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An Eastern medicine approach to treating infertility

SEATTLE – Considering acupuncture for fertility? Here is advice from Stephanie Gianarelli, founder of Acupuncture Northwest and Associates:

  • Find an ABORM certified practitioner (member of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine), meaning they specialize in treating infertility
  • Find a practitioner who DOES work with Western doctors. The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • If you don't like your acupuncturist, find another one.  In Western medicine, if you have a bad experience with a doctor, you find another one- you don't stop seeing doctors altogether. It's the same idea with eastern medicine.
  • There may be needles involved with acupuncture, but Stephanie says treatments really aren't that painful! The needles are about the width of a human hair.

Does stress cause infertility? Read below for how eastern medicine answers this question.

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When it comes to the topic of fertility treatments, it's often easy to forget that Western medicine isn't the only approach. For us, acupuncture was a big part of our path to become parents through infertility, (our full story HERE) and many people turn to eastern medicine on their path to parenthood. You may be surprised to learn what those needles can actually do when the worlds of Western and Eastern medicine work together.

A calming atmosphere, with soothing sounds (and several needles). This is what most of us picture when we think of acupuncture. But for many people, it's also a tool to help build their families.

"Western medicine is getting so good at fertility treatments, that the piece we can add is what can we do before we get there," says Stephanie Gianarelli, founder of Acupuncture Northwest. "How do you get them as healthy as possible so that they can either conceive naturally or their IVF goes better."

As a Chinese medicine practitioner, Stephanie specializes in acupuncture for fertility, and describes Eastern medicine as "preventative" medicine.

The needles themselves, you may be relieved to hear, are only as wide as a human hair. But they can do so much. "We're giving the body a suggestion, depending on what points you use, on how the body can come back into balance," Stephanie explains. "All it is, is a suggestion for the body to heal itself... by putting a needle in!"

Eastern medicine sessions begin a bit differently than a traditional Western medicine session. Stephanie begins by checking different pulse points and interviewing the patient. This information then helps her decide where to place the needles based on the 'energy' of organs like the kidneys.

"I call it your fertility bank account," Stephanie says of the kidneys. "Some people are low- and if we can build that up... then they'll have a better chance to conceive."

In Eastern medicine, the kidneys and the liver both play an important role in fertility. The liver, Stephanie tells us, is in charge of cycle regulation, which plays a big factor in trying to get pregnant.

But it's not just about needles- supplements and Chinese herbs are also part of a well-rounded Chinese medicine approach to infertility. And if you're still skeptical as to whether any of this might actually work, consider Stephanie's answer when I asked how long Eastern and Western medicine had been around:

"Western medicine's a bit of an upstart - and they've been around ... 200 years," Stephanie says. "Chinese medicine has been around a minimum of 5,000."

But again, she advocates for both Eastern and Western medicine working together. In fact, Stephanie co-authored a book with Dr. Lora Shahine, a Western doctor featured in our series, called Planting the Seeds of Pregnancy: Your Guide to Improving Egg Quality and Fertility Potential Using Eastern Wisdom and Western ScienceClick the link to purchase on Amazon!

Learn more about Acupuncture Northwest and Associates (they have offices in Seattle and Tacoma).

Does stress cause infertility?

-In Western medicine, they haven't been able to scientifically link stress to infertility as a direct cause (which doesn't mean Western doctors don't advise finding ways to manage stress - click here for more on the Western approach).

-Here's what Stephanie says about the Eastern medicine perspective on stress and fertility:

"Stressed out people get pregnant all the time. So first of all, stress doesn't affect everyone the same way... I might get a stomachache, and you might not be able to sleep. And someone else might not be able to have a kid," Stephanie says. "When I think it mostly affects people is when they're in fight-or-flight mode a lot, and their adrenals are producing cortisol a lot. And that is a kidney symptom."

Kidney energy/function is a big part of fertility in Chinese medicine, and Stephanie says she thinks science will eventually find a correlation between stress and how it impacts fertility because they are already seeing other ways in which stress can impact the body.

For those wondering on some of the studies done to support eastern medicine and acupuncture, Stephanie has provided this list of references:

1.      Hullender Rubin LE, Opsahl MS, Wiemer KE, Mist SD, Caughey AB: Impact of whole systems traditional Chinese medicine on in vitro fertilization outcomes. Reprod Biomed Online 2015, 30(6):602-612.

2.      Magarelli P, Cridennda D, Cohen M: Changes in serum cortisol and prolactin associated with acupuncture during controlled ovarian hyperstimulation in women undergoing in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer treatment. Fertility & Sterility 2009, 92(6):1870-1879.

3.      Smith C, Coyle M, Norman RJ: Influence of acupuncture stimulation on pregnancy rates for women undergoing embryo transfer. Fertility and Sterility 2006, 85(5):1352-1358.

4.      de Lacey S, Smith CA, Paterson C: Building resilience: a preliminary exploration of women's perceptions of the use of acupuncture as an adjunct to In Vitro Fertilisation. BMC Altern Med 2009, 9:50.

5.      Domar AD, Meshay I, Kelliher J, Alper M, Powers RD: The impact of acupuncture on in vitro fertilization outcome. Fertility & Sterility 2009, 91(3):723-726.

6.      Balk J, Catov J, Horn B, Gecsi K, Wakim A: The relationship between perceived stress, acupuncture, and pregnancy rates among IVF patients: a pilot study. Complement Ther Clin Pract 2010, 16(3):154-157.

7.      Isoyama D, Cordts EB, de Souza van Niewegen AM, de Almeida Pereira de Carvalho W, Matsumura ST, Barbosa CP: Effect of acupuncture on symptoms of anxiety in women undergoing in vitro fertilisation: a prospective randomised controlled study. Acupunct Med 2012, 30(2):85-88.

8.      Cheong YC, Dix S, Hung Yu Ng E, Ledger WL, Farquhar C: Acupuncture and assisted reproductive technology. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2013(7).

9.      Manheimer E, van der Windt D, Cheng K, Stafford K, Liu J, Tierney J, Lao L, Berman BM, Langenberg P, Bouter LM: The effects of acupuncture on rates of clinical pregnancy among women undergoing in vitro fertilization: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Human reproduction update 2013, 19(6):696-713.

10.    Lim CE, Ng RW, Xu K, Cheng NC, Xue CC, Liu JP, Chen N: Acupuncture for polycystic ovarian syndrome. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2016(5):Cd007689.