The odds of getting pregnant seemed stacked against 37-year old Cathy Tan*.
When she first consulted Dr Ann Tan at the Women & Fetal Centre in Singapore, the consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist found fibroids, ovarian cysts and polyps in her uterus. Surgery to remove them also removed her right ovary, decreasing her chances of getting pregnant.
Cathy was also running out of time. Even with in vitro fertilization (IVF), the chances of conceiving was only between 20% and 30% past the 38-year mark.
Recovering from surgery, she began researching complementary traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) therapies, and when she began IVF treatment in 2011, decided to try them alongside conventional treatment. “The Chinese herbs I would be taking could only be good for my body, so why not try it?” she rationalized
Upon Dr Tan’s recommendation, she came under the care of Zhong Xi Ming, a senior physician with Eu Yan Sang in Singapore. The two worked hand in hand, combining the best of western fertility treatment with acupuncture and Chinese herbs to help Cathy become a mother.
It took three cycles, but Cathy gave birth to her first child, a boy, the same year. Two years and two TCM/IVF cycles later, she became the mother of another son.
Better togetherIncreasingly, medical doctors and TCM physicians are working together to help couples become parents. And with good reason.
A 2015 study by researchers from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, Oregon Health and Science University and the Northwest Center for Reproductive Sciences in Washington found that patients that complemented their IVF treatments with “whole-systems traditional Chinese medicine” had more live births (61.3%) than those who received only “usual” IVF care (48.2%). Whole-systems TCM includes acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine as well as dietary and lifestyle recommendations.
Even those who received just acupuncture alongside usual IVF care recorded a higher proportion of live births (50.8%), the study found. The study looked at the results of 1,231 fresh cycles.
Another study led by cellular biologist Dr Shahar Lev-Ari, head of the integrative medicine unit of Tel Aviv University’s medical school in Israel found that TCM therapies gave a measurable boost to intrauterine insemination (IUI), with 65.5% of the test group conceiving, compared with 39.4% of the control group.
“I am open to recommending my patients to avail themselves to TCM alongside Artificial Reproductive Technology (ART),” Dr Tan says. “I have had positive experiences with my patients’ use of TCM, and many couples do it quietly anyway, so I prefer to be upfront and ask them about it.”
Physician Zhong recalls that when she first joined the Eu Yan Sang’s Reproductive Department more than a decade ago, she was unconvinced about the need for such a department, but people started streaming in.
Both Dr Tan and Ms Zong consider Cathy their “miracle” patient.
“It was a nice combination of work from Physician Zhong and myself to get the eggs out from someone who hardly produced any,” Dr Tan recalls. “And she wanted another and we both got stressed but she did it again!”
Well-timed therapiesCollaboration usually involves the two medical modalities taking precedence at different stages of the treatment plan, each referring patients to the other when necessary to ensure good quality eggs and sperm, successful implantation and a healthy, full-term pregnancy.
TCM plays a particularly active role in the preparatory and pre-implantation stages.
“Herbs and acupuncture can help to improve the womb lining, and enhance follicles so that the patient has a stable womb lining when the embryo is transferred to it,” says Physician Zhong. “Increasing the yang energy also helps to create a good uterine lining environment and increase the likelihood of successful embryo implantation. Factors such as a calm mind and a harmonious flow of qi and blood through the body also influence the blood circulation in the ovary and uterus, and have a positive effect on the success of IVF.”
Acupuncture, in particular, has become popular with women undergoing fertility treatment, with several studies supporting its benefits as complementary treatment for IVF. In 2002, 160 IVF patients at a German fertility clinic participated in a study on acupuncture. Half of them received acupuncture 25 minutes before and after embryo transfer, while the other half received no complementary therapy. All 160 had good quality embryos transferred. Thirty-four of the 80 women who received acupuncture got pregnant compared to 21 of the 80 women in the control group.
A journey requiring resilienceAlthough ongoing studies and growing anecdotal evidence offer hope to couples struggling to conceive, the journey to a successful pregnancy and birth can be an emotional rollercoaster, requiring great resilience.
“After my first failed IVF, I felt sad and thought that I was probably hopeless,” Cathy shares.
Also, “the most successful treatment is one where both partners are equally in tune to reach the goal of having a baby,” Dr Tan advises. “It’s always very difficult and stressful when one partner wants it more than the other. They must realize that it’s not a blame game; try to make the best out of what you both are as a couple.”
As always, work with a qualified TCM practitioner, and keep both your doctor and TCM practitioner informed of all treatments you are receiving.
(*Name has been changed to protect the patient’s privacy)