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Fertility in Chinese Medicine Pt 1 – Supporting Kidney Essence

In previous articles in this series on acupuncture, I have written about conditions that you may not automatically consider seeking acupuncture treatment for. To read more about these conditions and for more about acupuncture, you can read the following:

Acupuncture – What Is It and How Does It Work?
Shingles – What Is It and How Can Acupuncture Help?
Acupuncture, a Powerful Treatment for Stress and Insomnia
Acupuncture as a Treatment for Depression
Acupuncture to Prevent Chronic Infections

In the next two articles I am going to discuss a condition that is commonly associated with acupuncture – infertility. I have written extensively about fertility from the perspective of naturopathy in an earlier series – you can follow this link – but this time the focus will be on Chinese medicine. This week, we will look at ‘kidney essence’ then, next time, we’ll look at the menstrual cycle and patterns of infertility from a Chinese medicine perspective.

Note: Although acupuncture can help with both male and female fertility, for the purpose of this article I will only be discussing female fertility.

I have discussed in previous articles in this series how the beauty of acupuncture is that it brings your body back into balance. Balance is essential when trying to conceive; when your body is in balance your chances of conception increase. But what is it we’re trying to balance? Well, in the case of fertility it is primarily your ‘kidney essence’. In Chinese medicine, the kidneys are the source of our “heavenly qi”, our essence or in western terms, our genetics so, when it comes to supporting your fertility, we focus on repairing and balancing your kidney qi, yin and yang.  To begin, I want to discuss kidney essence which I feel, has been at the root of much of the female infertility I have treated over the years. Kidney essence goes to a much deeper cause of infertility than we usually think of, one that starts even before a woman tries to conceive.

What is Kidney Essence?

As I have already said, in Chinese medicine our kidney essence or ‘heavenly qi’ is what we, in the West, think of as our genetics and DNA. In reality it more than this; it is a much more esoteric combination of our genetic coding (that dictates whether we have brown hair or blue eyes) and our vital force.

This idea of vital force is more intangible than the idea that DNA is carried in egg follicles inside of the women’s ovaries. Our vital force can be carried through the generations. It is our health, our vitality and our constitutional strength. As an acupuncturist, learning to observe and evaluate someone’s vitality comes with time. Sometimes it is obvious when you first look at a new patient but, at other times, I have to learn about their history in order to fully understand their core constitution.

We are all born with a certain amount of kidney essence, but it starts even before then. Our kidney essence is set from the instant the egg and the sperm fuse. The health of our mother and our father, and for that matter our grandparents, determine the strength of our kidney essence. If either of our parents was ill or run down at the time of our conception it will have had an effect on our essence at the time of our birth.  The beauty of acupuncture and Chinese medicine is that, even if you were born with low kidney essence, we can build it up and make it stronger. As a beginning to our discussion on infertility I will discuss the major triggers of things that reduce our kidney essence and what we can do to prevent the loss of it and build it back up when it is depleted.

 Causes of Kidney Essence Depletion

All of the following things can have a negative effect on your kidney essence – and, as you can see, some of them happen at the time of conception:

Both parent’s state of health and mother’s age at the time of conception
When putting your health history together in Chinese medicine we take into consideration your health prior to your own conception. If your parents had health issues when they conceived you, or if your mother was older when she had you, it can affect your ability to get pregnant. This concept can take a minute to wrap your mind around but put simply, your parent’s health when they conceived you plays a role in your fertility and the reason is because of kidney essence – if their kidney essence is low, this depletion will be passed on to their child.

Too much exercise or competitive sport as a child
It is common for young athletes with a low body weight to stop menstruating or have a delayed onset of their menstrual period. Strenuous and competitive sports in young girls, especially around puberty when the uterus is in a changing, vulnerable state can therefore impact their fertility. There is a balance to be struck between healthy levels of exercise and the extreme sports and training that girls do in activities such as ballet and gymnastics.

Sexual activity at an early age
From a Chinese medicine perspective sexual activity at a young age weakens the kidney yin and yang therefore, girls who start engaging in sexual activity before and during puberty (even up until about age 18) deplete their kidney essence which can lead to infertility later in life.

Too much physical work or over-exercising as an adult
As mentioned above, extreme sports in adolescence can be harmful for a young girl’s future fertility. This is also the case for adult women. A physically demanding job or excessive exercise can damage the kidneys and compromise fertility.

Stress and overwork
Over-working, the modern day plague of the female is a hard one since the rise of women in the workforce. As women, we have set the bar higher and higher for ourselves as the decades have passed which means, in naturopathic terms, that we are stressing out our adrenals. We need to utilize our kidney essence as we try to successfully navigate good grades and academic excellence in high school, push hard for a good college and then pave our way into the workforce.  All those late nights cramming for tests and writing papers, early morning tests followed by long work weeks mean that, by the time many women decide to start planning a family, they have already tapped into their kidney essence and begun draining it.  In a culture where we are supposed to do it all, we need to learn at an early age how to protect our kidney essence.

History of drug or alcohol abuse
Drug and alcohol use as a teenager can do real damage to our kidney essence. Depending on the type of substance used and the length of time it is used, it can really have a long-term effect on a women’s fertility.

History of chronic illness
Chronic illness at any age can deplete kidney essence. It may take a few years to build up the kidneys and make the body strong enough to conceive if you have struggled with a chronic health concern.

So, as you can see, kidney essence is crucial to optimal fertility and may well need to be addressed in addition to other, more general, health symptoms. For this reason, acupuncture treatment for fertility focusses on strengthening kidney essence.

Kidney Essence Divided Into Yin and Yang

An important foundation in Chinese medicine is that everything in nature, including the human body, always has two aspects – ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ – that together provide balance; this is also true of kidney essence. When Chinese medicine practitioners are evaluating kidney essence, they have to decide whether there is an imbalance of either kidney yin or kidney yang, or both. Imbalances in either of these can affect:

Egg growth
Nourishment of the uterus
Implantation of a fertilized egg

The main difference lies in the symptoms. In part 2 of this article, I will talk about the differences in presentation of a kidney yin and a kidney yang deficiency and how acupuncture can help strengthen and balance yin and yang.

Closing Thoughts

Conception requires a delicate balance of everything lining up and harmoniously coming together to produce a healthy egg that is released at the right time and is fertilized by a sperm and then implanted into the lining of a healthy uterus. The state of a women’s current health, in addition to the kidney essence or ‘constitutional qi’ that she was born with, all play a role in this happening and her falling pregnant.  The wonderful thing about acupuncture, as we will see next time, is that it works on all parts of a women’s health, building up her kidney yin and yang to regulate her cycle, ripen and release healthy eggs and develop a full uterine lining in which to implant a fertilized egg.

In the western medical model there is often infertility that is unexplained. However, Chinese medicine will always identify an underlying cause for a women’s inability to conceive. The key to treating infertility in women is understanding the root cause of her infertility and treating it. So often the source of a women’s infertility occurred either before she was born or in the early years of puberty. So, the uncomfortable truth is, teaching our young girls how to keep their bodies healthy for babies needs to start at an age when we, as parents, hope they are not even thinking about sex or pregnancy.

Over the last 20 years, I have helped many women reach their goals of delivering a healthy baby. For some women, acupuncture alone has been the key to their fertility while others have needed acupuncture in addition to Chinese herbs, naturopathic medicine and/or assisted reproductive technologies from the fertility clinic. The amazing thing about regular acupuncture treatment is that it balances your body where you are the day of your treatment as well as having a cumulative effect on your health. If you are considering trying to conceive, or have been trying for some time, make sure to incorporate acupuncture into your fertility plan.

Next time we will look at the menstrual cycle in Chinese medicine and how acupuncture can be used to help regulate and balance both your cycle and your kidney essence. If you want to be sure you don’t miss it, do use the subscription box on this page and we will send future articles direct to your inbox.

If you are in the Seattle area and would like to schedule an acupuncture treatment, my clinic is in Issaquah. I also offer naturopathic appointments in person or on the phone and you can book any of these by using the book online tool above.

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Dr. Maura Scanlan

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