post-pill amenorrhea. Acupuncture assists the woman’s natural hormone cycle by influencing the hypothalamic pituitary gonadal axis (HPG axis – ovarian hormone feedback loops). Studies have also demonstrated the positive effects of acupuncture on ovulation inductions.10,11,14,15
I think I’m having trouble getting pregnant due to my age. Does acupuncture reverse the aging process?
It is important to remember that there are two types of aging: chronological and biological. While everyone ages at the same speed chronologically, the biological aging process differs greatly among individuals; that is the reason why each woman goes into menopause at a different time in their lives. So while it is generally true that the quality of a woman’s eggs declines as she ages, eggs of some women in their forties can be of excellent quality due to slow biological aging.
Progression of biological aging is mainly determined by genetic and lifestyle factors. While the former cannot be modified, the latter can be modified by each individual and acupuncture can be helpful. While we have reservations in using the statement that acupuncture can reverse the aging process, we have had several cases in our clinic in which women over the age of 50 who were postmenopausal began to have regular menstruation cycles after receiving acupuncture on a regular basis for general health.
Do you treat underlying gynecological conditions that are preventing me from getting pregnant?
We have many women who come to our clinic with a variety of health issues that create a potential barrier to becoming pregnant including endometriosis, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, hypothyroid, and various autoimmune conditions. Responses to acupuncture can vary depending on each individual’s health history and severity of the condition.
I read somewhere that the success rate of acupuncture is 75 percent. Is it true?
Please keep in mind that claims and statistics are totally different animals.
Infertility is caused by a variety of factors and it is well-known that fertility rates vary significantly depending on various factors such as the age of the patient and co-existing medical conditions. Statistics can be easily manipulated and the success rate can vary greatly depending on the criteria and rules used when calculating the statistics, as well as the patients population treated in the particular acupuncture clinic. Accordingly, the “success rate” of one acupuncture clinic can be significantly lower or higher than 75 percent depending on patient demographics and how the numbers are generated. Since no guideline exists for producing the success rates of acupuncture clinics, consumers are advised to read those claims cautiously.
What about acupuncture and male factor infertility?
There are studies that have reported effectiveness of acupuncture on male sub fertility.16-18
We have treated a number of cases concerning male fertility issues such as low sperm count, low motility, poor morphology, high DNA fragmentation etc., and we have observed cases of impressive sperm quality improvement in those parameters. We usually recommend the treatment on a trial basis for a period of three months. It is worth noting that Japanese studies (randomized control trial and clinical case series) have indicated a significant improvement in sperm concentration and motility following administrations of certain Kampo formulations.19
- Infertility and Acupuncture FAQ 1: Acupuncture and Reproductive Health
- Infertility and Acupuncture FAQ 2: Fertility Acupuncture Procedures
- Infertility and Acupuncture FAQ 3: Acupuncture and Assisted Reproductive Technologies
- Infertility and Acupuncture FAQ 4: Fertility Diet, Nutrition, and Lifestyle
- Infertility and Acupuncture FAQ 5: Infertility and Acupuncture References