The inability to conceive can be one of the most distressing times in a woman’s life. The longer she tries, the more disheartened she becomes. The stress of undergoing various diagnostic procedures and treatments can itself inhibit her ability to become pregnant and/or carry to term. For this reason, Chinese Medicine offers a wonderful alternative or complement to standard medical treatments. Chinese Medicine approaches infertility the way it approaches all medical complaints, which is through the lens of a person’s overall health.
According to the principles of Chinese Medicine, the reproductive system (or bao gong) requires three things to function smoothly:
1) There must be sufficient substance available to create an embryo. Substance here refers to the Kidney yin and blood. Think of a potter. In order to create a bowl, she first needs enough clay with which to form the bowl and the water she uses to keep the clay moist. Symptoms of deficient yin and blood are symptoms of not enough substance, not enough moisture: dry skin and hair, tight muscles, anxiety, restlessness, heart palpitations, insomnia, dizziness, visual disturbances, vaginal dryness, low back pain, night sweats and thirst. Often women with this pattern will have scanty periods or anovulatory disorders. Men with yin deficiency may have decreased sperm production. Stress can deplete the Kidney yin, and this is why often the first goal of treatments is to alleviate stress and provide relaxation.
2) There must be enough activating force to transform the yin substance into life. This activating force can be called Kidney yang and qi. For our potter, this is the movement of her hands as she shapes the clay and the motion created by the spinning wheel. Symptoms of yang deficiency are symptoms of low function or decreased metabolism and may include: fatigue, coldness, depression, inability to lose weight, loose stools, listlessness, low back pain, frequent urination, weakness of the limbs and poor appetite. Women with this pattern may have prolonged periods and they may have a low basal body temperature. They may ovulate but may not be able to create the heat (think progesterone) to be able to support fertilization and implantation. Men with yang deficiency may have poor sperm motility or even impotence. In this case, the first goal of treatment is to warm the Kidney in order to activate the function of reproduction, which is similar to stimulating hormonal response.
3) There must be open channels. In Chinese Medicine, qi, blood, yin and yang all flow through pathways (think rivers and streams) in the body. In order for the reproductive system to function well, these pathways must be open and free from obstruction. The potter’s wheel must turn smoothly and consistently. If the wheel becomes unbalanced, the bowl will become too misshapen and eventually collapse. Usually, the first pathological change that can lead to blockage in the channels is the stagnation of qi. Qi is the life-force that circulates through the channels and allows our body to function. It’s circulation can become impeded by emotional trauma or prolonged frustration, lack of exercise, or physical trauma. When the qi is stagnant, we may see functional obstructions like irregular periods, breast distention and pelvic pain. At this stage Western medical tests typically show no cause for infertility. However, because smooth qi circulation is needed for proper blood circulation, long-term stagnation of qi can lead to stagnation of blood. Once this happens, physical changes can be seen, ranging from blood clots in the menstrual flow to closed fallopian tubes and uterine fibroids. Men with these conditions may be more prone to headaches, digestive problems and may show abnormal sperm morphology (or shape). Acupuncture and herbal medicine combined can often help to facilitate the return of smooth circulation to the qi and blood.
Most women and men who come for treatment of infertility have a combination of the above patterns, making treatment quite complex. However, using these basic principles to treat infertility with acupuncture and herbs has been shown to be very effective, both with and without the kinds of powerful drug protocols required by more standard approaches. Of course, every person will respond in her own way, depending on their constitution, age, health status and willingness to follow the prescribed course of treatment. The length of treatment will vary depending on the diagnosis, but your practitioner should be able to tell you what to expect at the outset. For some people, radical lifestyle changes are required. Chinese medicine may not be able to overcome the effects of competing in marathons, or working 80 hours per week. These activities simply expend too much qi and yin to create the quiet and nourishing atmosphere a healthy embryo requires.
While no method of treatment is suitable for everyone, Chinese medicine offers most patients a logical place to begin the treatment of infertility. It is relatively noninvasive, often effective and very safe. In contrast to patients who use standard care alone and are often left feeling frazzled and exhausted, those using Chinese Medicine report a sense of improved overall well-being and improvement in physical symptoms whether or not they eventually conceive.