Are you considering in vitro fertilization (IVF) to help you grow your family? It has a hefty price tag, but the rewards, of course, are priceless if it all works out. So you are probably wondering what you can do to increase the odds that your IVF story will have the happy ending that you hope for. As an acupuncturist who specializes in fertility, I work with a lot of couples who are trying to have a baby. And I have worked with many couples to improve the success of their IVF cycles. Here are some of the more common questions that I receive about acupuncture support during IVF.
How can acupuncture help during IVF? Why should I bother?
Coming in for acupuncture treatments takes time and costs money so this is a legitimate question. Thankfully as far as the cost goes, many health insurance plans reimburse much of the cost of acupuncture treatments. For the convenience of my patients, I offer direct billing through these insurance companies whenever possible.
So how can acupuncture help during IVF? For women, acupuncture has been shown in research to improve blood flow to the ovaries and uterus, which can lead to improved egg quality as well as a uterine lining that is more receptive to implantation. In addition, acupuncture also helps to optimize hormonal balance, regulate blood sugar levels and calm down the stress response, all factors which also contribute to egg quality and a woman’s sense of well being. In addition to all these factors, many patients also experience fewer side effects on fertility medications when they are also receiving acupuncture.
For men, acupuncture can have many similar effects, including improved blood flow to the testes where sperm are produced, better hormonal balance and blood sugar regulation and a more relaxed nervous system. This often translates to improved semen analyses for men with low sperm count, poor sperm motility or poor sperm morphology. Even for men with “normal” sperm analyses, I have worked with many couples where conception didn’t happen until the male partner received treatment as well.
When should acupuncture treatment be started?
Ideally, weekly treatments for women should begin at least two months before an IVF cycle is anticipated to start. This is because the egg that a woman releases at ovulation (or the eggs she produces for IVF retrieval) start developing many months prior to ovulation. And the most influential period of egg development is in the two to three months before an egg is released. For optimal effect on egg quality, it is important that acupuncture treatment begins before this approximately two month recruitment period. And in this two month period, acupuncture can affect much more than embryo quality. It can also beneficially affect overall hormone balance, uterine lining quality, the ability of the digestive system to absorb nutrients from the food a woman is eating, her sleep quality, and many more variables that can directly or indirectly affect her body’s ability to conceive and maintain a pregnancy.
For men, weekly treatments should start at least two months before IVF as well, since the process of sperm development (spermatogenesis) takes just over two months from start to finish. So for optimal effects on sperm quality, acupuncture treatment needs to be maintained throughout this two month period of sperm development so that the benefits of acupuncture span the entire development phase.
What if my IVF cycle is less than two months away? Or what if I have already started ovarian stimulation?
Acupuncture can help at any stage of the process. Effect on egg quality is more pronounced the sooner treatment is started, but women can still benefit when treatment is started later. For example, in research, even women who received acupuncture only immediately before and after embryo transfer had better outcomes than women who didn’t receive acupuncture at this time¹. That said, the sooner treatment is started, generally the greater the effects of treatment. In fact, research conducted jointly by a fertility doctor and acupuncturist showed that women had the best pregnancy outcomes when they received at least eight acupuncture treatments prior to IVF².
What about frozen embryo transfer? Can acupuncture help with this?
Yes, acupuncture can help even when the eggs have already been retrieved and the embryos already fertilized because it has beneficial effects on uterine lining quality and overall health. In general, women should start acupuncture treatment at least one month before a frozen embryo transfer cycle. Women suspected of having immune issues, or women with painful and/or clotty periods or significant PMS should ideally start acupuncture treatment two or more cycles before the frozen embryo transfer. That said, women can benefit at any stage of the process. As mentioned above, even women who received acupuncture only immediately before and after embryo transfer had better pregnancy outcomes than women who didn’t receive acupuncture at this time¹.
Is it beneficial for surrogates to receive acupuncture?
Absolutely! Research has shown that women doing donor cycles (receiving embryos that are not their own) had three times greater pregnancy success rates when receiving acupuncture than women doing donor cycles who didn’t receive acupuncture³. It is relatively common for couples to offer to reimburse a surrogate for acupuncture treatments as an investment in the surrogate’s (and future baby’s) overall health.
¹Paulus et al. 2002. Influence of acupuncture on the pregnancy rate in patients who undergo assisted reproduction therapy. Fertility and Sterility; 77 (4): 721-24.
²Cridennda et al. Acupuncture and in vitro fertilization: does the number of treatments impact reproductive outcomes? East Wind Acupuncture
³Rubin, L et al. 2015. Impact of whole systems traditional Chinese medicine on in-vitro fertilization. Reproductive Biomedicine Online; 30(6):602-12.