Say “om”: can alternative medicine help improve fertility?
In the United States alone, infertility affects between 7 and 17% of couples. Most women looking to improve their fertility go the medical route: assisted reproductive technology (ART) like in vitro fertilization. But a substantial minority of women turn to alternative methods like acupuncture, herbal treatments, special diets, yoga, or massage instead of, or in addition to, ART. Alternative medicine is often perceived as less expensive, more “natural,” or safer than more conventional medical choices.
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But how effective is alternative medicine at improving fertility? Does it really work? Let’s dive into the research.
Acupuncture: The evidence is mixed, but promising.
Results of studies examining the link between acupuncture and fertility are mixed.
One study from 2010 reports that there’s no increase in pregnancy rates for IVF patients also using acupuncture; in a group of 635 patients, ongoing pregnancy rates were 27% in the acupuncture group and 32% in the control group. Another study also found no significant change in pregnancy rates for IVF patients undergoing acupuncture treatment—but it did find that acupuncture offers patients a way to decrease anxiety and increase optimism during infertility treatment (more on that later). A 2008 meta analysis confirmed that there was no convincing support for the idea that acupuncture improves clinical pregnancy rate for IVF patients.
However, a meta analysis completed in 2012, came to a different conclusion, stating: “this review indicates that acupuncture improves CPR (clinical pregnancy rate) and LBR (live birth rate) among women undergoing IVF.” And yet another study found a moderate improvement in success rates for IVF patients using acupuncture, reporting that there are 4 possible “mechanisms” by which acupuncture could improve the outcome of IVF: increased blood flow to the uterus and ovaries, a positive influence on neuroendocrine function, support for the healthy function of cell messengers called “cytokines,” and the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression.
From these reports, it seems acupuncture as an alternative method could increase a woman’s chances of pregnancy, even while it reduces stress and anxiety.
(It’s worth a note that these studies looked only at women experiencing infertility and undergoing fertility treatment alongside their acupuncture. As far as we know, no one has yet studied the connection between acupuncture and fertility in women trying to get pregnant naturally.)
Learn more about acupuncture and fertility from an acupuncturist.
Diets: It depends on the person.
Can your diet affect your fertility? Only in certain cases.
For instance, we know severely underweight or overweight people often experience hormonal changes that decrease fertility. So there’s reason to believe that, for these women, undertaking a nutrition program to achieve a healthier weight can improve their fertility. (And according to ASRM, “more than 70% of women who are infertile as the result of body weight disorders will conceive spontaneously if their weight disorder is corrected.”)
Another specific example in which diet can affect pregnancy rates is for women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a common endocrine disorder that can cause infertility. Because PCOS is related to insulin resistance, and low-carb diets have been demonstrated to reduce insulin resistance, low-carb diets may improve all symptoms of PCOS, including infertility.
Additionally, there’s pretty clear evidence that correlates vitamin D levels with in vitro fertilization outcomes—but this is only important for women who have a vitamin D deficiency to begin with. Taking a bunch of vitamin D probably won’t help you if you already get a sufficient amount.
Generally, for most healthy women, there’s no evidence that a specific “fertility diet” can improve or increase their chance at pregnancy. As one study states, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ dietary intervention to boost fertility.”
Herbal medicine: Possibly—but proceed with caution.
Some studies have demonstrated improved pregnancy rates thanks to herbal medicine treatments. However, it’s also possible that—depending on a woman’s individual biology and other medical treatments she might be undergoing, including egg freezing—herbal medications could be counteractive or even harmful.
Here’s why: some herbal treatments have what we call “estrogenic properties,” meaning that they imitate the effects of estrogen in a woman’s body; using an herbal medicine that acts like estrogen and affects ovarian function can cause unwanted interactions, especially if a woman is taking other hormone-based medications. Some herbal medications can interfere with hormone testing, leading to confusion in the doctor’s office because of “false” test results. Still other herbs should not be taken during pregnancy.
The bottom line here: herbal medications may be natural, but that doesn’t automatically make them safe for every woman. Consult your doctor before undertaking any herbal regimen.
Yoga and massage:Not enough evidence to support their use for fertility, but they can be wonderful for mental health.
The idea behind the use of yoga and massage in treating infertility is that stress can affect fertility, and yoga and massage reduce stress. However, the amount of stress required to cause infertility is probably higher than what the majority of us experience as modern Americans, and even with careful research, it’s hard to determine if women who are more stressed have a harder time getting pregnant—or if women who have a hard time getting pregnant are more stressed, thanks to their fertility struggles.
That being said, there’s no evidence that yoga or massage increase fertility, but research does support the idea that yoga and massage—and acupuncture, as well—can help alleviate the stress, anxiety, and body-image conflicts sometimes brought on by a difficulty getting pregnant.
A study from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine states that, while “having less stress in your life…may not, in and of itself, result in a pregnancy,” “developing better coping strategies to manage stress…can help you feel more in control and improve your overall well-being.”
And as Dr. Joshua Klein, our chief clinical officer here at Extend Fertility, writes, “I tell my patients that if they can do things to reduce stress in their lives while trying to conceive, there is no doubt this is, at some level, a good thing, regardless of how much it improves their ability to conceive. But the one thing they should not do (and I have seen this happen many times) is to ‘stress’ over scheduling or making time for treatment [such as yoga or massage]; I can pretty much guarantee this will not be helpful at all.”
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