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  The value of Integration: Benefits of a holistic approach to fertility using complimentary therapies alongside conventional medicine

 A clinical diagnosis of sub- or infertility often sets off a whole chain of events and previously unforeseen tests and treatments for couples who may have already been starting to stress at their failure to fall pregnant as the months pass by.

As if the myriad of life challenges aren’t enough; a diagnosis of poor fertility adds to the burden of stress and disappointment that people face.  The greater the awareness of all of these aspects – a holistic perspective – as well as the ability to control and reduce them, lessens the toxic load of pressure on people which, whether we like it or not, has an impact.  There is direct evidence of the effect of stress on DNA methylation.  This alters how genes are expressed without altering the underlying DNA sequence, known as epigenetics, so by addressing a person holistically (literally ‘as a whole’), we are stimulating an epigenetic effect.

The term ‘epigenetics’ was coined in 1942.  According to the website ‘What is Epigenetics?’

“The term epigenetics refers to heritable changes in gene expression (active versus inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence; a change in phenotype without a change in genotype. Epigenetic change is a regular and natural occurrence but can also be influenced by several factors including age, the environment/lifestyle, and disease state.”

So what this means in simplified terms, is that epigenetics controls genes and can turn them on or off according to external factors.

If a couple have been trying to conceive for a while and don’t have any apparent health issues, their first stop may be to explore complementary therapies, of which many are available; some can claim clinical trials as to their efficacy at boosting fertility and others rely on innumerable anecdotal cases.  But where to start?  Which ones may offer value and results and which ones are a waste of time and money?

Acupuncture has been shown in some studies to be beneficial up to embryo transfer stage and of little or no benefit in other trials.  Though it is a technique used for centuries and loved by many, a 2013 meta-analysis of acupuncture found ‘no pooled benefit of acupuncture for IVF’, so clearly the jury is still out!

Whether a couple chooses to explore alternative or complementary therapies, or to visit a medical specialist first, neither route negates or denies the possible value of the other.  Where appropriate and possible, an integrated approach that embraces both systems can give a couple the most broad-ranging advantage and a greater likelihood of being in the best position physically, mentally and emotionally and so able to respond in an optimum manner to any treatments they undertake.  Optimisation of fertility in a holistic way has led to improvements in natural conception, as well as for those undergoing IVF.

Integrative medicine combines a conventional medicine approach to health and wellness issues alongside other complementary therapeutic modalities, which aim to address dysfunction and more generally support a healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Primarily western medicine centres around a pharmaceutical and surgical methodology, so it would be naïve and limiting to believe that a singular method or technique for augmenting fertility will provide wider benefits than an integrated holistic approach.

The following is a definition of ‘Integrative Medicine’ from SASIM: The South African Society of Integrative Medicine’s website:

Integrated or Integrative Medicine is practising medicine in a way that selectively incorporates elements of Complementary and Alternative medicine into comprehensive treatment plans alongside solidly orthodox methods of diagnosis and treatment.”
British Medical Journal 2001;322:119-120

Whilst most of us have an understanding or expectation of what conventional medicine is and what it can deliver, we may not be so clear as to what complementary and alternative medicine is.  Simply put, complementary therapies can be used as stand-alone therapies or alongside other approaches and alternative medical systems are complete systems in themselves.

Conventional medicine has routinely accepted complementary therapies as efficacious as is evidenced in the following: a Stanford University walking study that shows a 90 minute walk in a natural environment, as opposed to an urban environment, reduces depression.  Also research from San Francisco State University which finds that standing or sitting up straight produces more positive thoughts and memories than slouching or sitting collapsed.  The UK’s NHS is aware of the benefits of integrating conventional and complementary treatments and there has been extensive and long-term use of Reiki within UK’s NHS to address post-operative pain, cancer and palliative care.  This also takes place in Europe and Australia.  Research has been carried out too into a biopsychosocial approach to chronic pain management.

The USA’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) states that:
“Complementary and alternative medicine, as defined by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), is a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices, and products that are not presently considered to be part of conventional medicine.[1]

 NCCAM classifies natural, complementary and alternative medicines into five categories, or domains:

Alternative Medical Systems- Alternative medical systems are built upon complete systems of theory and practice such as homeopathic and naturopathic medicinetraditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.

Mind-Body Interventions – These interventions include patient support groups, meditation, prayer, spiritual healing, and therapies that use creative outlets such as art, music, or dance.

Biologically Based Therapies- These therapies include the use of herbs, foods, vitamins, minerals, dietary supplements.

Manipulative and Body-Based Methods- These methods include chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, and massage.

Energy Therapies- Energy therapies involve the use of energy fields. They are of two types:

 Biofield therapies such as qi gongReiki, and Therapeutic Touch, and bioenergetic therapies involving the use of pulsed electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating-current and/or alternating and direct-current fields.

 [1] National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), 2002. What is Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)?, May 2002, USA. Last Modified: 21 October 2002.

The body is like a finely balanced barometer and reveals disharmony in the mind.  This is reflected in relatively new areas of research, like psychoneuroimmunology (the study of the interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems of the human body – essentially how our thoughts impact our mental processes and our health) and also the biopsychosocial paradigm (a technical term for the popular concept of the mind–body connection).

We have within us a sophisticated feedback system which detects and indicates harmony and disharmony/balance and imbalance.  Addressing fertility issues with an integrative approach allows us to address the underlying causes of imbalance, rather than just the symptoms.

A risk of only adopting a singular medicine-based approach to deal with fertility issues is that the mind/body homeostasis can becomes unbalanced and where benefits may be experienced in one area, adverse side effects can be felt in another.

At Walker Wellness we use a combination of methods and therapies to support and strengthen clients holistically.  Helping the body by facilitating optimum spinal function and restoring tonal symmetry, resulting in improved postural alignment and physical balance which improves functionality on a multitude of levels: physical, mental and emotional.  It is common to notice improvements far beyond the original presenting condition in a short space of time.

Manipulative and body-based methods to address physical alignment include neuro-muscular release therapies Emmett Technique, Bowen Therapy and Dorn Spinal Therapy as well as massage plus exercise advice and personal training for fitness and strength.

We combine this with biologically-based therapies and recommend appropriate micro-mineral tissue salts alongside general dietary and nutritional advice and guidelines along with the subtly powerful energy therapies Reiki and Flower Essences.

Though it’s still early days yet, we are keeping a record of each case in order to build up an evidence-based program that can constantly develop according to the most effective results, with a combined and integrative therapeutic approach being key.

Our findings in clinic appear to be in line with a recent study published on the efficacy of a manual physical therapy to treat female infertility.  In this study, the duration of therapy was between 1 – 24 weeks with 11 hours being the median.  No other holistic interventions were used.

All current SA fertility clients were referred to Walker Wellness by their specialist, Dr Nicholas Clark of Medfem, for treatment to be conducted prior to or alongside their IVF treatments and, therefore, the presenting issues of the couple are complex and diverse.  Initial findings show a 25% pregnancy rate with women ranging from 29-39 years.

Interesting factors that I noticed when collating client data, which may or may not have relevance:

  • Two thirds (2/3) of the female clients referred to me with fertility issues have their birthdays in December and January
  • Half (1/2) of the women who became pregnant have their birthdays in October and the other half in December
  • Three quarters (3/4) of the women who became pregnant had 8 to 10 sessions before achieving a positive pregnancy over a three month period
  • Three quarters (3/4) of the women who became pregnant took flower essences to support mental and emotional balance
  • All (100%) of the women who achieved pregnancy took micro-mineral tissue salts to support and strengthen cellular integrity and the majority of their partners did too

These factors are amongst other interesting areas, including metaphysics and psychosomatics, requiring further investigation and beyond the scope of this article.

Often the people I see coming to me for assistance and support with the aim of boosting and optimising their fertility chances are time poor with full schedules and extremely busy lives.  This may be a reality of our 21st century experience but in all of it, I find myself wondering where is the space for a child to come along, let alone the time for intimacy and heart opening connection between couples?

And then, once a couple does step onto the IVF juggernaut, this appears to get worse and not better.  A demanding timetable of procedures, blood tests, scans and medications is imposed on already time challenged people.  Love making becomes sex by numbers and the complexities of the relationship are often ignored or pushed aside due to the demands of ‘the program’.

Viewing any health or wellness issue, including fertility, through a single focussed lens, be that solely medical or complementary, runs the risk of polarised or limited thinking.  A broader approach and a wider angle allows for holistic consideration of all that makes up the whole person.

The old saying of ‘If I’ve only got a hammer, you’re going to look like a nail’ seems to fit in this instance, so it’s up to you to take ownership of your whole self; knowing that you are complex and multi-dimensional and that many aspects make up the story of you.  Though the journey towards conception can be fraught with challenges remember you do have some say in the matter and the areas in which you seek assistance and care.

Also, take heart in knowing that you can have an influence on the epigenetic expression of your genes.  Start by restoring calm; relaxing; attaining greater resilience and enhancing your relationship with your beloved and do all of this by taking a holistic broad and open-minded approach to your health and wellbeing.

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Walker Wellness is an integrated health and wellness clinic based in Lonehill, Gauteng and Perth, Western Australia providing a range of highly effective complementary therapies to enhance physical comfort and optimise overall wellbeing.  We work with a diverse range of clients, including those seeking to optimise their fertility.

Helen Walker is an experienced therapist, trained in UK, Australia and South Africa, and working with clients for 19 years in the private and corporate sector.

Contact: e.  t. +27 (0)61 432 7007 or Australia +61 (0)8 9293 7247