Seven million women of reproductive age have undergone fertility treatments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Acupuncture, hypnosis, and other complementary therapies are touted as an alternative to costly, high-tech fertility treatments--but do they really work? Although there isn't any conclusive research on the topic, some experts say they're worth a shot. "Personally, I think the best way for women with fertility issues to increase the chances of conceiving is an integrative approach," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, MA. "If you have a medical problem, seek medical help. But if these alternative therapies can help your mental state, I say they're worth doing."
To avoid a scam, ask your doctor to recommend a qualified practitioner for the therapy you'd like to try. Here, we discuss six complementary therapies and their potential to get you pregnant.
1. Acupuncture. Results from studies regarding fertility and acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that (in this case) involves placing tiny needles into areas of the body thought to influence fertility, are mixed. In 2006, a study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility showed that 36 percent of women who had acupuncture before and after embryo transfer during IVF got pregnant, versus 22 percent of those who didn't have the needle therapy. Three years later, however, a study published in the same journal reported no significant difference in pregnancy rates between the two groups. The discrepancies could be due to fertility-impairing stress levels, says Sarah Berga, M.D., a reproductive endocrinologist and associate dean at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston Salem, NC. "People can be a little or a lot stressed," she explains. "It might be that acupuncture can help those that are a little, but not a lot, stressed."
2. Mind/Body Techniques. Much of the research involving fertility and guided imagery, deep breathing, and cognitive behavioral therapy (in which patients are taught to turn negative thoughts into positive ones) is promising. According to a recent study done by Dr. Domar and her colleagues, 52 percent of the women receiving IVF treatments and attending mind/body sessions were pregnant after two IVF cycles, versus just 20 percent of those who abstained from therapy. "No one method works for everybody," Dr. Domar says. "Because we combine group support, relaxation training, cognitive therapy, and lifestyle modifications, there's a stress-reduction strategy that will work for each patient. And there's a lot of data to show that high levels of stress hamper fertility."
3. Hypnosis. In 2006, an Israeli study showed that women who were hypnotized during the implantation of embryos during IVF were twice as likely to get pregnant as those who weren't hypnotized. But the research is limited and it's hard to make an overall endorsement, say the experts. "Until we have the data on it, we can't say it's a treatment for infertility," Dr. Domar says. "But if you think you might enjoy it and you want to try it, more power to you. Just don't be taken in by practitioners who promise they will get you pregnant--we don't have the data to support that."
5. Herbs. With no data showing they increase pregnancy rates and no federal regulation of their labeling, many fertility specialists don't recommend using herbs. "Herbs can trigger allergies, be toxic or irritating, or just hang out in the body too long," Dr. Berga says. "We don't know which ones in particular to stay away from, because they haven't been well studied, but it's definitely a buyer-beware market."
6. Yoga. Again, there's no research indicating yoga is a bona fide infertility treatment. "But I like all my patients to learn it," Dr. Domar says. "First, it's a great relaxation technique. Second, a lot of women undergoing fertility treatments are angry with their bodies. Yoga reacquaints them with the idea that their bodies can help them feel good. Last, because there's a lot of evidence showing that vigorous exercise is associated with decreased fertility, I advise my patients struggling with infertility to decrease the intensity of their exercise regimen. Yoga is a good way to stay toned without adversely affecting fertility."
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