Acupuncture for fertility is a huge topic. It’s actually much bigger than just acupuncture. The fact is acupuncture is an important cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) but it’s still a smaller part of a much bigger picture. I thought it was time we started to scratch the surface of TCM approaches to fertility and how acupuncture and other lifestyle changes can help bolster your fertility success.
Nutrition for fertility
You are what you eat, it’s true! You’re also what your mama ate both before and after conception. And a bit of your papa, too. Food literally makes up what we are – carbs and fats give us energy and cell structure, proteins give us amino acids and building blocks. What we eat and how we eat while trying to conceive can have a huge impact on our success.
Nutrients from food
The first thing I like to suggest to my patients is that they get their nutrients from food rather than supplementation. I like to use orange juice as a metaphor: you can get your vitamin C from a pill and lack the nutritional context that would help you absorb it. You could drink orange juice and get some of the nutritional context. Or you could eat an orange, get all of the information and nutrients you need from the fruit including the vitamin C. So instead of just taking a fish oil supplement, try to introduce cold water fatty fish to your diet. Instead of taking a fiber supplement eat more grains.
This doesn’t mean don’t take a fish oil supplement or a prenatal. These are absolutely helpful. However, make sure that you’re taking them in addition to a whole lot of actual food and not just supplementing a macaroni and cheese diet.
Also regarding supplementation, be careful what you find online. On many fertility forums you’ll find recommendations for evening primrose oil, red raspberry leaf tea, bee pollen, royal jelly and so many more. Only start taking supplements under the guidance of an acupuncturist or naturopath and your primary care physician. The last thing you need is to muck up the hormone regimen your fertility doc has carefully laid out for you because you found a neat article on royal jelly. Make informed decisions with the support of your care team.
No one size fits all diet
The second thing I like to remind my patients is that there is no one size fits all diet that will help you conceive. Some women do very well on heavily plant based or even vegan diet. Others do very well on meat based diets like keto or paleo. Some women don’t need to move very far from the standard American diet at all. Your body is very good at telling you what is right or wrong, you just need to learn to speak its language.
Partners through it all
The third thing is that you need to remember that you’re not the only one that needs to make changes. If your partner is contributing genetic material, they need to be eating well too. Sperm count and quality is heavily impacted by diet. This is a group effort, folks!
Lastly, remember that it’s impossible to be perfect. Try to eat well, but don’t bankrupt yourself buying only locally grown, seasonal organic produce. If you can’t make that work in your budget, that’s ok. You’ll miss some doses of your supplements and sometimes you’ll eat ice cream or potato chips. That’s ok too. Some of us can’t give up the daily cup of coffee. That’s workable. The point is, don’t stress yourself out trying to eat the “Perfect Fertility Diet” – there are too many of them out there. Just be healthy.
Exercise for fertility
Ah, exercise. Some of us love it, some of us hate it, all of us need it. But Western attitudes towards exercise can be a bit extreme. We really, really like low body fat percentages. The problem is that women have naturally higher body fat than men for a reason. According to Toni Weschler of Taking Charge of Your Fertility (affiliate link), we need a minimum of 18% body fat when trying to conceive. Ideally, we’d like it to be 22-25%. Bodies don’t like to make babies when they think there may be a famine going on.
Even if our body fat is healthy, we could still be over-exercising. When we “dig deep” into our energy reserves and push past “the Wall” we dig into our Kidney energy. Think of our Kidney energy as a metaphor for the energy that gets us through life (where our Spleen energy is what gets us through the day). This is energy that we get from our parents that helps determine our development and longevity and that we pass onto our kids. It loosely correlates with genetics among other things. By overtaxing this energy, we’re telling our bodies “Hey, there’s not enough of this energy to go towards kids right now. We have to keep me running!”
Yes, yes there are the stories of women running marathons while trying to conceive and even running them while 9 months pregnant. But these women are in excellent health, have balanced energy and don’t have problems with their Spleen or Kidney energies like the vast majority of American women.
So take it a little easy
Good exercises for while you’re trying to conceive are walking, moderate running (I like to recommend keeping it under 5k three times a week), strength training and yoga. My favorite yoga DVD was ’Restoring Fertility’ (affiliate link) by Drs. Brandon Horn and Wendy Yu. I did it every day for three months and I intend to do it again postpartum to help regulate my cycle.
And remember, like with nutrition, don’t beat yourself up about not being perfect. Stay active, try to go for 20 minutes of exercise 5 days a week minimum and remember that you’re doing this for your health more than anything else.
Find a Supportive Community
Trying to conceive can feel like a lonely process. Sometimes it feels like it’s just you and your partner. Sometimes it can feel like it’s just you. This feeling of isolation does nothing good for your body, mind or soul.
The first thing I would recommend is to join an online group of like-minded women. I highly recommend Reddit’s r/tryingforababy or r/ttcafterloss if you’ve had a previous miscarriage. What I like about these communities is that they open up your world to the fact that you are not alone and that there are many different flavors of trying to conceive. Some are trying for the first time, some are trying over the age of 30, and some are just looking to laugh about it with someone.
Once you get comfortable talking about trying to conceive, find people you trust that you can visit in person. Internet friendships and connections are great but they are not a proper substitute for in-person interactions.
Finally, get yourself a good medical team. If you’re at a point where you’re thinking of Western treatments, find an understanding fertility doctor. If you’re not, find an acupuncturist in your area that specializes in women’s health or fertility. Find a massage therapist to help manage your stress. Find professionals who can give you better advice than the armchair doctors in your friend groups and online. Combine all these professionals into a team that can follow you through pregnancy and beyond.
The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that if you find people to walk through this with you the journey will be 100 times better.
Relaxation and Fertility
If there is one thing that women who are trying to conceive get tired of hearing it’s, “Relax! It’ll happen.” I remember how angry I would feel about it at times and I definitely remember I was not alone.
The problem is that conventional wisdom in this matter is right. Stress is inflammatory. Stress reduces circulation to our reproductive organs because we’re constantly in fight or flight mode. Women are especially guilty about stressing ourselves out when it comes to fertility because we’re obsessed with this idea of doing all the “right things.” This is why throughout this post I’ve been saying, “Don’t be perfect. Just be healthy. Don’t beat yourself up.” These things do actually have a negative impact on fertility.
Ironically, some of the things we’re told to do to relieve stress add to it because it’s just one more thing on the to-do list. Trying to shoehorn in 20 minutes to meditate in the morning when 1) you really don’t want to and 2) you don’t have time anyway is counter-productive. I am, 100%, pro-meditation but if you hate it and you would rather spend those 20 minutes sleeping, please sleep.
The TED Talk that changed my life
The best way to combat stress is to change your mindset about it. There is an amazing TED talk by Kelly McGonigal called “How to Make Stress your Friend” and it completely changed the way I saw stress. Her main point in the video is that changing the way you see stress changes it’s impact on you. So you relax because, hey, your body is just doing what it’s meant to do. If there is one thing you should add to your to-do list it’s to sit down and watch this video.
Lastly, things that help other people relax may not help you. Sit down and write up a list of things that make you feel free, open or happy. Make it a point to do those things. Maybe it’s meditation or maybe it’s playing guitar. Whatever it is, do the things that work for you, not the things that you find on a list somewhere.
Need help destressing?
Actually have sex
This may seem obvious but after being part of trying to conceive communities I’ve seen this a lot: people aren’t actually having sex.
We get so caught up in temping, charting and OPKs that we’re really only having sex one or two times a month. This drastically decreases the chances of hitting our fertile window. And when we do have sex, it feels like a job. We are laser focused on a goal and we forget that the reason we want to do this – to start a family – is because we want to be closer to our partners.
Remember to connect with this person that you love. Stay affectionate. Remember that sex is the adult form of play. If you ever feel less attracted to your partner and you’re just getting down because a couple of blue lines on an OPK say it’s go time, it might be time to back off for a bit and maybe go on a date.
So what’s the “Too long; didn’t read”
- Eat actual food. Supplement only with medical supervision on top of a diet of actual food.
- Don’t overdo your exercise
- Find a supportive community
- Don’t stress out about stress (or any of the rest)
- Actually have sex
There’s a trope of calling this a “fertility journey” for a reason. It takes time and your path to conception is going to look different than someone else’s. If you’re looking for support, schedule an appointment online. I’d love to be part of your care team.
Disclaimer: I am an acupuncturist in the state of Minnesota, and the information falls within my scope of practice in my state. However, unless I have directed you here as your homework I am probably not your acupuncturist. The information in this post is for general purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. As always, check with your own acupuncturist or primary care provider before making any lifestyle changes. This post does not create a patient-practitioner relationship and I am not liable for any losses or damages resulting or relating to the content in this post.
Resources and links
For those trying for a baby
Moms and dads trying to conceive after a loss
If you’re trying to conceive for the first time
Or maybe you’re trying to conceive after 30
And for those trolling for a baby
Kelly McGonigal’s “How to Make Stress Your Friend“
Chris Kresser’s “The Paleo Cure” (formerly “The Personal Paleo Code/Plan”)
Toni Weschler’s “Taking Charge of Your Fertility“
Restoring Fertility by Dr Wendy Yu and Dr Brandon Horn
Jessica Gustafson is a licensed acupuncturist in St Paul, MN specializing in women’s health and fertility. She loves working with patients through the Health Foundations Birth Center on Grand Avenue in St Paul as well as doing home visits in the Twin Cities area. Check out the services page for more information!
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