Years ago, acupuncture was seen mostly as a fringe-y alternative therapy that your one hippie aunt always raved about. But today, the practice is gaining weight in the medical community, as a growing number of studies show that it has real, research-backed health benefits. It's being used to treat pain, to ease stress, and even to reduce seasonal allergy symptoms. One exciting new area of acupuncture research is fertility.
Up to 12 percent of women under age 44 have trouble getting or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There's no one cause for fertility issues, or one specific fertility treatment that works for all people. But more and more doctors are recommending acupuncture as a possible complementary therapy.
Experts still don't know exactly how the practice — which involves having thin needles inserted into your body — works in general, or why it might improve fertility. It's possible that it helps by reducing stress, increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs, and balancing the endocrine system, according to the Pacific College of Health and Science.
The stress link is significant. Women with higher levels of alpha-amylase, an enzyme that's used as a marker of stress, took 29 percent longer to get pregnant, reports the journal Human Reproduction. And studies have found that acupuncture decreases both the perception of stress and physiological markers of stress, such as heart-rate variability.
Acupuncture has its origins in traditional Chinese medicine. It was thought to be a way to balance the body's energies. Many practitioners still uphold this philosophy. "Acupuncture is the tool or modality that addresses the energetic balance of human beings," Jingduan Yang, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist and founding medical director of Tao Integrative Medicine in Philadelphia, previously told Refinery29. In theory, it's designed to "unblock, redirect, and facilitate energy flows."
This school of thinking upholds that different patterns cause imbalances of energy in the body, one of those imbalances being fertility, explains William Kaplanidis, a licensed acupuncturist who teaches at the Open Center in New York City. You can restore those imbalances by using acupuncture to stimulate these energy points along your body.
Still, more research needs to be done before anyone can say for sure whether acupuncture has an effect on fertility outcomes. For every study that shows the practice is beneficial is a study that finds that it may not be. A review of several studies, for instance, found that acupuncture seems to improve pregnancy rate in some IVF clinics, but not others, according to the journal Human Reproduction Update.
Even if it does help, more work is needed to determine how — by reducing stress, influencing hormone levels, re-balancing the body energetically, or something else entirely.
The bottom line, though, is that when performed by a licensed practitioner, acupuncture is very rarely harmful, says David Adamson, MD, a board certified reproductive endocrinologist and surgeon in Palo Alto and San Jose, California.
"My recommendation to infertility patients is that acupuncture is okay to do if they want to do it, it makes them feel good, and if they can afford to do it," he says. But because the jury is still out on its effectiveness, though, there's no pressure to try it if you don't want to, he adds. "If they don’t like doing it or have to use funds that could be used instead for proven fertility treatments, I would not recommend acupuncture.” If you're interested, it may be worth booking a session; just talk with your healthcare provider first.