The use of acupuncture as a supportive treatment for couples undergoing assisted reproductive therapies, including in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) is gaining in popularity, likely due to promising results in countless studies in the past 20 years.
Understanding how acupuncture can improve outcomes in IVF and IUI cycles can help you to decide if this treatment may be right for you.
A brief understanding of IVF and IUI
In vitro fertilization, or IVF is the process where a woman’s follicles are stimulated through medications to mature many follicles simultaneously. Once the majority of follicles are mature (17-20mm) they are retrieved and fertilized in a lab. These embryos grow for 3-5 days and are then transferred into the woman’s uterus (usually 1-2 at a time).
Intrauterine insemination will often also use medications to stimulate follicle growth, but the number of follicles is far fewer. The follicles develop within the woman’s ovaries and at ovulation the semen is inserted directly into the uterus and fertilization occurs within the body.
The success rates of IVF and IUI are variable. IVF alone is around 25-30% and IUI alone is around 13-20%. With acupuncture support, success rates can increase up to 40-60%.
How acupuncture benefits IVF and IUI cycles
Acupuncture has many benefits for improving outcomes (pregnancy rates and delivery rates) in IVF and IUI cycles. A 2002 study by Paulus and colleagues in Germany was one of the first to demonstrate an improvement in pregnancy rates with acupuncture in IVF cycles. The women receiving acupuncture had a 42.5% success rate, compared to 26.3% for those who did not receive acupuncture. Many more studies have since confirmed these findings, with impressive improvements in pregnancy and delivery rates.
Acupuncture is a very safe therapy, with relatively low costs and has no negative interactions with medications. Below I highlight some of the benefits acupuncture has on IVF and IUI cycles.
Improved ovarian response
Acupuncture is based on traditional Eastern philosophies of meridians and acupuncture points. However, we now know that significant hormonal changes occur when we administer acupuncture to specific points in the body. Acupuncture impacts beta-endorphin levels, which in turn impact our production of reproductive hormones (notably GnRH, FSH, LH, estrogen and progesterone). Acupuncture can thus improve response of the ovaries to these hormones and optimize follicle development.
Improved hormone balance
As mentioned above, acupuncture has a significant impact on hormone production and response. In IVF cycles where hormone-modulating medications are used, acupuncture can help the body to respond appropriately to medications, and minimize side effects.
Improved egg (follicle) quality and quantity
Clinically acupuncture has been shown to positively influence the number and integrity of eggs released during IVF and IUI cycles – this may be due to increasing the blood supply to the developing follicles or by increasing the nutritional supply to the egg via the fluids that surround and nourish it.
Improved blood flow to the uterus and increased rate of implantation
One of the most unique actions of acupuncture, increasing blood flow to the uterus can improve implantation rates and decrease rates of miscarriage. No medication currently exists that can enhance blood flow to the uterus the way acupuncture has been demonstrated to.
Optimal endometrial thickness
In women with thin endometrial linings IVF can have higher rates of failure. Acupuncture can help to thicken the endometrial lining (through the enhancement of blood flow) and improve rates of implantation.
Decrease rates of miscarriage
Acupuncture used during IVF results in higher rates of viable pregnancy. Additionally, acupuncture was found in a 2004 study by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine to lower miscarriage, reduce tubal pregnancy and increase live birth rate.
Stress is a major factor impacting most couples undergoing fertility treatments. Acupuncture treatments have been shown to decrease sympathetic nervous system activity (our fight-or-flight response), decrease stress hormone levels and increase opioid production – all resulting in a sense of calm and decreased stress.
Acupuncture treatments for IUI and IVF
Acupuncture treatments should be individualized to your IVF or IUI cycle, your personal medical history and current health state. For women undergoing IVF or IUI it is recommended in clinical studies to start having acupuncture 8-12 weeks (2-3 months) prior to your IUI or IVF procedure.
In my Toronto practices, I use acupuncture points selected based on clinically proven protocols (Paulus protocol, Stener-Victorin protocol, Westergaard protocol, Smith protocol), as well as points based on Traditional Chinese Medicine diagnoses and indications.
Success in acupuncture depends on more than just the frequency and timing of visits. It also requires a knowledgeable practitioner who can guide you through the process and help you achieve the benefits you desire. If you’d like to learn more, book a free meet and greet consultation or initial intake today.
Betts D. The Essential Guide to Acupuncture in Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2006.
Change, R, Chung P, Rosenwaks Z. Role of acupuncture in the treatment of female infertility. Fertil Steril. 2002 Dec:78(6)
Dieterle, S., et al. Effect of acupuncture on the outcome of in vitro fertilization and intracytoplasmic sperm injection: a randomized, prospective, controlled clinical study. Fertil Steril. 2006 May;85(5):1347- 51.
Gurfinkel E, et al. “Effects of acupuncture and moxa treatment in patients with semen abnormalities.” Asian J Androl. 2003 Dec;5(4):345-8.
Johnson D. “Acupuncture prior to and at embryo transfer in an assisted conception unit – a case series.” Acupunct Med. 2006:24(1):23-28.
Paulus WE, Zhang M, Strehler E, El-Danasouri I, Sterzik K. Influence of acupuncture on the pregnancy rate in patients who undergo assisted reproduction therapy. Fertil Steril 2002;77(4):721-4.
Stener-Victorin E, et al. “Use of acupuncture in female infertility and a summary of recent acupuncture studies related to embryo transfer. Acupunct Med. 2006 Dec;24(4):157-63. Review.
Westergaard. LG, et al. “Acupuncture on the day of embryo transfer significantly improves the reproductive outcome in infertile women: a prospective, randomized trial.” Fertil Steril. 2006 May;85(5):1341-6.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.