There is a long recorded history of Chinese herbs being used in the treatment of infertility. In fact, records indicating herbal treatment of infertility and miscarriage date back to 200 A.D., including mention of formulas that are still used for those same purposes today. The first book devoted solely to gynecology and obstetrics, "The Complete Book of Effective Prescriptions for Diseases of Women," was published in 1237 A.D.
Alternative TCM treatments have become increasingly popular in Western countries as more and more couples find out firsthand how effective and safe they are. It is with good reason that more than a quarter of the world's population regularly uses Chinese medicine as part of their health care regimen and that TCM is the only form of classical medicine that is regularly used outside of its country of origin.
According to Maciocia (1998, p. 691) infertility is defined as “…the inability to produce offspring in a woman who has been trying for two years, who has a normal sexual life and, of course, whose partner has normal reproductive function”. If a woman has never been pregnant and has been trying to fall pregnant for 2 or more years than this is considered primary infertility, if however a woman has previously been pregnant (even if she miscarried) and has been trying for 2 or more years than this is considered secondary infertility.
A woman’s optimal period of fertility is between 18 and 35 years of age, during this time there are between 1,000,000 (18 yr) and 100,000 (35 yr) follicles left in the woman’s ovaries (Annon., 2010). However, many factors can hinder or interfere with a woman’s ability to become pregnant, including endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, absence of ovulation, etc.
Both Western medicine (WM) and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) recognise infertility as a gynaecological disorder, however, the methods of diagnosis and treatment are considerably different. IVF and assisted reproduction therapy (ART) are preferred choices of treatment in WM while in TCM, Chinese herbal medicine and/or Acupuncture are the treatments of choice.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Biomedical Aetiology and Treatment of Infertility
Causes of Infertility include: constitutional weakness, overwork, excessive physical work, excessive sexual activity at an early age, invasion of cold, dietary inadequacies, any of which can result in either an empty or full condition. According to Maciocia (1998, pp. 695-696) infertility is either an empty or full condition, but can manifest in an individual as a combination of both full and empty patterns. For example, a woman may have an underlying Kidney deficiency as well as Liver Qi stagnation, which may lead to Blood becoming stagnant.
A combination of one or more of the following patterns is the root of many fertility problems:
1. Deficiency Pattern - which effects the hormonal system, impairing sexual and reproductive functions.
2. Stagnation Pattern - which has the effect of restricting circulation of qi and blood to the reproductive organs.
3. Heat or Cold Pattern - which causes the affected organs to function abnormally, by altering the mucous membrane, or raising or lowering the local temperature. In all cases, the aim of treatment is to harmonize the underlying imbalances to restore normal physiological functions.
Commonly Used Herbal Formulas in fertility treatments:
Why choose TCM over conventional fertility treatments?
While health is said to be the common goal of both TCM as well as conventional medicine, their ideas on the etiology of disease, disease in itself and the process used to recover and maintain wellness are decidedly different. The Western medicine physician learns that disease should be cured by prescribing medicine or using invasive and often dangerous surgical intervention. The physician trained in TCM, however, focuses on healing the patient not by treating the disease but rather by treating the whole person, taking into account the various combined attributes of an individual that account for that individual's state of health. According to the tenets of TCM, a person is much more than their pathology; treating the pathology may produce desired results, yet, they are usually temporary.
For female infertility, the key therapeutic factors in TCM are focused on re-establishing balance and reducing stress while regulating hormones and menstruation. TCM recognizes that many cases of infertility stem from a problem that may be more functional than structural. In contrast, Western medicine treatment techniques like IVF are not only invasive and expensive but are often stressful for the patients, and stress is not conducive to the achievement of a healthy pregnancy.
Fertility management has been extensively studied and well-developed in Chinese medicine. Doctors in modern China have reported up to a 70% success rate in treating both female and male infertility with herbs, and the results of large scale clinical trials are reported in Chinese medical journals. Hundreds of different herbs are used frequently in the treatment of infertility, often given in complex formulas comprised of multiple ingredients. Herbal medicine is often used in combination with acupuncture, massage, diet and lifestyle modifications for treating fertility. TCM fertility techniques are relatively non-invasive and can often offer a better success rate for significantly less cost.