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Boost Fertility with Natural and Complementary Therapies
Western medicine excels at harvesting eggs, fertilizing those eggs and growing embryos. But when it comes to increasing the chances of conception through optimal physical health, the tides are turning east to methods like acupuncture for fertility and more.
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Tricia Blechman of Manhattan Beach, California, was 36 and ready to expand her family when doctors discovered her reproductive system had shut down. Her 3-year-old son had been diagnosed with glycogen storage disease, a condition that required around-the-clock care. After more than two years trying to come to terms with her son’s illness, and catering to his every need, Blechman was emotionally and physically spent.
“My doctor was giving me the maximum dose of medication and I still wasn’t producing enough eggs,” says Blechman. “I went through three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) and never made it past egg retrieval.” But it wasn’t until Blechman visited a mind/body therapist that she realized how depressed and stressed she had become.
Blechman is one of a growing number of women who turn to complementary therapies in their quest for conception. In fact, according to a recent survey, nearly one-third of infertility patients supplement conventional medical treatment with some form of complementary therapy. And while there is little or no scientific proof of the efficacy of these alternatives, their popularity is a signal that patients want more control, says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of The Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston, Massachusetts.
Read on to learn about just a few therapies that are taking center stage:
An integral part of Chinese medicine, acupuncture is based on the idea that energy flows through invisible pathways called meridians. During a treatment, the acupuncturist stimulates certain areas along these meridians with needles, helping direct the flow of energy.
“Acupuncture can improve blood flow to the ovaries, thicken the uterine lining and enhance implantation,” says Brandon Horn, PhD, JD, LAc, FABORM, adjunct professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, clinical professor at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles and clinician at the Eastern Center for Complementary Medicine in Los Angeles, California. “It can also help protect the ovaries from damage and reduce the rate cells die off.”
The practice gained momentum in the western world when a German study of 160 women undergoing IVF found that those who received acupuncture before and after embryo transfer had a 50 percent higher success rate than those who went through IVF without the needles. Now some reproductive endocrinologists even offer pre-and post-embryo transfer treatments as part of their IVF packages. Unfortunately, not all studies agree. Dr. Domar and her colleagues recently tried to replicate the results of the German study and found no effect of acupuncture on pregnancy rates.
Even if acupuncture doesn’t increase the chances of conception, studies show it does reduce stress, anxiety and depression to the same degree as some pharmaceuticals, and improves optimism to boot. “At the very least, patients feel better and that’s a great thing to have when you’re going through infertility treatments,” says Dr. Domar.
Before you sign up with a practitioner, make sure the person is certified by the American Board of Oriental and Reproductive Medicine (aborm.org), suggests Dr. Horn. And if you’re using acupuncture in conjunction with IVF, visit ivfacupuncture.com, for a list of practitioners who are specifically trained in IVF pre- and post-transfer protocols.
If you imagine yourself slowly sucking on a very tart, juicy lemon, you start to salivate, right? That’s the mind and body at work together. If you can make your body salivate with your mind, it’s not unreasonable to think you can control your hormones the same way. During guided imagery, a trained therapist (or audio recording) guides you through a visualization exercise to produce physiological changes in the body. You might imagine a place that you love or mentally rehearse a desired outcome (like successful conception). Therapists like Belleruth Naparstek at healthjourneys.com and Jennifer Bloome at anjionline.com have a variety of fertility-related meditation CDs to help you get started.
“Unfortunately, many women facing infertility negative-future fantasize,” says Paula Dowd, MA, CC, mind/body clinician in Redondo Beach, California. “By preparing for the worst, they somehow think they’ll be able to handle disappointment better. But the truth is, they’ll be disappointed either way. So when you’re out there dabbling in fantasy and making up your future, win!”
Guided imagery can also be interactive, where therapists guide patients into a hypnotic state so they can interact with images that arise, which may provide insight about the cause of infertility.
Herbal medicine involves using plants or parts of plants (roots, stems, flowers, bark and seeds) to improve egg quality, regulate menstrual cycles, increase sperm counts and strengthen reproductive organs. Herbs come in a number of forms ranging from extracts and infusions to capsules, tablets and ointments. While they are considered “natural,” they contain powerful compounds and should not be taken without physician supervision.
“Herbs are an indispensible part of treatment for many acupuncturists who are knowledgeable about them,” says Dr. Horn. “However, herbs are powerful medicine, and just like pharmaceuticals, if you don’t have the proper training, you can end up with unwanted effects.” Herbs that stimulate progesterone, for example, work almost like birth control when they’re used throughout the cycle. Similarly, estrogenic herbs can interfere with the body’s own production of estrogen. So arbitrarily taking herbs because they’re “good for fertility” is not a good idea. In fact, some experts claim herbs can do more harm than good.
“A lot of herbs coming from China are contaminated with lead and mercury,” says Dr. Domar. “We don’t know if they’re safe; we don’t know if they’re effective and we don’t know how they interact with fertility drugs.”
Any form of exercise releases endorphins, works the heart and strengthens the immune system. Yoga goes one step further by calming the central nervous system, and balancing hormones and metabolism—both of which become irregular under chronic stress. The practice also teaches you to breathe more deeply. In one study of 131 patients with mild-to-moderate stress, participating in a yoga-based exercise program significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety. With all of these coups, many practitioners have developed classes and DVDs specifically to enhance fertility.
“Yoga is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself to enhance your fertility,” says Dr. Horn, who is just one of the practitioners behind a new a set of yoga DVDs called Restoring Fertility, which includes four different routines (one for each phase of the cycle). “But like any powerful intervention, yoga also has the potential to cause harm if it’s done incorrectly. For example, doing certain poses during menstruation can cause blood to reflux back into the fallopian tubes and abdominal cavity,” and that can compromise fertility.
Up to 50 percent of women who walk into a reproductive endocrinologist’s office are suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder, according to Dr. Domar’s “Infertility and the Mind/Body Connection” in The Female Patient (2005). Studies show that women who experience the least distress are 93 percent more likely to give birth than those who experience the most stress. So the key is to relax, a seemingly impossible task when you’re disappointed month after month, or facing infertility treatments. Time to take a deep breath!
The brainchild of Dr. Domar, mind/body fertility programs teach women (and often their partners) 10 different relaxation techniques in a supportive group environment (though one-on-one coaching is available, too). “Data from around the world shows that when women with infertility go through mind/body protocols, their stress levels go down and their pregnancy rates go up,” says Dr. Domar whose own research shows that approximately 45 percent of patients conceive within six months of completing a 10-week mind/body program.
Each week, participants learn to manage stress with strategies like deep breathing, journaling, meditation and cognitive restructuring, a process that challenges destructive thoughts and shifts them with a reality check. Blechman used this technique to come to terms with her son’s illness. “I kept thinking, ‘Have I caused this?’ I was blaming myself,” she says. Cognitive restructuring helped her accept the fact that her son’s condition was not her fault.
“The program allowed me to take time out for myself,” says Blechman, “something I had put on hold since having my son.” In the process, she was able to build back up her body’s reserves. In fact, just two months after completing the mind/body program with Dowd, Blechman conceived naturally. “I still use the skills I learned in the program, like deep breathing, cognitive restructuring and journaling,” she says. They come in handy when she’s frazzled, which happens a bit more now that baby Reece has joined the family.
Complementary Therapies You Can Do On Your Own
Infertility affects every facet of a woman’s life from her physical and emotional health to her social connections and love life. And with so much emotionally, financially and physically riding on success, it’s no wonder infertility patients are stressed! In fact, studies show that women who are undergoing fertility treatments and people who are facing a cancer diagnosis are equally stressed. Here, a few tips to help you relax:
- Build awareness. “Most of us are so disconnected from our bodies we don't even realize we’re stressed,” says Dowd. That’s where Biodots come in. When adhered to the skin, these little dots act almost like mood rings, changing color according to your stress level. So, if your Biodot is black, you know you're stressed.” And once you have that information, you can change the color of your Biodot by slowing down and taking a few deep breaths.
- Strike a pose. Lie on your back in a pose called shavasana with your arms spread out to the sides or slightly up so there’s a small amount of tension in the chest. Then make thumbs like Fonzie, says Dr. Horn.
- Touch your heart or your belly. Touching your heart or belly shifts your attention away from your thoughts (which is where stress originates) and into your body (where you can tap into your intuition). Then breathe deep. “Breathing is the cheapest, greatest tool on the planet,” says Dowd. Even one deep breath can start to change the way you feel.
- Write it out. When you need an emotional release, pull out a notebook. Writing out your worries can help you work through problems, and see things in a new light.
- Let go. While you may not be able to plunk yourself down on the sandy shores of the Riviera, you can observe a beautiful sunset in your mind. “Close your eyes and go to a place you love—a place that you find particularly peaceful,” says Dowd. Then relax and let go!