Traditional Chinese Medicine and Fertility

By Sharon Barr L.Ac.

Recently in the news, actor John Travolta and his wife Kelly Preston announced that they are having another child.  After suffering the devastating loss of their son, Jett, to a seizure in 2009, it's a completely understandable choice.  It's not uncommon for families who lose a child to want to have another. What's surprising and impressive is that Kelly Preston is 47 years old. While they have not stated publicly if the pregnancy happened naturally or if they worked with the assistance of a fertility doctor, it's still quite a significant step at that age, no matter how it happened.

Did you know that in 1900, the average life expectancy was just 47 years old for men and 50 for women? Though we may not be able to feel the evolution as it has occurred over the last century, clearly the human body has been rapidly changing. From the foods we eat, to the medical technologies that are able to extend and enhance our quality of life, many people are now living to see 100 and beyond.  A spry 88 year old Betty White made all the headlines when she hosted the 2010 season finale of Saturday Night Live recently. Our expanding life expectancy gives new meaning to our agility and our ability to have and raise families later in life.  Perhaps like Kelly Preston, 47 will become the new normal sooner than we can imagine. Maybe our great-grandchildren will look back amazed at 'young' women who had children as early as their 20's and 30's.

Just as our life expectancy has drastically increased over the last century, so have the opportunities for women. Once strictly homemakers, often giving birth before age 16, women are now CEOs, Secretaries of State, Senators and, Supreme Court Judges.  We've sought higher education, entered and changed the landscape of the work force, and this of course, affects our lifestyle, and most especially our families

A woman who now chooses to finish college and start her career may be 30 by the time she's married and ready for children. For many women, the right time to start a family could be an even longer wait.

Even though there are many successful natural pregnancies for women in their late 30's and early 40's, as the body changes and egg production begins to slow, there are many women who are no longer able to become pregnant as easily as they may have in their 20's. Infertility affects nearly ten percent—almost 2.8 million couples—in the United States alone.

While Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) have given options and promise to thousands of women who may otherwise never have been able to bear children, often the results are depressing.  According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research for her book, “Creating a life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children” even young women using In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) techniques have only a twenty-eight percent chance of conceiving. After age 34, chances fall to eight percent and four percent after 39. On average, a woman can go through 6 – 7 cycles at $ 10,000 each. The physical and emotional side-effects are daunting, to say the least.

 While this costly quest speaks to women’s in-exhaustible determination and perseverance, it's important to understand that many women choosing to start fertility treatments are not necessarily incapable of becoming pregnant naturally. Certainly there are situations where this is the case, but, for many women, it's a matter of stimulating the body to behave as it should normally.  These women are not really infertile, but perhaps rather in need of  “fertility enhancement”.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Kidney Essence is the most critical aspect in the function of growth and reproduction.  Stored in the kidneys, this essence circulates through the body, controlling the body’s sexual maturation and reproductive capacity, and is essential for sexual energy and fertility. The aging process in the body is evident by observing the normal physiological decline of  ‘essence’.

It would seem that if our life expectancy has doubled, so would our window for having healthy natural pregnancies later in life. But, as we've seen, the lifestyle of the modern woman is a busy one. Whether she's in school, the military or busy with a career, often times her diet suffers by eating on the go. Quite likely she may be too busy to eat at all, let alone consciously create a diet with the right balance of nutritious foods. This can be a huge contributing factor to kidney dysfunction causing a vast array of preventable imbalances.

There are many other stress factors and/or lifestyle choices that can accelerate kidney  (essence) deficiency or loss and therefore trigger an inability to become pregnant, or to carry to full term. Unrealistic expectations, too often self-imposed, can be insidiously damaging. The workload that women of today are handling can too often cause her to strain and put unnecessary pressure on her body, which will cause the kidneys to become deficient. Lack of sleep and exercise or too much of either, can also harm the reproductive system.

Today's woman may also face challenges as a result of hormone imbalance. This can be genetic or caused by a number of outside factors, including birth control pills that may have been used during those busy years when starting a family wasn't practical. There are other physiological problems that can affect a woman's ability to reproduce. Ovary dysfunction, pelvic inflammatory disease, endometriosis are just a few fairly common challenges that may prevent pregnancy.

TCM can work to restore balance, bring harmony and revitalize these systems. Diet changes can bring about hormone balance and kidney health. Acupuncture can tone the system, preserve and strengthen kidney essence and move Qi and blood. Herbs can stimulate the body's natural healing abilities and reverse deficiencies. Gentle movement such as in Qi gong or Tai Chi can also stimulate the internal organs to begin functioning normally again.

As a Traditional Chinese Medical Practitioner specializing in fertility and women’s health, I know the tremendous desire and willingness ‘to go to almost any length’ couples experience when they want a family.  I ask my patients to take a step back and consider all the contributing factors that might aid or detract from this goal.   If you are reading this, chances are you or someone you know is in the throes of trying to conceive.  Please consider consulting  with  a Chinese Medical doctor in your area to see what might improve your chances for a stress-free and healthy pregnancy.

Acupuncture and herbs used alone or in conjunction with a reproductive endocrinologist can greatly contribute to a healthy and happy result.

In blog posts to follow I will give you some more practical suggestions and information to help you make your dreams conceivable.

Sharon Barr,L.Ac. MTOM is a licensed (NY & CA) acupuncturist and herbalist practicing in Los Angeles. She specializes in Fertility Enhancement and Women’s Health. Traditional Chinese Medicine has been used effectively for over 3000 years in China and is currently employed worldwide as a reliable method for fertility enhancement. drsharonbarr.com