For thousands of years, Chinese medicine has been helping couples through all stages of pregnancy. The literature on the subject holds an immense amount of wisdom—some complex and some stunning in simplicity.
Manhattan-based Chinese medicine doctor Decheng Chen L.Ac. Ph.D., author of 15 books on acupuncture and Chinese medicine, recounted the story of one his patients, a 38-year-old Korean woman whose husband is a few years younger than she.
She had been through the gamut of conventional treatment but still had no success despite being in good health. When she decided to turn to Chinese medicine, she came to Dr. Chen. Along with many other questions, Dr. Chen also asked about her husband. In the course of conversation, it came up that he had been taking saunas weekly. Dr. Chen told her to have him stop these saunas because sperm may die in such extreme heat. The husband followed this advice and shortly after the woman became pregnant.
Of course, not all cases are so easy. Some may require months of sometimes daily treatment. But the good news is, the success rate is high. Dr. Chen said that he’s treated close to 70 couples with the women being 35-40 years old, an age where the chance of success using IVF alone is reported at less than 35 percent. With Chinese medicine, his patients had a 75 percent success rate.
“Chinese medicine gives a new window and doorway to hope,” Dr. Chen said.
The success of Chinese medicine for infertility is because it addresses blood circulation and lack of warmth (yang energy) in the womb.
Dr. Chen, who has been a Chinese medicine doctor for over 30 years and teaches at the New York College of Health Professions, said that poor circulation and a cold environment in the womb may prevent conception and may also cause miscarriage even after successful conception with IVF.
Important treatments for these are herbs that warm the body and acupuncture or acupressure on certain points on the body. Dr. Chen said he sometimes also uses a treatment called moxibustion in which a smoldering herb rolled in paper is held over certain points on the body to stimulate warmth and energy flow. Moxibustion is as old as acupuncture; in fact the Chinese word for acupuncture zhenjiu consists of two parts: zhen for needle and jiu for moxibustion, he said.
What particular treatments a couple receives depends entirely on their unique situation. In Chinese medicine, a doctor must get to the root of an illness or disorder. This is because, unlike Western medicine, which tends to treat similar symptoms in the same way, Chinese medicine recognizes that patients with the same symptoms may have very different causes. And conversely, patients with very different symptoms may have a similar root cause.
This is why Dr. Chen holds very long first appointments, so he can learn the details of patients’ medical history and lifestyle. And if he is not satisfied with what he’s able to glean with traditional diagnostics, he asks patients to get further testing such as blood work or an ultrasound.
Lifestyle is very important when a woman wants to become pregnant, Dr. Chen said. She may need to change her eating and sleeping habits because poor nutrition, stress, painkillers, alcohol, and too little sleep can impair fertility. The husband sometimes also needs to make corresponding changes.
Being overweight and using birth control long-term can also make it challenging for a woman to become pregnant, he said.
What Conditions Can Chinese Medicine Help?
In addition to improving blood circulation in the uterus and treating polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Chinese medicine can help women that have abnormal menstruation or have poor-quality or few eggs. It is also effective for hormone imbalances, inflammation, endometriosis, and polyps.
Being a holistic and comprehensive system, Chinese medicine has protocols to help nourish and strengthen a woman’s body and reproductive system so that she is able to carry the baby to term. It can also alleviate morning sickness, support the immune system through colds and flu, and reduce labor pains.
However, many hospitals don’t allow Dr. Chen to give treatments after a woman in labor is admitted, so he usually gives acupuncture for pain in the early stages.
Chinese medicine also has a special herbal formula (Si Wu Tang) that women can take after birth to help clean out the uterus, Dr. Chen said.
Why It Works
To a Western-trained mind, the mechanisms of Chinese medicine can seem a little mysterious with the talk of hot and cold (yang and yin), qi (life energy) and organ systems that encompass more than the physical organs of the same names. Dr. Chen said that even his Chinese students sometimes have difficulty understanding until he shares an anecdote or example to illustrate.
Dr. Chen compares acupuncture to a key starting a car. Even if a car is in good working order and has plenty of gas, it still needs the key to start. For example, certain acupuncture points can stimulate ovary function, revving the specific energy the body needs for conception.
Because Chinese medicine has such a long history, Dr. Chen said no one knows how many of the formulas and protocols came to be, and unlike Western medicine, there are not always extensive scientific studies that verify results. In addition, even when studies are conducted, the evaluation criteria used and the questions asked sometimes have limiting assumptions from Western medicine and are not able to fully and fairly verify the results of Chinese medicine treatments.
So the best proof of efficacy is—in the case of fertility treatments—in the children. And the hope is in the stories like that of Grace, (not her real name), who at age 43 had failed IVF and was not menstruating. Doctors had told her that if she wanted children she needed to use donor eggs. She didn’t want to do this so she came to Dr. Chen. After three months of treatments at Dr. Chen’s, her period returned; after six months she was ready for IVF again. This time it was successful and she gave birth to a baby boy.
And by far hers is not an isolated case. Dr. Chen said that now fertility doctors send patients to him because they know he will improve their success rate.
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