Your TTC Strategy 7: Learn about Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Some last thoughts before you try to get pregnant

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Want to enhance your fertility without invasive procedures? Who wouldn’t? Learn about complementary and alternative medicine practices that can improve your odds of conceiving faster, or help you over obstacles to fertility.

Modern medicine can certainly inspire awe. In vitro fertilization labs and sophisticated ultrasound scanning machines appear very impressive and reassuring when you are struggling to conceive a child. However, even though the effectiveness of reproductive technology has improved dramatically, more patients than ever before are turning to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) either as an alternative to conventional medicine or in combination with it.

CAM involves much more than the personal touch: Research has shown that CAM can enhance the fertility of patients when used in conjunction with traditional fertility therapies. Acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal therapy, hypnosis, nutritional counseling, and stress reduction have all been evaluated for their impact on fertility.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy used to treat thousands of ailments and is one of the most studied of CAM procedures. Traditional Chinese Medicine treats the body as a whole. When a woman receives acupuncture care for fertility, the entire picture of her health is taken into consideration. Traditional acupuncture therapy is believed to regulate spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical balance. Acupuncture can be given regularly during attempting conception, for several weeks before a treatment cycle, or immediately before and after an embryo transfer procedure.

The use of acupuncture has been shown in some studies to improve pregnancy rates. In a 2001 study, 42.5 percent of the group treated with acupuncture became pregnant, whereas only 26.3 percent of the non-treated group became pregnant. It is thought that the increase in pregnancy rate is due to stress reduction, decreasing the contractility of the uterus, normalizing hormones that regulate ovulation, and improving blood flow to the pelvic organs.

Acupuncture may also help male infertility. In a study published in Fertility and Sterilityin 2005, researchers analyzed sperm samples from men with infertility of unknown cause before and after acupuncture treatments. They found that acupuncture was associated with fewer structural defects in sperm and an increase in the number of normal sperm.

Hypnosis

Like acupuncture, hypnosis has a long history. It has been included in Western medicine since the late 1800s, when doctors used it to help sedate patients before surgery. The process of hypnosis usually begins when a trained therapist asks a person to focus his or her attention on a specific point or idea. This results in a sleep- or trance-like state in which the patient is more receptive to suggestions. One study demonstrated that when used with in vitro fertilization (IVF), the success rate in those who had undergone hypnosis was significantly better than those who had not (53.1 percent versus 30.2 percent).

Herbal Therapies

Herbal therapies have been shown to both decrease and increase fertility, depending on the dose and the herbs used. For this reason, you should only work with a practitioner familiar with all aspects of herbal therapy.

Herbs that have commonly been used for fertility enhancement include vitex (chasteberry), dong quai, false unicorn root, and wild yam. Recently, two herbal and nutritional blends have become available that have been demonstrated in studies to improve fertility for both men and women: FertilityBlend® and FertilAid®.

There are some herbs that should be avoided. One study raised the question about St. John’s wort, echinacea, and ginkgobeing harmful to sperm. Various sources have recommended avoiding barberry, bloodroot, calamus, cascara sagrada, fennel, flaxseed, goldenseal, juniper, lavender, licorice root, mayapple, mistletoe, passion flower, pennyroyal (a strong uterine stimulant!), periwinkle, poke root, rhubarb, sage, St. John’s wort, tansy, thyme, wild cherry, wormwood, and yarrow during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle or during pregnancy.

Nutrition

In a very large observational study, in which more than 18,000 women were evaluated for the role of diet on fertility, several key differences were found. These differences are now known as “The Fertility Diet”. The diet plan described with The Fertility Diet doesn’t guarantee a pregnancy any more than traditional fertility treatments but it’s available to everyone, and has no side effects. It helps you start eating right for a healthy pregnancy, and forms the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.

Stress Reduction

There is no doubt that infertility causes stress, but can stress cause infertility? In research published in the journal Human Reproduction, doctors compared pregnancy rates in couples who reported their stress levels as high or low. What they found: Pregnancy was much more likely to occur during months when couples reported feeling “good”—happy and relaxed. It was less likely to occur during the months they reported feeling tense or anxious.

It is possible to control stress through deep abdominal breathing, meditation, yoga, visualization, exercise, and cognitive behavioral therapy. A study published in Fertility and Sterility in 2000 found that about half of the women in either a support group or a cognitive-behavioral group became pregnant, compared with only 20 percent in a control group. What we know is that when stress-reduction techniques are employed, something happens in some women that allows them to get pregnant when they couldn’t get pregnant before.

Sleep

Lack of sleep may lead to menstrual irregularity—a factor that can delay the time it takes to conceive. When researchers polled women in notoriously sleep-deprived professions—flight attendants and nurses working the late shift—half of the women reported irregular menstrual cycles(compared to about 20 percent of the general population). Some stopped ovulating altogether. This tells us that you should honor your personal sleep needs. The average is about eight hours per night.

Light

Our daily light exposure has an influence on ovulation and reproductive hormones. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, Sleep Lab have successfully been able to alter the length of women’s menstrual cycles by exposing them to artificial light around the middle of their cycles, while they slept. It appears that the hormones that trigger ovulation, and even the sperm maturation process, are somehow tied into the body’s biological clock. The calibrated release of sleep-wake hormones such as melatonin and cortisol is triggered, in part, by information given to the brain by its “light meter,” the pineal gland. Since the same part of the brain that regulates sleep-wake hormones also stimulates daily pulses of reproductive hormones for men and women, scientists suspect some feedback between these systems. Therefore, it is recommended that you get as much sunlight possible and avoid night shift work when trying to conceive. (Learn more about hormones and light exposure here.)

Manual Therapy

This is a relatively new infertility treatment that uses pelvic physical therapy to decrease adhesions and increase the function of reproductive organs without surgery or drugs. In one study, 71 percent of women, who had been attempting to conceive for at least a year, became pregnant on their own within one year of receiving therapy. Women who underwent therapy before IVF reported a clinical pregnancy rate of 67 percent compared to the 41 percent in the control group. The treatment is intense: 20 hours of manual therapy during a week at the center.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to patient care. What is beneficial to one person may be the wrong fit for the next. Although evidence-based studies are still emerging for treatments such as acupuncture and relaxation approaches, more infertility programs are opening their doors and their referrals to CAM. Accompanying this concept of treating the whole person is the paradigm of collaborative care in the treatment of the patient. A team approach, with a team comprising a physician, nurse, mental health professional, acupuncturist, yoga instructor, or other professional, represents the new model for providing patient care.

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