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What people with uteruses should know about acupuncture and fertility

And why you might want to give it a try

Credit: Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images Plus; Francesca Roh/Xtra

Too scared of needles to try acupuncture? If you’re a person with a uterus, you might be missing out on its benefits.

Mary Wong is a registered traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner and acupuncturist. She’s also the founder of ALIVE Holistic Health Clinic in Toronto and the author of Pathways to Pregnancy.

Wong, who has been practicing for 26 years, works predominantly with women to help improve their reproductive health and fertility, including queer women, same-sex couples and single women trying to conceive. She spoke to Xtra about what queer women should know about their fertility.

Mary Wong, a registered acupuncturist and founder of ALIVE Holistic Health Clinic in Toronto. Credit: Courtesy Mary Wong

What is acupuncture? 

Acupuncture is part of a system of TCM that is over 2,000 years old. It involves the insertion of fine needles into specific acupuncture points, or pressure points.

In acupuncture, we enhance cellular energy — qi. Every body is made up of energy, and sometimes we have blockages or disturbances in the flow of our energy that can cause pain and health issues. Acupuncture is well-known for helping pain, from headaches and migraines to menstrual pain and constipation; by stimulating the acupuncture points, it helps decrease cortisol levels — the primary stress hormone — and increase endorphin levels, which is a natural feel-good and pain-relieving hormone.

If you’re a person with a uterus, can acupuncture improve your reproductive health?

Acupuncture increases blood flow to the ovaries, uterus and the whole of the reproductive system that balances and regulates hormones in the body. This helps with a range of reproductive issues and irregularities such as endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), cysts, fibroids, dysmenorrhea [painful periods], ovulation pain, PMS and mood issues associated with hormonal imbalance. Along with TCM, acupuncture helps clear these blockages and reduce stress to better prepare the body for pregnancy.

For people who are working with a fertility clinic to help with conceiving, acupuncture can also mitigate and decrease the side effects of the medications prescribed, such as constipation, migraines, insomnia and moodiness. Though not all TCM practitioners believe in Western medicine, we call our practice “integrative medicine.” It’s not about abandoning one or the other, but about working together — in fact, we communicate with your general practitioner, and that’s how it should be.

What are some of the barriers same-sex couples face when trying to conceive? 

At fertility clinics or with doctors, there’s sometimes an assumption that either person can be pregnant, without understanding that one partner may not want to ever carry a child. But despite there being a clear distinction in their relationship of who will conceive, reproductive fertility doctors don’t think like that, they just think of statistics. For example, if an older partner wants to conceive, some doctors think, “Why are you doing it when we can just use younger eggs?” Or if the partner who wants to conceive is having a hard time getting pregnant, they hear things like, “Why don’t we just use your partner instead?” So there’s a huge lack of empathy and it’s really disheartening to experience.

What are some misconceptions about fertility?

I think a lot of women have grown up automatically thinking that they’re fertile because as a young teen, sex ed puts the fear of God in you to not get pregnant. But today, fertility clinics are popping up everywhere. Women are having children in their 30s and 40s, when fertility declines. There’s also a lot more education and research on lifestyle and environmental factors that can affect your fertility. So now there’s an opposite fear, especially among younger women, about being infertile. Because there’s much more awareness about fertility, people become hyper-aware and hypervigilant.

Can acupuncture help with menopause?

Yes. It’s important to note that menopause is not a disease, it’s a natural progression. However, there are menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms that are uncomfortable, such as insomnia, hot flashes, night sweats, hair loss, moodiness and vaginal dryness. We can help rebalance the hormonal shifts that happen during menopause to lessen or treat these effects.

Lesbian and bisexual women are more likely to engage in behaviours that can lead to poor health outcomes, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, and they also have disproportionately higher rates of chronic health issues like type 2 diabetes. In many cases, these health issues are linked to what’s called discrimination or minority stress. How does this sort of stress affect reproductive health?

Research is torn on whether stress affects fertility. But in Chinese medicine, we believe that the root cause of any physical issue is our emotional state. When you have prolonged, chronic periods of negative emotions and stress it gets internalized and has to go somewhere. Where it goes depends on where that person’s carrie their stress. Some studies have found that for certain women, stress can affect their reproductive system, cause irregular periods and decrease fertility — but for other women, their fertility is fine. Stress can disrupt function both hormonally or physiologically, so we help to reduce the stress response and that helps normalize their reproductive hormones so that the uterus and ovaries are more receptive and function more regularly.

For bisexual and queer women it’s a multifacted issue: you’re dealing with minority stress, which is chronic high levels of stress. But then they are often using addictive coping methods like smoking and drinking to deal with the pain and isolation associated with discrimination and stress. These lifestyle factors can impede reproductive functioning and have been linked to poorer pregnancy outcomes, such decreased fertility, miscarriage and pre-term birth.

What can people with uteruses do to take charge of their reproductive health?

No matter if you’re 18 or 25 or 30, take charge now. Unfortunately, most people reach out to us as a last resort when they’ve already tried everything. Be proactive about your fertility and gynecological health so that when you decide to conceive it doesn’t take as much effort. Chinese medicine is preventative medicine — ideally, we want to help before you even start trying to get pregnant. If you have other reproductive or uterine issues like endometriosis and polycystic ovaries, we can help treat them to clear the path for pregnancy.