ABCs of Fertility: Acupuncture, Babies, Chinese Medicine Part 1
Many women get pregnant easily, but it is unlikely that they are reading this article. For other couples, having a baby may be more difficult and therefore frustrating. If you are having difficulty, undoubtedly you want to optimize the likelihood of a pregnancy by practicing informed, healthy, fertile choices.
In order to increase your chances of getting pregnant, you need to create an inviting environment for an embryo to implant and develop. In this article, I will go over: what to look for in a healthy menstrual cycle; diet suggestions; lifestyle tips to enhance fertility; and how acupuncture can have a powerful effect on the reproductive system, alone or in conjunction with Western medicine. In the second part of this series, I will explain how to effectively combine Western and Eastern medicine. These ideas, and the ones in Part 11, have suggestions that can be easily implemented.
A Healthy Menstrual Cycle
Awareness of your body always gives you power. Whether you are using Western medicine and manipulating your cycle with drugs or not using artificial means, it is essential to know what a healthy menstrual cycle looks like. An ideal cycle is regular; it lasts 28 days (25-35 days is a good range); it contains little PMS; most blood is bright red; and has no blood clots. But, there are also others things to look for.
The time period before ovulation is your follicular phase. This is the phase in which follicles grow and one follicle becomes dominant. At ovulation time, the dominant follicle releases an egg. The follicular phase is considered the yin part of the cycle in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
All women have cervical discharge throughout the month. The discharge is healthiest when it is clear to white, not any other color. The discharge that indicates fertility is called S-type and is that which begins approximately 6 days before ovulation with the rise of estrogen. This discharge will be clear, stretchy and have the consistency of raw egg white. A substantive discharge means increased fertility because it facilitates pathways for sperm to enter the uterus. This discharge is considered yin in nature. If you are lacking this type of cervical discharge, you might be yin deficient. (Later, in the Diet and Lifestyle Tips, note the tips that enhance yin). Drugs that dry up or interfere with cervical fluid are antihistamines, atropine, N-SAIDS, and antidepressants.
Ovulation is the release of the egg. The egg lives for 6-12 hours after it is released. The sperm lives for up to 5 days. The prime time to start engaging in intercourse would be 4-5 days prior to ovulation, 48 hours being the optimal time.
The phase after ovulation is the luteal phase. This phase is more yang in nature. (Check yang dietary suggestions and lifestyle tips).
Once you begin to bleed, Traditional Chinese Medicine says that you are most deficient and are more vulnerable. To avoid depletion while you are bleeding, keep your feet warm, don’t walk around the house barefoot, and don’t swim in cold water. While you are bleeding and right after, it is important to nourish your blood (check Diet and Lifestyle Tips for foods that nourish your blood)
Knowing your cycle allows you to encourage each phase to perform optimally.
In general for men and women, eat organic foods when possible and avoid meats that have been treated with hormones or fish that contains mercury. Women need to eat food with essential fatty acids, e.g., soy products and wild caught salmon. Essential fatty acids are also found in non-hydrogenated cold pressed oils like flaxseed, winter vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots, and all dark green vegetables. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. A Yale University School of Medicine study found that the risk of infertility was 55% higher for women drinking 1 cup of coffee per day, 100% higher for women drinking 1 and 1 ½ – 3 cups, and 176% higher for those drinking more than 3 cups of coffee per day.
Chinese medicine takes an energetic view of our bodies and our organs, meaning that bodily energy needs to move freely and stagnation causes problems. The energy of the kidney system is very important for reproduction.
For men and women, foods that nourish their kidney essence include: chicken or duck and eggs from both; seeds and nuts; oysters; seaweed and algae.
For women, certain foods help nourish your bodies during the different phases of your cycle.
Foods that nourish Yin include: fruits such as raspberries, pineapples and grapes; vegetables such as asparagus and beans; adequate proteins, especially tofu and fish; and organ meats such as kidneys, brains and hearts. Avoid spicy, pungent foods.
Foods that nourish Yang include warming foods: ginger; ginger tea; beans; grains; and vegetables such as mustard greens, winter squash, cabbage and kale. Avoid ice cold drinks, ice cream and foods that are very cold. In general, it is a good idea to avoid ice water and ice cream during pregnancy attempts.
Foods that nourish blood include: fruits such as blackberries, raspberries and grapes; organic meats and poultry; soup stock made from the bones of the meat and poultry; and vegetables such as turnips, spinach and dark, leafy greens.
For both men and women, try to get good amounts of sleep and limit stress. Of course, difficulties with fertility send stress skyrocketing but that makes it even more important to find ways to relieve stress. Meditation, yoga, relaxing with friends and any other calming activities that work for you are encouraged.
For men, skip saunas, hot tubs and tight clothes, all of which heat up sperm.
For women, enjoy the foods noted above, exercise as a stress reliever and to maintain health but don’t overdo it. Excessive exercise depletes Yin.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have a long history of benefiting fertility in many ways.
Benefits of acupuncture include:
- improved uterine lining
- increased blood flow to the uterus
- regulation of hormones
- reduction of stress associated with fertility problems
Recently a study demonstrated that sperm quality and motility was improved after the men received acupuncture treatments. The men treated experienced increased sperm motility levels, increased the number and percentage of healthy sperm, and significant improvements in sperm structure and quality as compared to a control group. An important German study that received notable attention in the American press showed that acupuncture significantly increased the effectiveness of IVF success. Impressively, pregnancies were documented in 34 out of 80 patients (42.5%) in the acupuncture group as compared to 21 out of 80 patients (26.3%) in the control group. Part II of this article will explain how to use Western infertility treatments and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) together.
It is advisable to begin acupuncture 3 months before attempting to get pregnant, but most women wait until they are actively trying to conceive. In my practice, I see women 2 times weekly until we get a positive pregnancy test result and 1 time weekly for the first trimester to reduce the risk of miscarriage.
The main goal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is to keep the body in balance or to restore balance. This is one reason why TCM is so effective with fertility which depends on a balanced body.