Can alternative medicine help you get pregnant?
Maybe. But some therapies are a lot more promising than others. Here, the lowdown on five complementary treatments.
By the time Suzanne Dubrow, 40, turned to alternative medicine to help her get pregnant, she felt she’d hit a seemingly unscaleable wall in her efforts to become a mother. After several rounds of intrauterine insemination (IUI) and in vitro fertilization (IVF) and two miscarriages, the California journalist had been told that her “old eggs” meant she’d have to turn to donor eggs. But Dubrow didn’t agree. She started searching the Internet for a different approach, eventually finding Randine Lewis and her Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) program for treating infertility. “I knew that I’d found someone special and different in this horrible world [of infertility treatments],” recalls Dubrow. “Right off the bat she gave me four or five things I could do myself, which was incredibly empowering. I was just desperate to find some way to help myself to regain my fertility.”
Dubrow attended one of Lewis’ fertility retreats and stuck closely to the detailed program of regular acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and diet for nine months before trying IVF again. Now healthy and pregnant, Dubrow says she feels better than she has in 15 years. “The greatest benefit will be this baby, but before I started this program I was sick every five weeks with a cold,” she says. “I haven’t been sick since I started this program. My immune system is back in working order.”
Alternative Fertility Treatments: A Booming Trend
Dubrow is far from alone. “We know that as many as two in three American women are taking advantage of complementary medicine,” says Joseph Isaacs, president and CEO of Resolve, The National Infertility Association. Although some women who are just beginning to try to conceive will use alternative therapies to prepare their bodies so they’re in the best possible physical condition, far more of those using the treatments have already been down the often long road of allopathic (“regular” western medicine) infertility treatments: invasive tests, medications and injections, and procedures like IVF. In a good number of cases, a couple will have gotten the very frustrating diagnosis of “unexplained infertility.” That’s when alternative therapies tend to enter the picture: either a couple has exhausted Western medicine’s options, or, more often, they will use the treatments in conjunction with allopathic medicine. Typically it’s the woman who pursues alternative therapies on her own.
Combining different ways of thinking about infertility can be a boon to women, provided their “western” doctors and alternative practitioners are all aware of their treatments. “If you’re going to use complementary therapies, you need to inform your physician,” stresses Isaacs. “And follow the advice of your physician if he or she believes a treatment could cause harm.”
While alternative therapies can be tremendously beneficial in reducing stress and, possibly, bringing the body back into balance, if there’s a serious physiological problem–such as blocked fallopian tubes or a significant hormone imbalance–your attempts to get pregnant should focus on western medicine, at least until the problem is remedied. “A good [alternative] practitioner will work in conjunction with more invasive allopathic medicine, especially if it can do things complementary therapies can’t,” says Isaacs.
Here, a look at what five broadly-defined categories of alternative treatments can—and can’t—do to help you become a parent.
Bodywork (Massage, Reiki, Chiropractic)
What it is:
Though massage, Reiki and chiropractic are very different therapies, they’re loosely grouped together here because they work to enhance healing through the external physical body. Generally speaking, massage involves a good rubdown of muscles and limbs, helping to reduce stress. In Reiki, a type of energy medicine, the practitioner lightly lays his or her hands on the body, while accessing chi outside of themselves to move it through their own meridians and deliver it to another person. “In essence, a Reiki practitioner is a vessel or a channel for life force energy; we merely assist the person receiving this energy to clear blockages from their physical body as well as their energy bodies, to enable them to eventually return to a natural state of balance,” says Barb Weston, a Reiki Master/Teacher and vice-president of the Canadian Reiki Association. Chiropractic, by comparison, uses manipulation and adjustment of the body (particularly the spinal column) to align the body into health.
Does it Work to Boost Fertility?
“Massage has been proven to lower blood pressure and stress levels,” says Steve Capellini, L.M.T., co-author of Massage for Dummies (Wiley, 1999), “and the woman who’s feeling better about herself and her health, regardless of whether she’s trying to get pregnant, is more likely to be at ease. But massage is not a clinical intervention you can say much about [in terms of getting pregnant].”
As with most alternative therapies, the evidence that Reiki can help you conceive is anecdotal, but many practitioners, including Weston, have worked with women who hadn’t been able to get pregnant, but who did conceive while under their care. Says Weston of two women she treated who subsequently got pregnant, “I explained the process and told them I cannot do any magic for them, but I can certainly help them release stress to enable them to connect with the healer within and regain a natural state of balance.”
When it comes to chiropractic, any hard evidence that it’ll make conception easier is virtually nonexistent, says Anthony L. Rosner, Ph.D., director of research and education at the Foundation for Chiropractic Education and Research in Brookline, Massachusetts. But he adds that there’s a sharp reduction in anxiety following chiropractic treatment, and for women who do conceive, chiropractic can be a boon in treating the extra demands of pregnancy on the body.
How to Find a Good Practitioner:
To find a massage therapist, go to the American Massage Therapy Association site (www.amtamassage.org). For Reiki, look for someone who is either a Reiki Practitioner (RP) or Master Teacher (RMT). To find a practitioner in your area, check the directory on the International Association of Reiki Professionals’ site (www.iarp.org). To find a chiropractor in your area, check the directory of the American Chiropractic Assocation (www.amerchiro.org).
Western Herbal Medicine
What it is:
The use of plants—roots, leaves, stems, flowers and/or seeds—to enhance wellness and bring the body back into balance when illness occurs, dates back thousands of years. While Chinese herbs tend to be favored by TCM practitioners, herbalists and naturopaths in the west use more plants native to this part of the world. Felice Barnow, N.D., L.M. and R.N., a naturopath physician and licensed midwife in private practice at the Seattle Naturopathy Acupuncture and Birth Center, sees women who want to enhance their fertility, as well as those undergoing rigorous allopathic infertility treatments. “I think the herbs can modulate the effects [of the drugs] so it’s not so overpowering,” she explains. Among the five or six herbs Barnow favors for treating infertility in women are licorice root (for enhancing estrogen production), wild yam root (a progesterone precursor, possibly helpful in women with a too-short luteal phase), chaste berry (which affects the luteal and follicular phases to increase luteinizing hormone [LH] and decrease follicular-stimulating hormone and prolactin), black cohosh (for reducing LH), and angelica (aka dong quai, a Chinese herb that acts as a balancer with other herbs). “I put no more than three herbs in a tincture [an alcohol-based herb extract],” says Barnow. “It’s very potent and you don’t have to take a lot. I’d advise 30 drops of the tincture twice a day.“ And, she adds, “you need to be taking a good-quality multivitamin and multimineral. Zinc and vitamins A and C, for instance, work to increase progesterone.”
Does it Work to Boost Fertility?
Again, the evidence for effectiveness is largely anecdotal. Chances are, herbs won’t be the deciding factor in someone’s conceiving, but there is low risk and the right plants may be helpful in supporting women through the stressful process of infertility treatment, or giving the body a boost for those just starting the process of trying to get pregnant.
How to Find a Good Practitioner:
Naturopathic physicians are trained in botanical medicine. To find a naturopath (N.D.), visit the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians’ website (www.naturopathic.org). (Just 13 states and the District of Columbia currently license N.D.s, so you may not be able to look for a licensed practitioner, depending on where you live.) You can also search for a qualified herbalist through the American Herbalists Guild (www.americanherbalistsguild.com); the letters AHG after a practitioner’s name indicate membership in the guild.