Infertility defined as difficulty conceiving or retaining pregnancy, usually after trying to do so for a year or more. It affects approximately 1 in 8 couples. Men and women may have medical conditions that make conception a challenge. Some of these issues include: irregular menstruation, polycystic ovarian disease (PCOS), endometriosis, and low sperm count or motility. With many Western names of diseases for infertility, Chinese Medicine offers treatments for many infertility conditions based on patterns.Infertility
Infertility and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
TCM has long been treating gynecological and fertility disorders. The early books in Chinese Medicine, dating back to 200 AD, outline gynecology problems and dysfunctions that lead to infertility. Some books even have chapters dedicated to herbs and diagnoses that alleviate fertility issues. TCM is unique from Western medical interventions because it treats fertility challenges by getting to the root of the problem and treating the whole person. Symptoms are improved because the body heals from the inside out. With proper diagnosis and treatments including acupuncture and herbs, food therapy and lifestyle changes, pregnancy can often be achieved naturally.
Infertility patients are treated to increase circulation in the lower abdomen and reproductive organs, balance hormones, and reduce stress. Because the body is ultimately focused on survival, it will preserve itself over reproducing itself. Therefore, if the body has an outside stress factor or internal system imbalance, a person’s reproductive ability is reduced or even shut down. Long lists of studies have proven that herbs and acupuncture are effective for treating infertility, whether a stand-alone treatment or as a complementary therapy for assisted reproductive technology like IVF. TCM improves body function and reduces the stress that can prohibit reproduction.
A proper diagnosis is key for proper holistic treatment in TCM. These diagnoses follow patterns that cover many fertility issues. These can provide symptom relief and treatment for the whole person.
Liver Qi Stagnation
In Chinese Medicine, the Liver is in charge of the flow of Qi and Blood in the body, and helps handle the emotions and stress. Liver function can be hampered and causes dysfunctions of many kinds. This pattern is characterized by emotional outbursts, anger or irritability, and may include pain in the abdomen or rib cage. Typically, a patient’s tongue will have dim red sides and a thin white tongue coating, with a wiry pulse. Men with Liver Qi stagnation may suffer from pain in the scrotum and erectile dysfunction. Women may have irregular menstrual periods with dark clots and cramping as well as PMS. The main formula for this diagnosis is Xiao Yao San. The herbs in this formula help relieve Qi stagnation and treat the Liver. Additional herbs in the formula protect organs which could be damaged by the Liver Qi Stagnation. There are acupuncture points utilized during treatments that also help regulate the Liver and improve circulation.
The Kidneys highly influence fertility in TCM, with possible Yang or Yin deficiency patterns. With a severe deficiency, it may even be called “essence” deficiency, with Yang and Yin deficiency patterns. In Western medicine, the role of hormones and fertility also lie in the adrenal glands, which are on top of the kidneys, producing small amounts of hormones throughout the lifespan unless they become depleted. In addition to sex hormones, the adrenal glands are also responsible for producing cortisol, the body’s stress response. Prolonged periods of stress or overwork will drain the “kidneys,” resulting in Yin, Yang, and essence deficiencies. For Kidney deficiency, points are chosen that help boost Kidney Yin, Yang or Essence, aiding fertility.
In Kidney Yang deficiency, there is an aversion to cold, paleness, fatigue, frequent urination, low sex drive, and back and knee pain. The pulse is weak accompanied by a pale tongue. Men’s symptoms might include impotence and cold sensations in the scrotum. Women may have longer menstrual cycles or even amenorrhea (lack of menstruation). For men and women, reproductive quality may be reduced, producing eggs or sperm of poor quality. The formula to treat Kidney Yang deficiency is You Gui Wan. This formula’s key herbs help build up virility.
For Kidney Yin deficiency, the dominant symptoms may include heat sensations in the palms, feet or chest, along with night sweats, hair loss, dizziness, hot feelings in the afternoon or evening, palpitations, and a hyperactive sex drive. The pulse may feel thin and slightly rapid with a red tongue that lacks a coating. Men may experience the inability to control ejaculations along with a low sperm count. For women with kidney yin deficiency, they may have shorter menstrual cycles with scanty periods. They may have low ovarian reserve or empty follicles that cause the infertility. The main formulas for treating Kidney Yin deficiency are Zuo Gui Yin or Liu Wei Di Huang Wan. The first formula is better for patients who do not have heat sensations. The two formulas both have fertility-boosting ingredients that also balance hormones.
Blood Stasis and Phlegm
A critical component of fertility is good circulation. The reproductive organs will not function properly without nourishment from the blood supply. Compounding the problem is sickness, stress, and a sedentary lifestyle as well as strong emotions. This Blood Stasis pattern has symptoms such as a sharp, stabbing pain in the abdomen, a dark complexion or visible purple veins. The “stagnation” pulse feels choppy with a purplish colored tongue. Men’s Blood Stasis may include varicocele or hernias. Women’s periods may be painful with many clots. Fertility diagnoses of endometriosis, fibroids, and PCOS are conditions of blood stasis. The main blood stasis formula for the lower abdomen is Gui Zhi Fu Ling Wan, to increase circulation and disperse “accumulations.” The acupuncture for this pattern focuses more on increasing circulation. And no matter what the pattern, most fertility acupuncture treatments will try to increase circulation to the reproductive organs.
The Phlegm pattern is not just in the respiratory system. In TCM, it is a category of substances which are conglomerations of white, sticky tissue or thickened secretions. This “phlegm” can also be considered as nodules or benign tumors. Some additional symptoms include dizziness with palpitations, brain fog, feeling of heaviness, or even obesity. A thick white tongue coating is present along with a slippery pulse. Men may have intercourse but no ejaculation, or improper sperm liquefaction. In women, there may be excess vaginal discharge with amenorrhea. The medical diagnoses of PCOS and fallopian tube blockage are categorized as “phlegm.” The main formula is Cang Fu Dao Tan Wan which resolves phlegm especially in the lower abdomen and reduces inflammation. The acupuncture points used for this pattern help treat fluid imbalances in the body and focus on dispersing the phlegm.
Try This At Home
Food therapy can increase fertility. The recommendations are based on the TCM pattern. To illustrate, a “phlegm” pattern patient should avoid dairy and cold foods. For many, it is beneficial to avoid spicy foods and alcohol. Lifestyle changes can also affect fertility. The top five lifestyle tweaks are:
- Eat mindfully and healthfully.
- Don’t overwork and get plenty of sleep.
- Do Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or meditate two to three times a week. Light or moderate exercise helps, too.
- Give yourself an abdominal massage with acupressure points for fertility to stimulate circulation (ask your acupuncturist for more info).
- Don’t journey alone. Support groups and counseling can help you through this challenging time.
Chinese medicine including herbs and acupuncture have been proven, effective fertility treatments as solo therapies or as a complement to Western interventions. IVF success rates are increased an average of 40% these therapies. In addition, TCM can treat or reverse reproductive conditions that conventional medicine cannot. By treating the whole person, acupuncture and herbs do not just relieve the symptoms but also aid conception. Remember that these are natural therapies, requiring patience from the patient, and may take 6-15 months to get the body to fully shift into a new “norm” of functioning correctly. The healthy journey to wellness and parenthood is worth it.
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Ellis, Andrew. Notes from South Mountain: a Guide to Concentrated Herb Granules. Thin Moon Pub., 2003.
Lyttleton, Jane. Treatment of Infertility with Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone, 2004.
“TCM to Treat Infertility.” Pacific College, 8 Jan. 2019, www.pacificcollege.edu/news/blog/2014/06/28/tcm-treat-infertility.