By the start of 2014, Bay Area resident Emily Sinclair was frustrated. She and her husband desperately wanted to start a family, but according to the experts she consulted, her odds of naturally conceiving were slim to none.
At 38, Sinclair was at the upper limit of what many consider to be a woman’s peak fertility years. And she was suffering from both endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS); two conditions that can compromise conception. A fertility specialist told her she only had a five percent chance of becoming pregnant. But Sinclair and her husband held out hope and decided to investigate alternative ways to increase her fertility, including acupuncture.
Sinclair booked her first appointment with Jeannie Bianchi, a One Medical acupuncturist in San Francisco in August 2014. After a thorough evaluation of her medical history and goals and a brief education on the benefits and philosophies of the practice, Bianchi began a weekly treatment plan for Sinclair. Bianchi inserted thin needles at various points on her body and regularly examining her tongue and wrists for signs of progress. “It was pretty amazing what she could learn about my health without being invasive,” Sinclair says.
Sinclair came to appreciate the weekly appointments as the one relaxing respite from her work week. And after a few months, Sinclair got an unexpected surprise: she was pregnant.
Sinclair was cautiously optimistic but stunned; could acupuncture really have helped her conceive against all odds? According to research, the treatment appears to have undeniable effects on fertility and some experts say integrating the ancient practice into a comprehensive health plan could potentially up the odds of having a baby.
The Research on Acupuncture for Fertility
Acupuncture is still considered a form of alternative medicine in the United States, but it’s been used throughout the world for thousands of years to treat issues including pain, stress, and–yes–infertility. Although it’s only gained popularity in the U.S. in the past few decades, many allopathic physicians are now considering it a legitimate treatment strategy that can effectively complement other forms of care.
Current research shows that women undergoing fertility treatments may reap the biggest benefits. According to a small study published in the reproductive journal Fertility and Sterility, adding acupuncture to traditional in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment significantly increased pregnancy success. And a 2009 study published in the same journal found that acupuncture helped regulate hormonal levels in women undergoing IVF. A 2010 study of 57 infertile patients found that acupuncture was associated with less stress before and after embryo transfer, possibly improving pregnancy rates. A comprehensive review of seven trials published in the British Medical Journal involving 1,366 women undergoing IVF found that acupuncture substantially improved rates of pregnancy and live birth.
Although many studies indicate a positive effect, researchers caution that acupuncture should not be a considered a surefire cure-all for infertility, and more studies are needed to fully understand how and why it seems to help. Currently, researchers speculate that the relaxing effects of acupuncture help reduce stress, which improves the odds of conception. Plus, some believe the treatment helps increase blood flow to the uterus and relax muscle tissues, enhancing the likelihood of embryo implantation.
“I would never give any guarantees,” Bianchi says. “But I do my best to change the reproductive environment so that it’s most favorable for conception and implantation,” Bianchi says. And when a patient does become pregnant, Bianchi consistently feels one way: “Ecstatic! I’m so happy for them, almost like it’s happening to a family member.”
Meeting Baby Sage
Once Sinclair knew she was pregnant, she took extra steps to ensure her stress levels remained low and she stayed as healthy as possible. She also worked with a nutritionist and began incorporating restorative yoga into her life. She quickly found that acupuncture wasn’t just a critical part of her journey to conceive; it was also an important practice to maintain throughout the pregnancy.
“The first weeks were pretty easy,” she recalls. “Then intense morning sickness hit and I was puking and gagging and just miserable. Jeannie was able to quickly help calm the nausea via acupuncture and get me through that rough patch.”
Sinclair felt such relief from the treatments that when it came time to deliver her baby, she turned to acupuncture again in week 36. With the approval of her obstetrician, Sinclair worked with Bianchi to slowly prepare for childbirth.
“Each week, she gradually intensified the treatments and on my due date, added electrode-type sensors to increase the strength,” Sinclair says.
This method, called “natural labor induction” is sometimes used to promote natural vaginal delivery and reduce the possibility of cesarean section or other medical intervention. One study found that women who received acupuncture in their final weeks of pregnancy were more likely to go into labor spontaneously and less likely to require C-sections, but other studies have been inconclusive.
In Sinclair’s case, however, the treatment seemed to work. After dilating to five centimeters without pain, Sinclair gave birth to her daughter, Sage, two weeks before turning 40.
While the journey to motherhood is unique for every woman, Sinclair believes acupuncture was an integral part of bringing Sage into the world. “We’re grateful we pursued acupuncture and worked with Jeannie, who was incredibly supportive and effective at every step of the way,” she says. “I truly believe acupuncture helped make the difference for us – and now we have a happy, healthy little girl who brings us so much joy!”