Western infertility treatments can be painful and very expensive. Can TCM help?


Some 15 per cent of couples in Singapore fail to conceive within 12 months of trying to have a baby. In Western medicine, treating infertility often involves complicated, expensive and sometimes painful procedures, which has prompted many couples to turn to alternative methods, like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Developed in China more than 2,000 years ago, TCM refers to a broad range of practices that encompass diagnosis, therapy and medication to restore the body’s yin-yang balance by boosting its immune system.

From the Western medical perspective, Dr Christopher Chong, a consultant obstetrician, gynaecologist and urogynaecologist at Gleneagles Hospital, says, “In Asian society, using both TCM and Western methods are not uncommon. It’s not easy for some couples to conceive, so they will try all possible methods. Often, they will be on both forms of treatments — TCM to ‘balance’ their body/hormones, and Western methods for conception.”

However, he cautions that, “Since there is no proper international board or standards, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, to monitor and control the processes, any outcome and complications arising from TCM treatments have not been as well-studied as in Western treatments. I will advise my patients not to mix Western medication — in case they overdose or there’s a cross-reaction — as we do not know enough about TCM.

“Also, TCM does not offer ultrasound scans to monitor the ovaries and follicles of a patient who is trying to conceive.”

“My doctor recommended acupuncture because I was suffering from bad depression and it had helped some patients stay calm during the IVF process.”

If you and the hubs have been trying to conceive, a simple way to enhance your fertility is by getting all the necessary nutrients from eating balanced meals, says senior TCM physician Zhong Xi Ming of Eu Yan Sang Premier TCM Centre at Paragon.

Women should choose items that are high in folic acid, such as dark green vegetables, oranges, tangerines, legumes, nut wheatgerm, whole grains and egg yolks.

Men should avoid alcohol consumption as this will affect the sperm quality, Zhong advises. Consume seafood such as eel, squid, sea cucumber, cuttlefish and snails. To improve the quality of your sperm, take Chinese yam and gingko nut. To “supercharge” your sex drive, Zhong suggests zooming in on zinc-rich food such as lean beef, pork, oysters, chicken, eggs, chicken liver and peanuts.

From a TCM perspective, infertility is caused by an imbalance of qi (energy) in the body as a result of an unhealthy lifestyle, poor diet, lack of exercise, exposure to toxins, one’s genetic disposition, as well as environmental and emotional factors, notes TCM physician Poh Yu Min of Raffles Chinese Medicine.

In TCM, the three most relevant organs that affect the functions of the female reproductive system are the kidney, spleen and liver. In a normal conception, there is an abundance of kidney qi, unobstructed “meridians” (or invisible qi flows), as well as a favourable environment in and around the uterus. So, if the energy is blocked or weakened, it can result in ill health or infertility.

Poh notes that infertile women display five typical patterns:

1. KIDNEY YANG DEFICIENCY If you don’t have enough yang qi in the kidney, you can’t produce heat. Symptoms include infrequent and delayed periods, lower back and knee pain and fatigue. You’ll also be averse to cold.

2. KIDNEY YIN DEFICIENCY You’ll lack fluids or “moisture” in the body. Besides frequent or infrequent periods, other symptoms include insomnia, night sweats, dry mouth, as well as lower back and knee pain. The person also looks thin.

3. CHI AND BLOOD DEFICIENCY The main symptom is excessive or scanty menses. Besides a menstrual delay, she may experience a dull pain in the lower abdomen after each cycle. Other signs to look out for include dizziness, fatigue and insomnia.

4. CHI AND BLOOD STAGNATION She may menstruate irregularly, suffer dysmenorrhea (painful menses), pain and swelling in the breasts and in the lower abdomen, plus have purplish lips.

5. PHLEGM AND DAMPNESS RETENTION Symptoms include obesity, increased vaginal discharge, irregular periods, appetite loss, loose bowels, fatigue and dizziness.

If you are experiencing menstrual irregularities or other hormonal changes, Poh suggests getting TCM help to restore your body’s balance, especially if you plan to start a family. Since infertility is a result of multiple factors, she advises that both husband and wife consult an experienced TCM practitioner to address their concerns.


This non-invasive and relatively safe treatment option helps to stimulate egg production and regulate ovulation during the first half of the menstrual cycle. Poh adds that during the second half, it also maintains the right thickness of the endometrial lining to promote implantation of the embryo.

In acupuncture treatments, thin needles are inserted at the body’s relevant acupuncture points to address reproductive issues. These “meridians” in the body directly affect different organs and systems, such as the lungs, stomach, spleen and so forth. Poh explains that during such treatment, the patient may experience numbness, aching or an ant-bite sensation.

When the oral hormones Selvi Melasari’s gynae prescribed for the 30-year-old admin assistant to help her ovulate didn’t work, she turned to TCM after doing some research online. After meeting her TCM physician, she was told that she needed acupuncture treatment to help regulate her menstrual cycle.

Her husband also went for four sessions of acupuncture treatment, which improved both his stamina and well being. Selvi conceived after going for treatments every week for four months — she is now seven months pregnant. “While undergoing treatment, I was prescribed daily herbal medicine, in the form of granules or powder, which needed to be dissolved in warm water. This is to help improve my blood circulation, stamina and to keep my body warm,” Selvi notes.

The physician also advised the couple to get plenty of sleep and exercise, to maintain a balanced diet with more fruit and vegetables, and to avoid raw food, cold food and drinks.

Poh says that taking Chinese herbal medicine will strengthen the uterus, increase the sperm count, nourish the body, as well as regulate a variety of hormonal imbalances. The herbs will enhance the kidney, spleen and liver functions, too. For example, the Eight Treasure Tea is a herbal remedy that can improve qi and blood deficiency.

Other commonly prescribed herbs include dang gui (Radix Angelicae sinensis), shu di huang (Radix Rehmanniae preparata), gou qi zi (Fructus Lycii), and tu si zi (semen Cuscutae), says Poh.

From a TCM perspective, infertility is a result of an imbalance of qi (energy) in the body.

Acupuncture not only boosts blood flow to the reproductive organs, it stabilises hormonal fluctuations, improves egg quality and reduces stress levels. It’s also an effective way to prep your body, especially when you are undergoing Western fertility treatments.

Homemaker Jane Bingum, 30, agrees. When they couldn’t conceive, she says her doctor suggested that her husband get tested. “In my husband’s test results, he had a high sperm count but only 1 per cent motility,” she says. When both intra-uterine insemination (IUI) attempts failed, the couple decided to start in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment. However, Bingum also asked her doctor about alternative methods.

Bingum, now 32 weeks pregnant with a baby girl, said several people had recommended that she try TCM while she was trying to conceive. “My doctor recommended it because I was suffering from bad depression and [TCM] had helped some patients stay calm during the IVF process.”

Her first appointment with her TCM physician took place halfway through her IVF treatment. She says, “I was told to attend the acupuncture sessions to help with my depression, to improve blood circulation, as well as to prepare my body to produce good quality eggs and then for it to accept the embryo after the transfer.”

For patients who plan to try IVF treatment, Poh advises that they begin acupuncture treatment regularly — about three months prior to the procedure — as this will help regulate the body’s functions and increase the IVF rate of success. “Sometimes after three months, the patient regains a normal menstrual cycle and is able to become pregnant naturally,” she adds.

After four rounds of acupuncture, Bingum discovered that she had 12 mature eggs for collection, 11 of which were fertilised.

She says, “I conceived on my first IVF attempt! I think the acupuncture sessions played a big part in the success of my pregnancy. Also, it’s important to relax during the sessions — for me, listening to meditation music worked.

“I also have seven very good quality frozen embryos that I can use at a later date.”

Photo: iStock

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