*This post was written by Laura Erlich, licensed acupuncturist and integrative fertility specialist at Mother Nurture Wellness.
One of the fundamentals of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is its holistic and well-rounded approach to health and wellness. The ability to see the body as a whole (rather than as a sum of its parts) and the perspective that we as individuals are microcosms of our larger environment (and that environment is also a reflection of our health, both individually and collectively), is key to understanding how TCM seeks to solve the question of infertility.
There are many ways that Chinese medicine can assist the body in preparation for getting (and staying) pregnant. Practitioners choose from an arsenal of modalities, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, supplements, nutrition, lifestyle changes and mental health support, all to help optimize fertility. (And a seasoned Chinese medicine fertility specialist won’t balk at recommending labs and structural testing to ensure that additional medical support isn’t indicated—which means TCM can work with any other medical protocols you may be relying on to optimize fertility.)
Key Practices In Traditional Chinese Medicine:
Acupuncture is the practice of inserting fine needles into specific points on the body. These points correspond to meridians, or pathways of energy filled with Qi, that circulate to every cell. Acupuncture needles are used to “conduct” Qi, directing this vital energy to anywhere in the body it is deficient, or to clear areas of energy blockages. When it comes to fertility, acupuncture points are customized to each individual patient, and might address meridians that interact with the heart, uterus, kidneys, liver and spleen or stomach. Other benefits of acupuncture include helping the nervous system regulate itself, leading to reduced stress and inflammation.
Learn more about how acupuncture may help on embryo transfer day.
Chinese herbal medicine is a complex discipline wherein herbs are prescribed based on a detailed medical intake and examination that includes looking at the tongue, taking the pulse on both wrists, as well as a questionnaire about supplements or medications you might be taking. This evaluation then leads the herbalist to make a differential diagnosis, which is used to determine which herbal formula is right for you. Since fertility is viewed as an extension of overall health, its treatment requires a holistic approach when it comes to herbs—any area that is out of balance can impact the whole body, so, for example, if digestion is slow, or constipation is chronic, that must be addressed before peak fertility can be achieved.
Lifestyle Adjustments: Meditation, Nutrition, Movement
When it comes to fertility, a key shift is from a fast-paced, high-stress life to one of moderation. Thinking of this time trying to conceive as a precious opportunity to prepare to welcome a baby into your body lends itself easily to the principles of slowing down and being a little gentler with yourself. For starters, prioritize sleep. Your body needs at least seven to eight hours of sleep, nightly. Downshifting from HIIT and other high-intensity workouts to long walks, yoga, Pilates and swimming is another way to let your body soften, slow down and open itself to pregnancy.
Here are key things that a Traditional Chinese Medicine approach to fertility seeks to optimize:
Left unmanaged, stress can wreak havoc on hormones, sleep, digestion and well-being. All of this can translate to sub-optimal fertility, irregular ovulation and lower odds of achieving pregnancy. Acupuncture is one way a Chinese medicine practitioner will address this. It can help to unwind an overloaded nervous system, giving your body the experience of deep relaxation which, over time, makes it easier to recover from stress. Other methods for an improved stress response include meditation, exercise, talk therapy, adequate sleep and a balanced whole-food diet.
The goal of Chinese medicine is to ensure that all the body’s systems are functioning optimally. Some of the health markers your practitioner is looking for include: daily, well-formed bowel movements; adequate, insomnia-free sleep; a healthy appetite free of too much sugar and refined carbohydrates; good hydration; and a balanced emotional life. On the flip side, things like chronic pain, autoimmune disease, inflammation, and unresolved trauma should all be addressed and improved upon, ideally before conception. These might be addressed by a combination of herbal medicine, supplements, diet and acupuncture.
Beyond overall health, the menstrual period provides major clues about both general health and fertility. Things like regularity, cycle length, the severity of period cramps, PMS, and even the color and consistency of flow provide key insight, leading us to the right combination of herbs, acupuncture, and lifestyle recommendations for improving fertility and supporting a full-term pregnancy.
The road to a baby isn’t always easy and, over time, can lead to difficulties in partner, family, and friend relationships alike. Relationship strife can lead to major stress, which can be a factor when it comes to difficulties TTC. Shame can also play a role which often leads to suffering without the support of close loved ones. Because TCM takes a holistic approach to fertility, the need to find support and care is critical. Your fertility specialist can help point you in the right direction if you need care beyond what they may offer.
Diet and lifestyle are key pillars of any holistic approach to fertility. In general, a diet rich in whole foods, fewer refined carbohydrates and sugars and a balance of healthy protein, carbs and fats form the basis of any healthy diet. While TTC, it’s important to make a bit of extra effort to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day, by eating three meals and trying to keep a good routine around mealtimes. While your practitioner might make recommendations around specific foods, a fertility diet can always be enhanced by focusing on eating high-quality, organic foods that are locally sourced (this is also one way to support your local macrocosm). Focusing on warm, cooked foods is a common recommendation among TCM professionals, as cooked foods are easier to digest and assimilate, and keeping your body on the warm side is often recommended while TTC.
As a CM fertility specialist, I can say it is the unique treatment of each individual that optimizes fertility, health, and well-being. Plan on working with your practitioner for at least three menstrual cycles prior to conceiving, to give developing eggs and sperm enough time to be influenced by your renewed health and well-being.