A Brief History of Chinese Medicine and Infertility

Chinese medicine has a long history of treatment for infertility and typically with excellent results. The traditional Chinese cultural emphasis on maintaining continuity of the family line meant that infertility received great deal of attention throughout the clinical development of Chinese medicine.

Infertility was first referenced in oracle bones, the most ancient form of Chinese writing. Oracle bones were usually turtle shells and other bones inscribed with writing and dating back to the prehistoric Shang dynasty. Fertility also appears in ancient classics such as the Yi Jing, which predated extant Chinese medical texts such as the Nei Jing and Shang Han Lun.

The Huang Di Nei Jing (Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic) introduced the concept of age-related cycles and put forth the concept of Tian Gui (heavenly fluid), which represents the principle of female reproductive viability in Chinese medicine. The Huang Di Nei Jing also documented the first formula specific to gynecology. Another Han dynasty classic, the Jin Gui Yao Lue, was the first text to specifically focus an entire section on women’s diseases, and several Jin Gui formulas are still commonly used in gynecology and infertility treatment today. A few centuries later, the Tang dynasty text Jing Xiao Chan Bao (Classically Effective Treasures of Obstetrics) emerged as the earliest extant text to focus on obstetrics.

The continued importance of fertility drove the development of Chinese medical gynecology as a specialty. The concept of regulating the menstrual cycle to promote fertility has been strongly emphasized for centuries. In the Song dynasty (960-1279 CE), a doctor named Chén Zì-Míng claimed that “menstruation must be regulated first, if not, myriad illnesses may ensue; if menstruation is regular, the woman will get pregnant.” This idea germinated and many contemporary TCM reproductive specialists continue to focus on regulating the menstrual cycle in preparation for pregnancy.

Numerous studies have shown that acupuncture can increase the success of in vitro fertilization (IVF), and a 2011 study from Australia noted that the use of Chinese herbal medicine nearly doubled the pregnancy success rate compared to biomedical drug therapies or IVF. The article, “Efficacy of Traditional CHM in the Management of Female Infertility: A Systematic Review,” was published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine (Vol 19 issue 6 Dec. 2011). The article’s abstract notes that “Mean (SD) pregnancy rates were 60 ± 12.5% for CHM compared with 32 ± 10% using WM drug therapy. Meta-analysis of selected cohort studies (n = 616 women) suggested a mean clinical pregnancy rate of 50% using CHM compared with IVF (30%) (p < 0.0001).”

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