Baby-making gets help when East meets West

The Georgia Straight - Health Features
Thursday, April 12, 2007

For couples having trouble conceiving, infertility treatments get a boost from acupuncture and other Chinese medicine techniques.

A lot of women dream of the day that they'll become a mom, only to discover after months or even years of trying to become pregnant that there's a problem. Facing the prospect of infertility can be stressful, frustrating, and worrisome–and that kind of anxiety can make conception even more difficult. Two local organizations have teamed up in a unique partnership that combines the best of eastern and western medicine to help couples boost their chances of baby-making.

The UBC Centre for Reproductive Health, which takes credit for Canada's first in vitro–fertilization baby, born in 1983, is collaborating with Acubalance Wellness Centre–which focuses exclusively on the role of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in reproductive health–for an integrated approach to infertility. At a public lecture Friday (April 13) at the Canadian Memorial Centre For Peace (1825 West 16th Avenue), speakers from both clinics will be on hand to help people understand fertility disorders and ways to overcome them.

Fertility naturally declines as women get older, particularly after age 35. According to the UBC centre, about a third of women who defer pregnancy until their mid to late 30s and at least half of women over age 40 will have trouble conceiving. They can turn to assisted reproductive technologies like intrauterine insemination or in vitro fertilization. But as public awareness of alternative approaches has expanded, so has interest in methods like acupuncture.

According to Lorne Brown, a TCM doctor and the founder of Acubalance (www.acubalance.ca/), traditional Chinese treatments can enhance fertility naturally.

"Acupuncture can help optimize reproductive health by reducing the effects of stress," Brown says in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. "When a person is under stress, hormones interfere with ovulation and implantation. And under stress, blood is diverted away from the reproductive system. Acupuncture increases the blood flow to the [uterine] lining, to the reproductive system."

Brown adds that acupuncture has also been shown to improve the success rate of procedures like IVF, even though it's not clear how. "More studies need to be done in this area," says Brown, a former chartered accountant.

In a small California study involving 17 IVF patients published in the April 2004 issue of Fertility and Sterility, a 70-percent pregnancy rate was achieved among women using acupuncture with IVF compared with a rate of 25 percent among those who had IVF alone. A 2005 study published in the same journal found that acupuncture improved men's sperm quality.

But there's much more to TCM than acupuncture. Brown says that Chinese medicine is rooted in the notion of balance between the mind, body, and spirit. He uses Chinese herbs, diet, lifestyle modifications, and deep-relaxation techniques like qi gong, tai chi, and guided imagery to help women who are struggling with fertility problems.

"We also recommend gardening, journal­ling, walking in nature–whatever brings you joy, whatever you let go of because life got so busy and serious," he says.

And he stresses that his clinic's practitioners–who also treat premenstrual syndrome, painful periods, lack of ovulation, endometriosis, recurrent miscarriages, and other conditions including male infertility, prostate problems, and erectile dysfunction–work closely with their patients' other physicians.

"We have a lot of dialogue with western doctors," Brown explains. "It's not us versus them….It's definitely integrated.

"Western and eastern medicine both have their strengths and weaknesses," he adds. "We focus on their strengths so patients are getting the best of both worlds."

Susan Wilson, program director of the UBC Centre for Reproductive Health (www.ubcfertility.com/), says that treatment for infertility at the centre starts with less invasive and less costly options such as partner insemination, then, if necessary, steps up to reproductive technologies like IVF.

The centre treats all sorts of reproductive-health issues that occur from puberty to menopause, as well as male fertility issues. Some of the causes of female infertility are blocked fallopian tubes, fibroids, and no ovulation; then there are cases where medical tests all seem "normal" yet couples still can't get pregnant.

Wilson explains that the centre's relationship with Acubalance evolved as more and more patients were expressing interest in alternative therapies to help them conceive.

"We have a holistic approach," Wilson says from her office. "Our philosophy is that we're not just focused on reproductive treatment; we look at the whole person. We've always been supportive of women wanting to explore things besides the traditional approach.

"We don't have stats to say it [acupuncture] improves pregnancy rates, but IVF is an intense process; it's very stressful….Women who have had acupuncture seem to have this mellow aura. They seem to be more relaxed and can tolerate the procedure better."

The April 13 talk, called East Meets West: Treating Infertility With Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western Assisted Reproductive Therapies (from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.), costs $10 per person or $15 per couple. Wilson notes that money raised goes to the Hope Fertility Fund, which helps people who can't afford reproductive technologies. A single attempt at IVF, which isn't covered by the Medical Services Plan, costs an average of $7,000 to $10,000, including medication. It often takes couples three tries to be successful.

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Gail Johnson