How does acupuncture help fertility?
There are a number of ways in which acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help with fertility and improve the success rate of IVF or other fertility treatments. The goal of acupuncture is to support and harmonize the body to encourage optimal health and function. The approach of Chinese medicine is to treat the whole person, both mind and body, identifying and correcting imbalances that are occurring in that individual. In this way, the patient receives both physical and emotional support during the fertility journey through an individualized treatment plan.
Acupuncture can improve circulation to the ovaries and uterus, thicken the uterine lining, improve ovary function, regulate hormones, boost immunity, and decrease the chance of miscarriage. In addition, acupuncture reduces stress and anxiety and can help minimize side effects of IVF medications.
One randomized clinical trial used acupuncture in patients with a decline in ovarian reserve that were undergoing IVF treatments. They found that acupuncture increased estradiol, antral follicle count, number of follicles retrieved, number of high-quality embryos, and fertilization rates. They also observed an improvement in implantation rate and clinical pregnancy rate, as well as a decrease in cycle cancellation rate. *1 Research suggests acupuncture can help with male infertility too! *2
What about Chinese Herbs?
Chinese herbal medicine has a long history and there are in fact more texts written about herbal medicine than about acupuncture. In some cases, an herbal formula (which is composed of a number of herbs that work synergistically together) will be recommended to help address disharmonies that have been identified in a patient. Most of the herbs are plant parts, many of which are common food items like cinnamon, ginger, licorice, fennel, and yam! Herbal formulas may be in the form of capsules, pills, or granules, which you drink like a tea.
One meta-analysis (which looked at 40 randomized controlled trials, including over 4000 women) found that women with infertility were nearly twice as likely to achieve pregnancy with Chinese herbal medicine than with western fertility drug therapy alone. This included women with PCOS, endometriosis, anovulation, fallopian tube blockage, or unexplained infertility. They also found ovulation rates, cervical mucus score, biphasic basal body temperature, and uterine lining thickness to be positively influenced by Chinese herbal medicine. *3
When and how often should you get acupuncture for fertility?
Because it takes three months to grow a follicle before ovulation, it is ideal to start acupuncture three months before you are hoping to conceive. This gives us time to work with the follicles from the very beginning of their growth, giving them the most support possible. This is of course not always possible, but the sooner you can start, the better. I generally recommend patients have acupuncture treatment once a week. Different herbs and acupuncture points may be chosen depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, and treatment can in this way help regulate the cycle and hormone levels.
Much research shows that acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer significantly increases success rates. *4 In fact, one well-known prospective randomized study found the clinical pregnancy rate for their group that received acupuncture shortly before and after embryo transfer to be nearly double that for the control group who received no acupuncture. *5
There is also research, however, showing the added benefits of starting acupuncture treatment before the day of embryo transfer. The first study mentioned above, which found an increase in estradiol, follicle count, follicles retrieved, embryo quality, as well as fertilization, implantation, and clinical pregnancy rates, used “menstrual-cycle based acupuncture therapy” where treatment was given based on the menstrual cycle twice a week for a total of 15 treatments before embryo transfer. *1
Another retrospective cohort study compared acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer only to “whole systems traditional Chinese medicine” which can include acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, dietary and lifestyle recommendations, all tailored to the individual. This study found that an average of twelve whole systems traditional Chinese medicine visits as well as acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer was associated with greater odds of live birth. *6 This study demonstrates the benefit of the individualized approach that Chinese medicine takes, as well as the importance of starting treatment as soon as possible.
As mentioned above, acupuncture not only improves success rates of fertility treatments but also reduces the stress and anxiety that are inevitably part of the process. One study found stress levels to be significantly lower in women that received more than one month of multiple acupuncture treatments before embryo transfer, versus acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer only.* 7
Where will the needles go and what are treatments like?
The needles used in acupuncture are very thin — almost as thin as a hair! — and nothing like the hypodermic needles you are used to from the doctor’s office or fertility clinic. I generally use 20 acupuncture needles or less for one treatment, and you should not experience pain. Most people find acupuncture very relaxing, and it is a wonderful opportunity to slow down and take some time for self-care.
Depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle, different acupuncture points will be used to support the natural progression of the cycle. At certain times needles will be placed on the lower abdomen, but there are also important points on the legs, feet, hands, and arms that will be used. I often also use auricular acupuncture points, which are points on the ear that have a very calming effect. Once the needles have been placed, you will rest for twenty to thirty minutes, after which you will likely feel more calm and rejuvenated. Don’t worry if it is your first time and you feel nervous, I am used to that and will proceed slowly to make sure you are comfortable!
If you have any questions about acupuncture and Chinese medicine, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask!
About Kate Iberg, DACM, LAc
Dr. Kate Iberg has worked with fertility patients in New Orleans since 2016 and is credentialed to provide acupuncture at Audubon Surgery Center for embryo transfer. She started her own practice, Healing Nature Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine, in July of 2019. She received her Doctorate of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago and San Diego.
Kate can be reached at 504-372-0012, or email@example.com.
1. Zhou L, Xia Y, Ma X, Tang L, Lu J, Tang Q, Wang Y. [Effects of “menstrual cycle-based acupuncture therapy” on IVF-ET in patients with decline in ovarian reserve]. Zhongguo Zhen Jiu, 2016; 36(1): 25-8.
2. Huang D, Huang G, Lu F, Stefan D, Andreas N, Robert G. Acupuncture for infertility: is it an effective therapy? Chin J Integr Med, 2011 May; 17(5): 386-95.
3. Ried K. Chinese herbal medicine for female infertility: An updated meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2015 Feb; 23(1): 116-128.
4. Manheimer E, Zhang G, Udoff L, Haramati A, Langenberg P, Berman B, Bouter L. Effects of acupuncture on rates of pregnancy and live birth among women undergoing in vitro fertilization: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ, 2008 March; 336:545.
5. Paulus WE, Zhang M, Strehler E, El-Danasouri I, Sterzik K. Influence of acupuncture on the pregnancy rate in patients who undergo assisted reproduction therapy. Fertility and Sterility, 2002 April; 77(4): 721-724.
6. Hullender Rubin LE, Opsahl MS, Wiemer K, Mist SD, Caughey AB. Impact of Whole Systems Traditional Chinese Medicine on In Vitro Fertilization Outcomes. Reprod Biomed Online. 2015 June; 30(6): 602-612.
7. Sutton C, Pentland S, Roberts J. A Comparison of Stress Levels in Women Undergoing Single Versus Multiple Acupuncture Session Prior to Embryo Transfer. Fertility and Sterility, 2015 February; 103(2): 36-37.