Spring is the season of new life. Flowers bloom, plants bear fruit, and baby animals emerge. What better time then, to discuss our own reproductive health?

Current figures estimate one in six couples experience difficulty conceiving. Whether this is due to an underlying medical condition (think polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis or hormone imbalance) or ‘unexplained’ infertility, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can help. More and more couples and individuals are turning to Chinese medicine as a safe and natural stand-alone treatment option, or as a complement to Western medical interventions including IVF. Research published in the British Medical Journal has found acupuncture alone can increase pregnancy rates of people using IVF by up to 65%.

How can acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine boost fertility and increase the likelihood of a viable pregnancy?

– Hormone regulation – addressing conditions like PCOS, encouraging a healthy menstrual cycle and an increase in the number of follicles produced

– Improving ovarian function and more viable eggs

– Increasing sperm count and motility

– Encouraging blood flow to the uterus – healthy endometrial lining is crucial for embryo implantation and to support a full-term pregnancy

– Discouraging uterine contraction and supporting a pregnancy to ‘hold,’ reducing likelihood of miscarriage

– Countering side effects of western medical drugs used in IVF

– Reducing stress, improving sleep and increasing energy levels

– In later stages of pregnancy (from 36 weeks), preparing the body for labour

– Natural induction – at 38-40 weeks (depending on the individual case), acupuncture treatments gently encourage uterine contraction to induce labour

Nutrition and supplements

It is best to consult with a registered practitioner to devise a tailored treatment plan. For general health and fertility however, we should aim to eat whole foods as much as possible. Eat in abundance fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains and drink plenty of room temperature filtered water. Limit packaged and processed foods and refined sugar. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes. For healthy hormones we need ample protein and good fats. Avoid trans-fats and most seed oils. Go for olive oil, sesame oil, avocado, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, and good quality eggs, meat, fish and chicken (organic if possible). Most patients will benefit from supplementing with Co-enzyme Q10, fish oil and a good multivitamin (particularly if coming off the oral contraceptive pill). Maca powder and super greens including spirulina, chlorella and barley grass can be incorporated to supercharge your nutrient intake.

The bigger picture

When it comes to fertility and Chinese medicine, we’re concerned with much more than egg meeting sperm, forming an embryo and implanting in the lining of the uterus. We look at the bigger picture and ensure both parents are in top quality health prior to conception. Think about our bodies as fertile gardens for growing a healthy baby. The foundational soil – that is, the health of both mother and father – needs to be as balanced and nutrient-dense as possible to support a viable pregnancy.

During my clinical internship at Nanjing Jiangsu Provincial Hospital in China I saw many women and couples in generally good health presenting to the gynaecological department for ‘preconception care.’ Commonly they were thinking about beginning a family within the next six to twelve months and were interested in working on any areas of imbalance in their general health to lay the best possible foundation for raising a healthy child – from pregnancy, through delivery and continuing post-partum. In Chinese medicine we talk about the concept of pre-natal and post-natal Qi (or vital energy): that which we are born with, and that which we replenish with the foods and drinks we consume and the kind of lifestyle we lead, including sleep, exercise, stress, emotional and spiritual wellbeing. Interestingly, the Chinese medical philosophy is that pre- and post-natal Qi are equally weighted, meaning half of our total possible reserve of vital energy and essence for our lifetime is inherited directly from our parents.

You can understand why as a Chinese medicine doctor I very much appreciate the luxury of a few months, preferably up to a year, working with parents-to-be on their health before they try to conceive. This usually puts couples and individuals in better stead for looking after themselves and each other during pregnancy and in the exciting and often overwhelming period of adjustment that follows delivery of their newborn.