Acupuncture, Infertility & the Immune System
The balanced immune system works to defend all parts of the body against invaders such as parasites, bacteria and viruses. It identifies such invaders and destroys them. Over-reactions of the immune system can reduce fertility through autoimmune disorders and alloimune disorders.
Autoimmune conditions, which are increasing in women world-wide, are associated with as much as 90% of failed conception. In such cases the immune system mistakenly identifies cells of the woman's own body as enemies and attacks them.1
Fertilization and Embryo Growth
Shortly after an egg is fertilized trophoblasts (embryo cells) begin to form on the lining of the uterus. The attached embryo cells and the uterine lining cells exchange communicative cytokines (similar to hormones) permitting the safe growth of the embryo. This natural process sidesteps what would normally be an immune-system attack on an unknown invader.
Causes of Autoimmune and Alloimmune-Related Infertility
HLA G mutation
An HLA G gene mutation can hamper the release of cytokines breaking down communication between the embryo cells, uterine lining and immune system. The embryo is not directly attacked, but DNA stops replicating and the embryo dies.2
If there are blood clots in the blood vessels in the placenta the embryo is starved of oxygen, blood and vital nutrients. Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) interferes with blood cell functioning and causes these clots to form.2
In alloimmune disorders, associated with 10% of failed conceptions, either the woman's or man's immune system identifies the father's sperm as an enemy. In men the antisperm antibodies hinder sperm's movement by causing them to clump together. Antisperm antibodies may attack if the father has had a prostate infection, or if there has been injury from male reproductive surgery.3 Rarely, women may be allergic to the father's sperm triggering an immune system attack.
Who is at Risk?
Women with the following health conditions are at greater risk of such immune-system interference:
- Lupus erythematosus (hyperactive immune system)
- Thyroid conditions (Hashimoto's, Graves')
- Type 1 diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Celiac disease (intolerance to gluten)
- Sjogren's syndrome (causing severe eye/mouth/reproductive dryness)
- Adrenal-related hormone deficiencies
- Endometriosis (uterine lining material grows outside the uterus)
- Pernicious anemia (vitamin B-12 deficiency, a problem for vegans)
- Recurrent IVF failures
- Recurrent miscarriages
TCM Treats Immune-system Related Infertility
Traditional Chinese Medicine views our body as an interconnected whole which functions properly when each part of the whole is in balance.
TCM treats the root problem of immune system disorders with diet, herbs and acupuncture -- when the root problem is addressed then the markers that govern the immune system correct themselves.
Researchers have demonstrated that acupuncture, by reducing stress and restoring balance, supports a health modulatory effect on the immune system. For example researchers have found that acupuncture and Chinese Medicine herbal formulations help to reduce rheumatoid arthritis4 and lupus erthematosus.5
Herbs known as adaptogens help support a healthy immune system and the body's response to stress. They function through non-specific stress gland support, support of normal body functioning even in the presence of disease. Examples of such herbs include:
- Shatavari protects the body from stressors and is helpful for women with stress-induced and immune-related fertility problems.6
- Tribulus terrestris has been found support a 61% increase in couples with alloimmune fertility problems, perhaps because of its support of fat-lowering, anti-hypertension, and endothelial protective effects.7
- Maca nourishes the endocrine system and thus supports the health of the pituitary, adrenal and thyroid glands - which in turn supports the health of the immune system. For example, researchers have found, in lab animals, that it acts as a modulator of sperm count, supporting sperm health.8, 9
- Dong quai root (Angelica sinensi) encourages balanced immune system functioning and reduces inflammation.10
To help support your immune system and overall health it will be important for you to pay attention to these general health factors:
- Stop smoking! Cigarette smoking creates cyno-toxins in the body.
- Limit alcohol to no more than one glass of wine daily
- Get exercise. A minimum of a daily 20 minute brisk walk has been found to impact every aspect of your health - from vision to mental well-being to fertility.
- Eat a balanced diet. Include lots of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables in your diet. Limit intake of bad fats, red meat, refined grains and sugar.
- If you are taking medications for an autoimmune disorder check with your doctor well in advance if you are planning pregnancy. Some medications have a negative effect on the embryo's development.
1. V. Gomes, et al, Autoimmune diseases and pregnancy: analysis of a series of cases, BMC Research Notes, June, 2015.
2. S. Djurisic, et al, Allelic imbalance modulates surface expression of the tolerance-inducing HLA-G molecule on primary trophoblast cells, Molecular Human Reproduction, March, 2015.
3. E. Lucena, et al, Immune abnormalities in endometriosis compromising fertility in IVF-ET patients, Journal of Reproductive Medicine, May, 1999
4. L. J. Ni, et al, Evaluation of the Effects of Active Fractions of Chinese Medicine Formulas on IL-1beta, IL-6, and TNF-alpha release from ANA-1 Murine Macrophages, Journal of Ethnopharmacoogy, December, 2015.
5. L. Huang, et al, A Systems Biology-Based Investigation into the Pharmacological Mechanisms of Sheng-ma-bie-jia-tang Acting on Systemic Lupus Erythematosus by Multi-Level Data Integration, Scientific Reports, November, 2015.
6. M.V. Pise, Immunomodulatory potential of shatavarins produced from Asparagus racemosus tissue cultures, Journal of Natural Science, Biology and Medicine, July-December, 2015.
7. Y. H. Jiang, et al, Aqueous extracts of Tribulus terrestris protects against oxidized low-density lipoprotein-induced endothelial dysfunction, Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine, November, 2015.
8. M. Gasco, Effect of chronic treatment with three varieties of Lepidium meyenii (Maca) on reproductive parameters and DNA quantification in adult male rats, Androgia, August, 2007.
9. Y. Ohta, et al, Feeding hydroalcoholic extract powder of Lepidium meyenii (maca) increases serum testosterone concentration and enhances steroidogenic ability of Leydig cells in male rats, Andrologia, July, 2015.
10. D. Montenegro, et al, Uncovering potential 'herbal probiotics' in Juzen-taiho-to through the study of associated bacterial populations, Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry Letters, February, 2015.