Guest post by Heather Smidt
Family building through assisted reproductive technology (ART) can be overwhelming for both your body and mind. Often, it might feel like there is no relief, and the stress can seem like it just keeps increasing at every new stage. Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine offers a resource that can be very beneficial during this time. Because it is a holistic medicine, it can help you both physically and mentally on your fertility journey.
If you’re not familiar with acupuncture and its benefits, I’ll break down some of the key information.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a physical treatment originating from Traditional Chinese Medicine that has existed for over 3,000 years. The practice focuses on using single use needles to move your qi (energy) through your body.
Qi can be thought of as the innate intelligence of the cellular body that organizes your body’s trillions of cells. When a needle is inserted into a particular spot, it brings the body and mind back to homeostasis by reestablishing the normal organization of cells.
Needle insertion excites receptors and/or nerve fibers in the associated tissues. This causes a response that is similar to exercise, where it can help to relieve pain by increasing blood flow in your body.
There are other theories to explain acupuncture that involve regulating the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system to promote a relaxation response. This is what brings about the significant benefit of relaxation from acupuncture, and why many patients often fall asleep during sessions.
Overall, acupuncture is a holistic medicine that impacts a multitude of systems. And this is why I find it so helpful for my patients going through fertility treatment. There are many noteworthy mental and physical health benefits from acupuncture for individuals using ART.
The Research on Acupuncture and Fertility Treatments
The Paulus study was one of the first studies on using acupuncture as a companion treatment for in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients. This study specifically looked at acupuncture 25 minutes prior to transfer and 25 minutes after transfer. It found that the acupuncture group had a 42.5% chance of pregnancy rates compared with the 26.3% chance of pregnancy that the non-acupuncture group had (Paulus et al.).
Since the publication of the Paulus study in 2002, there have been a number of other studies that have researched acupuncture and its effects on pregnancy rates and live birth outcomes. You will often find that these studies show some improvement in patient outcomes while using different methodology. Like the Paulus study, many of these studies only look at acupuncture right before an embryo transfer and immediately afterwards.
Acupuncture for Your IVF Cycle
What many of these studies don’t take into account is that acupuncture is not traditionally considered a one and done kind of treatment. For example, I suggest that my patients start sessions about 3 months before an IVF cycle, if possible. This way, we work to optimize their cycles and balance their hormones.
Once a patient begins stimulation medications, I like to see them twice a week. At this stage, we are asking the body to do the most work, and often see the most side effects from medications. Our goal is to use these sessions to support production of as many healthy and mature follicles as possible.
When my patients are at the transfer stage, I highly suggest they see me 24-48 hours prior to their transfer and/or 24-48 hours after their transfer. The focus here is on helping to bring blood to the uterus in order to thicken the endometrial lining. In addition, we open a special vessel in the body known as the Bao Mai. This vessel connects the heart to the uterus, and by opening this vessel prior to transfer, we help to create an optimal environment for conception.
Prior to their first blood test, I will continue to see my patients weekly in order to maintain a positive, relaxing environment and target specific points to lift and hold to help support potential for a healthy pregnancy.
As you look into this process further, you may find some variation between different acupuncture practices, similar to the variation in fertility medications depending on the patient or the clinic.
Acupuncture and Mental Health
Acupuncture offers a significant benefit to alleviating the stress that weighs on patients undergoing fertility treatments.
This emotional and mental toll is one of the most common symptoms I see in my patients, but acupuncture offers remarkable results in helping them cope with this increased stress. Acupuncture can create a better sense of wellbeing and “gave [patients] a psychological advantage through increased relaxation, reduced psychological stress, and enhanced well-being and self-efficacy” (de Lacey, S., et al.).
Recent research has shown higher pregnancy rates and a better quality of life in patients who use acupuncture. These patients have also reported immediate relief from side effects associated with IVF cycles (Gillerman K, et al.).
Everyone’s fertility journey is different, but most would agree that it can be psychologically draining. Acupuncture serves as a respite and offers relief both mentally and physically. One of the patients in the study referenced above stated:
“I just felt it reduced my stress levels and probably gave me a bit more energy than I might have had. It’s always hard to tell because you know I’m quite resilient and I can cope with a lot of stuff anyway, but I had a lot of stuff going on at work and [after acupuncture] I felt I was much better able to cope with things.”
From the mental health benefits to the physical relaxation that it provides, acupuncture gives fertility patients a mind/body practice to support them during their family building journey.
Heather Smidt Lic Ac, LMT, & Reiki Master Teacher is the owner of Wander Well Acupuncture in Lexington, MA. Her own four year fertility journey led her to specialize in women’s health, and she enjoys supporting couples on their family building journeys.
Lund, I., & Lundeberg, T. (2016). Mechanisms of acupuncture. Acupuncture and Related Therapies, 4(4), 26–30.
Paulus WE, Zhang M, Strehler E, El-Danasouri I, Sterzik K. Influence of acupuncture on the pregnancy rate in patients who undergo assisted reproduction therapy. Fertil Steril. 2002 Apr;77(4):721-4. doi: 10.1016/s0015-0282(01)03273-3. PMID: 11937123.
Smith, C. A., Armour, M., Shewamene, Z., Tan, H. Y., Norman, R. J., & Johnson, N. P. (2019). Acupuncture performed around the time of embryo transfer: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Reproductive BioMedicine & Society Online, 38(3), 364–379.
Gillerman K, Kulkarni A, Shah A, Gudi A, Homburg R. The impact of acupuncture on IVF success rates: A randomised controlled trial. Fertil Sci Res 2018;5:48-54
de Lacey, S., Sanderman, E., & Smith, C. A. (2021). IVF, acupuncture and mental health: a qualitative study of perceptions and experiences of women participating in a randomized controlled trial of acupuncture during IVF treatment. Reproductive BioMedicine & Society Online, 12, 22–31.