Improving fertility by relieving stress
If you are trying to fall pregnant, exploring unorthodox avenues of treatment may just improve your chances. Acupuncture is renowned for its calming effects on the mind and body, but attention has also been drawn to its potential to enhance fertility. We spoke with acupuncturist Brodie Mitchell to learn more about the practice and the possible impact it can have on fertility.
Can you tell us about yourself, your job and your qualifications?
I am a qualified Acupuncturist with a Bachelor of Health Science and Acupuncture. I work at Life Synergy in Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast and I primarily treat women. I love to work with fertility, pregnancy and post birth care. I am a mother of a four year old boy and have another baby on the way.
What is acupuncture and how does it work?
Acupuncture is an ancient medicine that’s aimed to restore balance within the body. We use fine needles inserted into points located on the body within a meridian system where ‘Qi’ (often referred to as life force or vital energy) flows through the body. Disharmony with the flow of qi is when we feel unwell, have pain, or our normal bodily functions are not working optimally. Biomedically, acupuncture has been found to stimulate the nervous system, therefore able to affect the internal regulating system including hormones, pain, and overall wellbeing. Acupuncture encourages the flow of oxygenated blood and the lymphatic system. As well as using fine needles, we may also use moxibustion – a warming herb that improves blood flow and circulation – Chinese herbs, and massage.
How can acupuncture help relieve stress?
As I said in the previous question, acupuncture works on the nervous system. When we are stressed we are sympathetic nervous system dominant, so our body thinks we need to be in ‘fight or flight’ response. Acupuncture calms the nervous system and helps the body to go back into the parasympathetic, which is our ‘rest and digest’ state. This is why acupuncture is known to be so relaxing, you usually leave in quite a peaceful state and sleep well that following night. Each client is diagnosed and treated individually, so the treatment would depend on your overall presentation and how the ‘stress’ is affecting your body. However, the aim is always to harmonize the bodily systems.
For example, when you feel stressed you become tense, you might clench your jaw, lift your shoulders, become shallow in your breathing. This might lead to neck and shoulder tension or even headaches. This tells us the flow of qi has become stagnant. Instead of flowing smoothly around the body, the body thinks you are in ‘fight or flight’ mode and is only sending oxygenated blood to the parts of the body that it deems necessary for survival. So your treatment would be to encourage the free flow of qi through the blood, relax the muscle tension, deepen and calm the breath, ultimately placing the body back into the parasympathetic.
Can you explain the science behind infertility?
This question is difficult as infertility presents differently for each individual. You may have a gynaecological problem that is affecting fertility (e.g. PCOS), endometriosis, poor sperm quality, or poor egg quality. Or it may be from stress, as long-term attempts to become pregnant can lead to obsessiveness.
All of these things affect the reproductive system in different ways, so scientifically it could be a hormonal problem where the body is unable to hold the pregnancy, quality of egg or sperm, the endometrium may not be allowing implantation, there could be ovulation problems with cysts in the ovaries or anovulation. So it all just depends on each couple’s presentation.
How can acupuncture improve fertility?
When we are feeling anxious or not coping with stressful situations, our body is in sympathetic dominance, which causes physical symptoms including oxidative and inflammatory microflora in the uterus. This makes the vagina uninhabitable for sperm. We use acupuncture and moxibustion to encourage qi and blood flow into the reproductive system, stimulating the endometrium for implantation. We can also follow the menstrual cycle on a weekly basis to support the natural flow of yin and yang, regulating the cycle to what we call optimal for fertility. That is, flow of period during menstruation, supporting follicular development, then ovulation and increasing our yang or progesterone to hold a viable pregnancy.
The hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) controls reactions to stress as well as regulating body processes, including the ovaries, ovulation, fertility and the menstrual cycle. Acupuncture has been demonstrated in clinical trials to assist with stress, calming the nervous system and regulating the HPA, therefore assisting the body to be in the most optimal state for fertility.
What is the scientific support for acupuncture to treat stress and improve fertility?
There have been many clinical trials conducted on acupuncture in relation to stress and fertility. Although acupuncture is hard to put into a research setting as it is very much energy-based healing and is also influenced by the practitioner, there is still a lot of evidence to support the positive effect acupuncture can have.
- According to one study by the British Acupuncture Council (2014), acupuncture can stimulate the production of endogenous opioids that affect the autonomic nervous system, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and initiating the relaxation response.
- Another study found that acupuncture has demonstrated its effectiveness on the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis via increasing β-endorphins, which in turn affects GnRH secretion, the menstrual cycle, ovulation and fertility.
Are there any risks or side effects?
There are very few reported side effects from acupuncture. You may possibly get a bruise where a needle has been inserted. Clinically, I find the main side effect is when people have been running on their adrenals. With sympathetic dominance, they will often feel tired post-treatment. This is due to the body dropping down into the parasympathetic and actually feeling how exhausted they really are. It allows the body to rest and repair as we build the qi and blood back up.
If you’re interested in trying acupuncture for yourself, check out the Life Synergy website here and email Brodie firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow her on Instagram @brodie_mitchell_acupuncture.