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By Andrew Macfarlane
October 10th, 2011
The inability to conceive can be a very frustrating and emotionally draining experience for both women and men. It is all the more frustrating when conventional western medicine offers no cure or explanation as to why one is unable to conceive. Luckily, Chinese Medicine has a long history of success with fertility issues, for both women and men, even in cases when there is no apparent cause detected by western medical diagnosis. Chinese Medical treatment of infertility is a vast subject. The following article serves as a brief introduction to its views and theories, with an emphasis on female reproductive health.
One of the most important aspects of promoting fertility is regulating a women’s menstrual cycle. The menstrual cycle consists of four stages which are manifestations of the cyclical rise and fall of the body’s yin and yang energetics, specifically the yin and yang of the kidneys. The onset of the period is the most yang, energetic aspect, and marks the point of transformation from yang to yin. The onset of ovulation is the most yin time, and the starting point of transformation from yin to yang. The qi of the heart, which needs to be in communication with the kidneys, is responsible for this transformation, and is also involved with the discharge of menstrual blood and eggs.
Pathological changes in menstruation are often rooted in an imbalance in one or more of the four phases of the menstrual cycle. A Chinese Medical practitioner will ask extensive questions of female fertility patients about the regularity of their cycle, the color and thickness of menses, duration of flow, PMS symptoms, presence or absence of clots, pain and cramping, among others. The information gathered from these inquiries often gives a clear indication of the health status of a woman’s blood and reproductive health, and helps the clinician determine what aspect or phase of the menstrual cycle may be out of balance. Each phase of the menstrual cycle has a different treatment principle, and once the cause is uncovered, targeted acupuncture and dietary changes can help to regulate the cycle, reinstating balance. Restoring the health of the menstrual cycle can have a profound impact on a women’s hormonal health and fertility.
It is important to understand the holistic nature of Chinese Medicine, and treating fertility issues is no exception. Causes of infertility often include deficiency of the humors of the body, for example, blood deficiency. The Chinese Medical understanding of blood in the body is a bit broader than Western Medicine, and a patient can have signs and symptoms of blood deficiency without having blood tests show anemia. If there is deficiency in any of the humors of the body, this often points to insufficient functioning of the zang fu, the organs of the body, or insufficient dietary nourishment, as well as possibly other lifestyle and psycho-emotional conditions. As an example, the Liver is responsible for storing the blood in Chinese Medical thinking, and the liver blood needs to nourish the Kidneys in order for the menstrual blood to be formed. If liver blood is deficient, the kidneys will not be nourished and menstruation will be affected, making conception difficult. Likewise, the blood of the spleen is said to nourish the heart in Chinese medicine, which is another important mechanism in fertility. Earlier, we mentioned that the communication between heart and kidneys is critical to the health of the menstrual cycle as well as the discharge of the eggs. If the spleen blood fails to nourish the heart, the communication between the heart and kidneys will likely become compromised. In truth, there may be no deficiency of blood or humors, but rather an obstruction in the communication between organ systems, which will have the same deleterious effects on ability to conceive, but different types of treatment. Chinese Medical pulse diagnosis is essential to determine the extent of communication between organ systems.
Another possible cause of fertility problems in Chinese Medicine is what we call Jing Deficiency, or essence deficiency. Jing is the most essential and fundamental substance that carries us through life. Jing falls in the domain of kidney energetics and can be thought of as our deepest energy reserves. Jing naturally declines with age, but there are other factors that can slow or speed up this decline, including poor lifestyle habits, chronic disease, overindulgence in sex, among others. Acupuncture has much to offer in terms of rejuvenating and preserving the jing essence. Working with the jing takes us into the realm of constitutional energetics, and what are called the eight extraordinary vessels of acupuncture, a meridian system which classical acupuncture excels in utilizing. The eight extra meridians are often very important in the treatment of fertility issues, both in men and women. To strengthen the essence, it is believed that one must be comfortable with their innate nature, which there are specific eight extra meridians that can be tapped into in order to foster this.
To sum up, Chinese Medicine has been shown to be very effective in treating all types of menstrual problems, such as irregular periods, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, clots, spotting, cramping, PMS, etc... In addition to regulating the menstruation, Chinese Medicine can treat hormonal imbalance, endometriosus, uterine fibroids, habitual miscarriage, chronic vaginal infections, and problems of unknown origin, among others, all of which can be implicated in difficulty conceiving.
The various scenarios that have been outlined in this article serve to give the reader a sense of the many issues which need to be looked into when trying to facilitate fertility through Chinese Medical treatment. The strength of Chinese Medicine is its flexibility, its keen diagnostic capabilities, and its ability to give truly individualized treatment. There have been many valid schools of thought that have arisen around fertility treatment in the history of Chinese medicine, some emphasizing more of a meridian approach, others a more organ centered approach, as well as more psycho-emotional approaches. This is very valuable in that if one treatment doesn’t work, there are always other ways to perceive and understand the state of disharmony, allowing for more chance of a successful outcome. Of course, part of the art of Chinese Medicine is discernment in choosing the most suitable course of treatment. Lastly, the reproductive health of the male should not be overlooked, and male fertility difficulties, depending on the cause, are also effectively treated by Chinese medicine.
Wishing you all Health, Happiness, and Ease in your Life!
Andrew Macfarlane L.Ac