A combination of Chinese medicine and conventional IVF treatment is showing promising results in helping infertile couples, reports Hester Lacey

Mary Stewart was keen to start a family, but she'd had several ectopic pregnancies and her right-hand Fallopian tube had been removed. Also, she was only ovulating from her right ovary. "Most women swap from side to side each month, but I've got a really lazy left ovary," she says.

Mary Stewart was keen to start a family, but she'd had several ectopic pregnancies and her right-hand Fallopian tube had been removed. Also, she was only ovulating from her right ovary. "Most women swap from side to side each month, but I've got a really lazy left ovary," she says.

Mary, 31, a property developer, was prepared to try IVF, but as a last resort. An article she'd read on acupuncture and infertility made her look on the internet for an alternative practitioner willing to work alongside conventional methods. That's how, two years ago, she found Jo George, who runs the Life Medicine Clinic in Crouch End in London. Jo uses acupuncture and Chinese medicine, with an emphasis on gynaecological health and conception.

"I went with an open mind, and I'm not afraid of needles," Mary says. "The first thing Jo did was to try to stimulate my left ovary using electro-acupuncture - tiny currents through the needles. That sounds a bit scary, but all you feel is a buzzing or tingling. And after several months, amazingly, my left-hand ovary did ovulate. I was having follicle tracking at a hospital, so they could tell me straight away."

However, Mary decided to try IVF after all. "The follicle tracking was so slow and I was getting so miserable. It was a terrible blow when my first go at IVF failed. I was resting before the next cycle of IVF when I fell pregnant naturally." Sam was born in April last year.

Mary had been having weekly acupuncture sessions with Jo, as well as drinking individually prescribed mixtures of Chinese herbal medicine, which tastes notoriously awful, before she conceived.

She continued to visit Jo for acupuncture throughout her pregnancy. At 36 weeks, her son was in a breech position. "I was desperate to avoid a Caesarean. Jo suggested moxa. It seemed like a mad treatment. I burst out laughing when she told me what we had to do. I thought, 'That'll never work.'"

Moxa is a dried herb that comes in a roll. For 15 minutes each evening, Mary's husband Jeremy held a smouldering roll of moxa close to her little toe. "Sam would be going nuts, wiggling around inside, and he did turn, just as I was about to be booked in for a Caesarean."

Mary is now pregnant with her second child, due in August this year, conceived naturally with no help. She is convinced that Jo's techniques have enhanced her fertility. "I was sceptical, but when I saw the follicle tracking results I sat up and took notice. I also didn't think that the way the moxa worked was coincidence. Jo also made me feel better in myself, more relaxed, and she was very encouraging, supportive and good at reminding me that these things take time."

There's a photo of Mary, Jeremy and Sam on the desk in Jo George's consulting room. Jo, 35, trained in aromatherapy, massage and reflexology before taking a degree in acupuncture at the University of Westminster and then studying Chinese herbal medicine. She also spent time training at a hospital in China.

George uses six to eight sterile, disposable needles per session. Each hour-long visit starts with a consultation, then the patient lies on a couch while she inserts the needles, which are very fine. It's not usually necessary to undress, just to expose the acupuncture points - on wrist or abdomen, depending on the problem. Then George leaves the patient to relax or sleep while she blends their herbs, which might include Gan Cao (liquorice), Bo He (mint) or Dang Gui (angelica). She uses ready-ground herbs so patients don't need to boil up bark or roots for hours; they simply take the powders in hot water.

Her training in China made Jo feel that Western and Chinese medicine could sit happily together. "Chinese doctors are trained in both, and there will be a pharmacy with herbs and a chemist with pills in the hospitals. Western and Chinese medicine can work together to achieve a goal."

Views on acupuncture differ, she says. "Western medicine recognises that inserting needles in different places can stimulate other parts of the body. At its most basic level, that might just be the relaxation of a muscle. From a Chinese perspective, acupuncture points are located on channels linked to the intestines, and putting needles in certain places makes changes - for example, stimulating the flow of blood to the uterus. We still don't quite know how it works."

Jo sees between 20 and 30 patients a week, not all for fertility issues. But gynaecology is one of the strengths of Chinese medicine, she says. "Not everyone who sees me wants to get pregnant. There may be another problem, such as fibroids, endometriosis, or heavy or painful periods. If you've had heavy periods since 16, you don't have to just put up with it. I'm passionate about raising awareness and wanted to do the work that would give me the most satisfaction."

Simone, 36, a designer, is another client. She gave birth to twins, a boy and girl, nine months ago. She already has a daughter who's almost five. "I had been trying to get pregnant for 18 months, but as it was a second pregnancy we weren't thinking it was anything too problematic." However, exploratory surgery showed a problem. She decided on Chinese practices alongside IVF.

"My sister had used a Chinese herbalist, so I was open to it," Simone says. "Jo was happy to support what I was doing." Simone became pregnant on her first cycle of IVF. "I was taking hormones as well as the herbs and acupuncture, but Jo was part of the big picture and definitely played a part. I felt more relaxed. I loved the acupuncture and continued through the pregnancy. She was definitely a positive influence and I'm seeing her again now."

Some studies have shown positive results on the use of acupuncture alongside IVF. At the most recent meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, a study from the Reproductive Medicine and Fertility Center of Southern Colorado was presented. Of the 114 women undergoing IVF who took part, half received acupuncture. Slightly over half of those who did became pregnant, compared to 36 per cent of those who did not. The acupuncture group had a miscarriage rate of 8 per cent, compared to 20 per cent of those who had no acupuncture. And a German study in 2002 showed an IVF success rate of 42 per cent with acupuncture and 26 per cent without.

But small-scale studies are not conclusive, says Dr Andrew Moore, a former NHS consultant biochemist and now editor of Bandolier, an online magazine that promotes evidence-based thinking about healthcare ( www.ebandolier.com). "There is not a huge amount of evidence on acupuncture's efficacy. Literature is awash with poor-quality studies, particularly from the East, which are always very positive. The better studies, properly randomised and double-blinded, of a sensible size carried out over a sensible time, tend to be negative."

If acupuncture could significantly help with conception, he says, it would be in widespread use. "Using fertility treatment, the odds of getting pregnant are not great. If acupuncture raised those odds even by an extra 5 or 10 per cent, it would quickly be adopted in the real world."

Many alternative therapists do have a good influence on their patients, he adds. "They also look at lifestyle, which should happen in conventional medicine but doesn't always. The simple fact of being seen and taken seriously is terrific. As a biochemist, I worked on improving the chances of infertile couples. I know what they go through. But people pay a lot of money for alternative therapies that are at best unproven."

Jo George agrees that there is not enough research into how acupuncture works. But, she says: "The feedback I get from patients and the changes in their symptoms and patterns show me that there is an effect. I feel strongly that women - and men too - should have knowledge and a choice of treatments that can benefit."

Life Medicine Clinic (020-8374 4566; www.lifemedicineclinic.com)

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