NEW YORK — Alternative fertility treatments are beginning to top the list of services in several spas and health and wellness centers in Manhattan.
As the cost of Western fertility treatments reaches in the tens of thousands of dollars per couple, and as women become more frustrated with their side effects and sometimes inefficacy, natural health practitioners are stepping in to offer alternatives, such as acupuncture, reflexology and chiropractic care — for women having problems conceiving.
Acupuncture is one of the most popular modalities women are seeking, either to complement or replace traditional fertility treatments. The age-old practice, research shows, can normalize the production of hormones in the pituitary gland, the master gland for endocrine function, and can specifically help women who don’t menstruate regularly to resume ovulation, according to Dr. Pak H. Chung, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in Manhattan, which performs the highest number of in vitro fertilization procedures in the country.
Another benefit to acupuncture is its ability to increase blood flow to the uterus, which in turn strengthens the uterine lining, a vital part of preventing miscarriage. The third aspect where acupuncture may help is in reducing stress. “In extreme cases, women don’t ovulate if stressed,” Dr. Chung said.
Dr. Chung estimates that up to 15 percent of all couples globally have infertility issues. “The human reproduction system is not efficient,” he added, explaining that a healthy, young couple only has a 20 percent chance each month of conceiving.
While acupuncture is offered at many spas and health and wellness centers across the country, some spas are becoming known for their success rate in helping women conceive through its use. At the Oasis on Park day spa located at One Park Avenue, acupuncturist Eunice Simmons said about 60 percent of her patient list visits her for fertility help. Simmons, who also owns and operates Acupuncture on Park, has even developed a support group on Monday nights for her patients with fertility issues. “It can be so isolating,” Simmons said of the process women go through when trying to get pregnant.
Seeking acupuncture “is a good way to incorporate this [togetherness] on their journey. It’s really taking care of the person rather than just the symptom. There’s also the group aspect of it, where women can exchange ideas. There is something to be said about feeling that you are not the only one,” Simmons said.
Acupuncture, she added, serves as an affordable alternative or complementary service for women seeking traditional Western fertility treatments, such as IVF.
“People are spending so much money [on Western fertility treatments] that [acupuncture] is a drop in the bucket and it has such good results,” Simmons said.
Acupuncture treatments on average cost $75 to $85 per 55-minute session.
Many of Simmons’ patients have had success in conceiving while undergoing acupuncture, including five women who were recently in her Monday support group, whom she said are all pregnant now. Three of the group members were receiving Western fertility treatments; two weren’t.
While Simmons claims glowing results on her patients who receive acupuncture, it’s important to note that there is no conclusive medical-based evidence that acupuncture works.
As a scientist, Dr. Chung, and doctors like him, are unable to assume success based on anecdotal stories and results. However, Dr. Chung did point to a German study published in the April 2002 issue of Fertility and Sterility, which revealed through a random controlled study that patients who were receiving IVF and acupuncture had a higher chance of success in conceiving versus those receiving only IVF.
But acupuncture is just one of many alternative fertility treatments women are now seeking. The Olive Leaf Wholeness Center on 145 East 23rd Street now offers a natural fertility program which uses holistic health approaches to help women become pregnant. Olive Leaf, which is operated by Claire Altman, serves as an integrated health service center complete with doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists and reflexologists. The fertility program is led by Vera Krijn, a reflexologist, who said she has helped 30 women to date in becoming pregnant.
The $1,000 package includes 10 reflexology treatments with Krijn, as well as nutritional and dietary advice.
“Reflexology helps with stress reduction, and stress affects our reproductive system,” Krijn said. “The program is a holistic approach, so I include nutrition, such as vitamins, and advise not smoking or drinking. It is a multieffort approach.”
In Krijn’s initial consultation, she rules out any underlying factors to infertility, such as genetic or anatomic disorders. She recommends her patients seek out Western means if they haven’t already done so. Of her fertility client base, about 60 percent visit her in addition to receiving Western fertility practices.
The trend for alternative fertility treatments also may expand into chiropractic care as small, independent studies reveal that its practice can often promote improvements in fertility function, too. Madeline Behrendt, a chiropractor with a practice in Boise, Idaho, wanted to document what changes occur in women’s health under chiropractic care. She started with infertility because she believes the subject has become a part of our social culture. “You hear about it on every TV show nowadays,” Behrendt said, referring to subplots in “Friends” and “Sex and the City.”
The retrospective, two-year study revealed that in 11 chiropractic practices, 14 out of 15 women who had a history of having difficulty getting pregnant had become pregnant after receiving chiropractic care.
Among the women were sufferers of endometriosis, blocked fallopian tubes or amenorrhea. The 15th patient was 65 years old and hadn’t menstruated in 40 years, but began spotting after chiropractic treatment, claimed Behrendt.
Behrendt said the one commonality in all the women was that they suffered from vertebral subluxations — an interference of the nervous system, which can disconnect body and brain. “The nervous system runs everything in the body, and…when we receive a stress that we cannot recover from, it can create interference.”
Last week Behrendt traveled to Washington armed with an overview of her study to discuss receiving funding for bigger and more comprehensive studies. The positive feedback she received in Washington is now leading Behrendt to pursue federal funding, which, she explained, takes up to a year and a half for an application to process.
Despite the hurdles, she is hopeful the future will deliver something bigger.
“Almost every chiropractor has seen [these kinds of results] but we had to document it. There’s never been a study on chiropractic care on women’s health,” Behrendt said.
Already, wellness centers using chiropractic care as the centerpiece for their healing approach are adding alternative fertility treatments to their menu. Sea Change Healing Center in Chelsea recently added a three-month fertility program to their roster, custom designed for each couple, whether they are just beginning to try to conceive or are having problems conceiving.
“Wherever they are in their journey, we can help,” said Deborah Musso, a chiropractor who founded the center.
The program can employ acupuncture, massage and nutritional health, depending on the couple, but all will utilize network spinal care, an offshoot of chiropractic care, which Musso describes as an advanced healing modality, one that, with low-force touches to the spine, assists the brain in developing new strategies to eliminate and adapt to daily stresses.
About 85 percent of Musso’s fertility clients have turned to her after Western therapies failed. In terms of chiropractic care for fertility, her success rate is nearly 100 percent, she claims, with patients seeking out acupuncture 90 percent successful and those seeking solely naturopath healing at Sea Change 85 percent successful. She added that, if something pathological was detected, she certainly would stress that a patient see a physician.
Musso said the trend toward nonmedical fertility treatments in wellness centers is consistent with other natural therapies that have emerged over the years. She cited Sea Changes’ acupuncture facial, designed as an alternative to Botox, and the anticellulite treatment, as an alternative to liposuction. Musso said her fertility program can be explored with or without fertility drugs and hormones, which she describes as sometimes unsuccessful and dangerous.
“If that’s what 6 million women are being told to do, my job is to provide an alternative.”
But at least one health and wellness director, who is also a medical doctor, is skeptical. “I’m sure the whole idea of reducing stress helps the concept work, but I don’t know that there has been any random sample studies [to prove efficacy],” said Dr. Steve Salvatore, director of the recently opened Juva Health & Wellness Center on 60 East 56th Street. Juva offers acupuncture, reflexology and dietary advice, but not under the “fertility” umbrella.
“The packaging of services, which sounds like marketing, makes sense, but we don’t do that. I am very cautious because I don’t want to sell it, as something may fail. I think if we package it we are saying this works,” said Dr. Salvatore.
When told of the successes many alternative approaches are delivering, Dr. Chung said these stories are why further study is appropriate.
“One should be reminded that acupuncture has been around for many years, there is certainly a role for it. A very neutral way to make a conclusion is that the role of acupuncture has not yet been defined, however, there are biological rationale that may work while also consulting with a well-qualified physician.”