How Does Acupuncture Help Fertility?

Ancient and Modern Theories on Why Acupuncture May Improve Fertility

Woman receiving acupuncture treatment
Acupuncture can reduce stress in the body, and this may help boost fertility. Science Photo Library - ADAM GAULT/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Acupuncture is one of the most popular forms of alternative medicine used to improve fertility and possibly treat infertility. But how exactly is sticking little needles into the body supposed to help you get pregnant? How does it work?

There are two ways to ways to answer this question. We can answer this question from the so-called Eastern perspective. In other words, with what traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) say about acupuncture and fertility.

We can also answer the question from the Western point of view: What does the medical research suggest about acupuncture? How can acupuncture help those with infertility?

How Acupuncture May Work, According to Traditional Chinese Medicine

I asked Jill Blakeway—licensed acupuncturist, certified herbalist, Clinic Director of The YinOva Center in New York City, and co-author of the book Making Babies: A Proven Three Month Program for Maximum Fertility (Little Brown, 2009)—to explain how acupuncture works.

Classical Chinese philosophy, Blakeway says, teaches that we have channels of "energy" called meridians that run through our bodies.

"They are often compared to rivers running through the body, in order to nourish the tissues," she explains. "Stagnation in the flow of these energy rivers is like a dam that is backed up."

According to traditional Chinese medicine, disruption of the flow can lead to physical and emotional illnesses, including infertility. These meridians can be affected by needling specific points, also known as acupuncture points.

By needling the acupuncture points, the flow of the energy gets "unstuck" and is allowed to flow in a free and balanced way.

How Acupuncture May Work, According to the Current Research

Of course, the Western, scientific explanation is quite different. No one is sure how acupuncture works. But there are theories.

One theory is that by needling points on the body, chemicals and hormones are triggered and released.

"These chemicals either change the experience of pain, or they trigger a cascade of chemicals and hormones which influence the body's own internal regulating system," Blakeway says. "The improved energy flow and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture stimulates the body's natural healing abilities, and enhances physical and emotional well-being."

Research has shown specifically that acupuncture increases the amount of beta-endorphins flowing through the body. Beta-endorphins are feel-good hormones that help lessen pain.

Exercise is also known to boost the amount of beta-endorphins in the body. If you've ever experienced a "runner's high," you've enjoyed a boost of beta-endorphins.

But some interesting research on acupuncture points may imply that it's more than just beta-endorphins and hormones at play.

In a research study at UC Irvine, researchers used MRIs to look at the brain while patients received acupuncture treatment.

"Traditionally, acupuncturists have used a point on the little toe to address eye pain," says Blakeway. "The point is chosen because it is on the same meridian as the eye."

What's amazing is that in this study, when the point on the foot for eye pain was stimulated, the part of the brain that regulates vision lit up.

Acupuncture and Infertility

The research on acupuncture and infertility is ongoing, and the topic is controversial.

Some studies have been too small to prove a definitive connection to improved pregnancy rates, and some studies contradict each other in their results. Other studies question whether any benefits are simply a result of the placebo effect.

With that said, here are a few of possible benefits of acupuncture, according to the preliminary research:

Will acupuncture help you get pregnant? It's hard to say. Some have found that acupuncture reduces stress and anxiety, which at least may help you deal with infertility related stress.

If acupuncture's something you'd like to try, be sure to seek out a licensed acupuncturist. There are acupuncturists who specialize in fertility, and some are associated with fertility clinics. Ask your reproductive endocrinologist for a recommendation.

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