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

Infertility is understandably a painful topic to discuss, even as Singapore's resident total fertility rate hit an all-time low of 1.05 in 2022. According to statistics, some 15 percent of couples in Singapore are unable to conceive within 12 months of trying for a baby. 

While Western medicine is often the first line-of-treatment for couples facing infertility, this often involves complicated and expensive procedures such as in-vitro fertilisation (IVF). As such, some couples may turn to alternative methods like Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help with conceiving. 

We demystify exactly what TCM entails when it comes to conceiving, how TCM can help with infertility, types of TCM fertility treatments as well as expected costs.

TCM and fertility 

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.

In Asian society, using both TCM and Western methods to boost conception is not uncommon. In fact, both methods can be complementary. A  2017 paper published by the Journal of Integrative Medicine, a peer-reviewed journal by Changhai Hospital of Shanghai, has shown that co-treating conditions like PCOS (which affects fertility) with TCM is more effective than receiving only Western medical treatments.

As mentioned in a 2008 article by Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, TCM could regulate the gonadotropin-releasing hormone to induce ovulation, improve the uterus blood flow as well as menstrual changes of the endometrium. In addition, it also has impacts on patients with infertility which result from PCOS, anxiety, stress and immunological disorders. 

However, doctors also caution that there is no proper international board or standards, such as the US Food and Drug Administration, to monitor and control the processes, outcome and complications arising from TCM treatments. They have also not been as well-studied as Western fertility treatments. As such, be aware of possible risks, and consult your fertility specialist if you are already taking Western medication for fertility and hope to supplement it with TCM.

Causes of infertility in TCM philosophy

From a TCM perspective, infertility is caused by an imbalance of qi (energy) in the body. In terms of women’s infertility, the four main organ systems, namely the kidney, liver, spleen, and heart, together with Yin, Yang, Qi, and blood are mostly likely to be imbalanced. These can be caused by an excess or lack of energy, and TCM for fertility aims to nurse them back to their natural function of distributing vital energies throughout the body, and eventually restore their natural fertility.

The following factors are believed to contribute to infertility, according to the TCM philosophy:  

Stress: In TCM, stress is closely related to Liver Qi stagnation and presents itself as being irritable, sighing often, a tight chest or PMS. 

Diet: With a poor or irregular diet, one increases their risk of irregular ovulation. Irregular or absent ovulation is one of the common causes of infertility. 

Environmental factors: Living in an industrialised environment, with different types of toxic chemicals present in the air and surroundings, can have detrimental effects on your body and affect your fertility. These chemicals, called endocrine disruptors, can affect your natural hormonal pattern and compromise fertility. 

Lifestyle habits: Drinking, smoking and the lack of exercise can negatively affect fertility. 

How TCM helps fertility

From a TCM point-of-view, fertility issues are seen not so much as a disorder, but a lack of balance in the body that prevents natural conception. As such, the focus is on addressing a patient’s overall well-being. A TCM regimen aims to both improve holistic health and treat individual fertility issues. 

With TCM, treatments are tailored specifically to patients. The approach is natural and non-invasive, unlike Western treatments which may require the consumption of pills to regulate hormones or drugs to stimulate follicle production during IVF. 
Chinese herbal medicine, derived from natural products that are plant, animal or mineral-based, typically involves minimal side effects when consumed correctly. The medicine is also prescribed by a certified TCM physician, who will consider other prescription medications or treatments that a patient might already be receiving. 

As TCM can help with reducing inflammation, improving blood circulation and the functions of the reproductive organs, some patients may also find that they are able to conceive naturally, without consuming hormonal drugs or undergoing an invasive surgery. 

Types of TCM treatments to boost fertility

One of the primary types of TCM fertility treatments is acupuncture. This involves inserting needles into one’s body acupoints, to increase blood flow to the reproductive organs and release blocked energy. 

From the TCM perspective, the body is composed of meridians (also known as energy highways). Each meridian is connected to an organ and tied with acupuncture points, each having their own specific functions. These points tonify your bodily systems, including your reproductive system. The imbalance of these energies disrupts your body’s capability to ovulate and stabilise hormonal fluctuations. As such, the insertion of thin and disposable sterile needles stimulates the major pathways of your body, restoring balance and improving fertility.

These repeated acupuncture sessions are often complemented with Chinese herbal medicine like tea and food supplements. Such herbal remedies are prescribed to strengthen the uterus, increase sperm count for men, nourish the body as well as regulate hormonal imbalances. Herbs also help enhance liver, kidney and spleen functions. One such example is the Eight Treasure Tea, which can help 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). 

Your TCM physician may also recommend that you make lifestyle changes to improve your body constitution, such as getting plenty of sleep and exercise, maintaining a balanced diet with more fruit and vegetables and avoiding raw food, cold food and drinks.

Where to go for treatment and expected costs

We recommend seeking TCM fertility treatment from a reputable and certified practitioner. Consider Thomson Chinese Medicine, first established in 2009 within Thomson Medical Centre to support fertility patients undergoing IVF.

TCM treatment typically involves a detailed consultation and medical history review, followed by a treatment plan comprising acupuncture and/or Chinese herbal medicine, specially tailored for your body. As part of the Thomson Medical Group, physicians at Thomson Chinese Medicine can also ensure that TCM and Western therapies work in tandem for holistic care.

Fertility consults usually range from $80 to $120 for the first time, with subsequent consults from $30 and up. Acupuncture for fertility is expected to cost around $95 per session. Costs for other services and herbal remedies may be found here

For more information about Thomson Chinese Medicine or to book a consultation, visit their website here

Photos: iStock

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