For some, when it comes to fertility and an impassioned hankering for a baby, this means not only harnessing all the measures conventional medicine has to offer, but exploring traditional Chinese medicine as well (TCM). For others, the acupuncture needle is the elemental step before the IVF one is even contemplated. Could balancing the body, boosting blood flow and stimulating Qi succour conception success?
Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments for fertility
“Optimising reproductive capability is crucial”. According to Mark Chern of Soma Clinic, Singapore, of his patients seeking assistance with fertility, “75 to 80 per cent of clients come with an intention to use artificial reproductive methods—that being IUI or IVF” with TCM treatments working as supplementary groundwork for biomedical practitioners. “What we are doing is plowing the terrain so they can use technology to grow the plants. We are helping create the right conditions for conception to take place.” Routinely, priming the body for pregnancy through a TCM approach would entail acupuncture and or herbs. “At the most basic level, needling the lower abdomen at certain points or the lower back near the sacrum, plus some points in the inner ankle area would already help with blood flow”, upping reproductive vitality, “meaning you have more circulation down there and where blood goes there is health.”
For Chern, one element of focus is circulation management and the other is endocrine regulation with hormonal imbalance “indicated by signs of premenstrual syndrome, breast distension, bloatedness just before menses, ovulation pain, menstrual pain, duration of cycle being too long or too short, irregularities in bleeding during menses.” From his perspective, “the philosophy of acupuncture, at least in the context of reproductive function, is about improving reproductive competence via the two ways mentioned, plus the release of endorphins.” Women suffering from age-related subfertility, high FSH [Follicle-Stimulating hormone], low AMH [Anti-Mullerian Hormone used to indicate egg count], endometriosis, anovulation or repeated miscarriage often seek out Chern as “supportive therapy in tandem with IVF” because “they’ve tried everything else before.”
Complimenting conventional medicine
“I’m quite open about the journey I had to undertake for my second one. The first one came really easily, really unexpectedly actually and then with the second one… They’re about five and a half years apart. A good three to four years of that was trying to get there.” Recurrent pregnancy loss was a catalyst for Mei Ling Lim, 45 to really lean into TCM. “I was able to get pregnant but I had several miscarriages. I had three in total.” Along her fertility journey “TCM definitely played a part throughout. In fact I was doing TCM when we were trying for the second because of the miscarriages. I thought well ok, let’s first try TCM because it’s less invasive obviously, a bit more natural.” After grappling with repeated loss, Lim decided to up the ante, “before I actually started on my IVF journey I got pregnant twice naturally and then I miscarried at around six to eight weeks and I think that’s when we decided: ok let’s try IVF. It was at that point I concluded that if we’re going to go all in, let’s go all in.”
To help combat underlying conditions such as a gene mutation (preventing her to absorb folic acid) and elevated natural killer cells lining her womb, multiple appointments were booked with both orthodox medical specialists and her TCM clinician. “I was doing other therapies as well as TCM to sort of up my chances, you know? You do whatever you have to do.” In terms of TCM being recognised as also being beneficial to health, “I think the general feeling now amongst doctors is that IVF and TCM do actually compliment one another—that’s more readily accepted recently.” For Lim, acupuncture and herbs were helping to ready her body for the more consequential surgical procedures to come. “Just before you would do a transfer or egg retrieval, you’re supposed to go in for your TCM treatments prior and after it as well—I visualised that as prepping my body and jump starting everything for the whole process.”
Thriving thanks to TCM?
“If you believe in it and it helps your psychology, then do it.” Those were the words of a fertility doctor Cookhie Choi, 47, was consulting with regard to undertaking TCM. “I jumped into IVF directly. It was a very specific set of circumstances for me—my age—I was 41 at the time and my AMH level was low. I had my wedding booked and invitations sent—this was all ahead of me in the near future. This made it a rush to get something done and I was up against the clock. My gynae, who’s obviously a woman of science, said I probably have little egg reserve so I would have to move fast and hard. She sent me immediately to a fertility doctor. Then the TCM side of it came from my mum and friends’ advice, not from my fertility specialist.” Choi utilised all the resources at her disposal, “I did both together in the race against time as another particular stress point was the fact my husband is eight years younger. I put so much pressure on delivering – how could I deny my young husband a family? So in short, mature age, younger husband.”
Despite an abundance of hurdles, Choi was able to conceive two children naturally, “IVF actually didn’t work for me. I did two rounds before my first child, but never got the chance to transfer and implant. I got one embryo from each round, but both died at the thawing stage. I’m not faulting IVF or blaming modern medicine itself, because my eggs were of poor quality and that comes with age unfortunately. My fertility doctor said we should pause treatment because I was getting married in a few months and then I fell pregnant naturally. I was still doing acupuncture and taking herbs but I had stopped all medical intervention. During my next cycle I conceived—if you think about it, it could’ve been all the hormones I was injecting before, it could’ve been the TCM—you never know—it’s not a clean-cut thing.” While she couldn’t necessarily pinpoint exactly what worked, Choi is a success story for women over 40, “I had everything going at the same time. I said to myself I’m not going to leave anything out—thinking ‘what if I had only tried that’. I had nothing to lose.”
Restoration and remedy with TCM
On why acupuncture was the first port of call for Amy Bell, 36, founder, The Meat Club, Singapore when her menses suddenly disappeared, “I wasn’t in a particular rush, I had time to fix it, I was of a child-bearing age but I didn’t feel like the clock was against me—that was on my side and another thing was the familiarity factor. I thought, ‘why not?’ I had grown up with alternative medicines and I was happy to explore a different path.” After losing her cycle for months on end in a second episode, Bell was able to get back on track once again thanks to TCM, “on the second occasion I was recently married and my cycle stopped for no good reason. I did the same thing as the first—I had my hormones checked, but this time I did it with a gynaecologist because I was getting to a point where we were getting ready to consider kids. During those consultations I was told one, I wasn’t getting my period and two, I wasn’t ovulating and three, I should go on hormone therapy. At the time I was not yet 30 and I thought that was all a bit heavy going, that there had to be alternatives before we went down this rabbit hole. So I went and found an acupuncturist. After seeing him for a good year, we conceived our first child naturally.”
On whether Bell attributes her two pregnancies to TCM, Bell is quite adamant, “100 per cent. Just given the information I had at that time from both a gynaecologist, obstetrician as well as what I was observing in my own body, I was probably a real candidate for IVF and it certainly felt like if things hadn’t worked out, I would’ve been corralled down that avenue. I felt like TCM was the thing that pulled everything together.” Her message to the sceptics, “when it comes to TCM, it’s a practice that goes back centuries and certainly a lot longer than Panadol has been around—it has to be helpful. You have to give your trust into something that you can necessarily substantiate.”
The body and mind
According to Chern, TCM can also assist with emotional regulation, “generally when people come in and get acupuncture a majority of them will feel a little calmer or stable or grounded from the session. That helps them function a little better, not just reproductively but in their lives. There is some release of endorphins, there is some feeling of calm, of being ok being in your body versus being in your head which happens a lot of the time when you undergo the journey.” For those of us who have struggled to conceive or have faced reproductive challenges, this part can also be key.
For Choi, “I believed my whole life—having a happy, successful life—in the mantra that if I work hard I’m going to achieve whatever I want. That was my life philosophy. And then you come to a point for the first time in your 40 odd years on Earth and it doesn’t matter how hard you work, it’s biology and it’s out of my control. Just talking about the feelings that you go through in the journey—you can’t defy biology.” You certainly can’t, but you can try everything conventional medicine and traditional Chinese medicine has to offer, which, to refer back to the harvesting analogy of Chern, may help result in a fruitful yield.