Alternative therapists are increasingly offering treatment for infertility - from herbs to feng shui. Some claim astonishing success rates. But can they really offer hope, or are they just preying on the desperation of vulnerable couples?

By the time Debbie Peters was 25, she had only had seven or eight menstrual periods. For the previous three years she had been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant, and had been told by the medical profession that her chances were very slim. Desperate for a baby, she turned to alternative medicine. Six months later she was pregnant. ''I was over the moon. I thought it would never happen,'' beams the mother of five-month-old Poppy.

At 16, Ms Peters had been diagnosed as having polycystic ovaries, a condition in which the ovaries are covered in cysts. Over the next four years, she went to see various specialists, but none of the treatments worked. ''I was just going round in circles and no one seemed to be able to help. Every couple of years I was investigated by the hospital, and the last time they said that the chances of my having children were very, very slim, which I was very upset about,'' says the 26-year-old from south-west London, who used to work in PR.

In June 1998, she and husband Matthew, 28, decided to try alternative medicine. Ms Peters went to see south-London medical herbalist Julie Whitehouse, and was prescribed a number of different herbs. The following January, Ms Peters was pregnant. ''I would definitely say that I got pregnant as a result of the herbs. Taking herbs isn't as ridiculous as it may sound - most conventional medicines are based on them,'' she says.

Herbs are just one of a number of alternative treatments which couples affected by infertility - currently one in six - are turning to. But Dr Peter Brinsden, medical director of the Bourn Hall Clinic near Cambridge, the world's first IVF and assisted conception unit, warns couples of living in false hope. There is no scientific evidence that the treatments work for infertility, he says. Most patients with polycystic ovaries, for example, will get pregnant eventually. And, he adds, there is also evidence that patients who feel cared for are more likely to improve.

But Nicky Wesson, author of Alternative Infertility Treatments, insists that acupuncture, aromatherapy, cranial osteopathy, healing, herbal medicine, homoeopathy, hypnotherapy and reflexology can help treat infertility. Ms Wesson is a member of the Association for the Improvement in Maternity Services (Aims), and runs Concepts, a support group for infertile couples in south-west London. She also sits on two maternity services liaison committees.

''All these therapies work on the principle of assisting the body to return to its natural state of health. In women this will be shown by a regular menstrual cycle and normal ovulation, and in men healthy sperm in numbers sufficient for conception.

''Homoeopathy, aromatherapy, Chinese herbal medicine and traditional herbal medicine are based on the ability of plants to have a physiological, pharmacological and psychological effect on the body. Hormone imbalances, which may be displayed by irregular menstrual cycles, heavy and painful periods, polycystic ovarian syndrome and endometriosis, as well as inability to conceive, can all be improved by the medical use of plant material.''

Hormonal imbalances can also be treated by reflexology, and obstructions in energy pathways can be unblocked by acupuncture, she says. Cranial osteopathy can be especially useful for treating women with fertility problems as it can help the pituitary gland to function correctly, she claims. Hypnotherapists are able to reach a person's subconscious and access mental or emotional blocks which may be preventing conception.

Ms Wesson, who used herbalism to help carry her fifth child after many miscarriages, admits proof that the treatments work is largely anecdotal. ''I can't say that they will work for everyone, but they are worth a try as an alternative. People have fixed in their minds that IVF is the only answer, and if IVF doesn't help then you're absolutely stuck. If you have quite clearly a physiological and proven reason why you are infertile, such as you have no fallopian tubes, obviously you will need mechanical help. But for the vast majority of people with infertility, the reason for it is unknown. They appear to be functioning perfectly well but they are not getting pregnant. For those people it will be well worth a try.''

Charles Buck, a Chester acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist of 16 years, says he has helped scores of infertile patients. Buck claims a more than 50 per cent success rate with patients with unexplained infertility using either acupuncture, Chinese herbs or both, over a period of months. He says he has treated 50 to 100 patients with endometriosis, and has also seen good results with those with a history of miscarrying. Sperm counts have also doubled after male patients have taken Chinese herbs. ''Some of the herbs seem to stimulate the production of hormones which are involved in reproductive physiology,'' he explains.

''The beauty of Chinese medicine is that is used on a third of the world's population as part of their daily health care. It's not like placing crystals on people's navels. There is good solid research and literally millions, if not billions of people have received this medicine for 2 or 3,000 years. In a sense it perhaps has a better grounding in some ways than a lot of modern medicine.''

Dr Brinsden says Buck should ''jolly well publish his results scientifically and persuade us all to do acupuncture. I would love to be able to say to patients that sticking a few needles in will give you a 50 per cent chance of success.''

Despite the lack of evidence, some may still believe that therapies such as acupuncture may be useful for infertility. But feng shui? Gina Lazemby, author of The Feng Shui House Book, says a couple's chances of having a baby may be affected by lines of ''discordant'' energy running beneath their house caused by such things as fast-flowing water, geological changes or man-made excavation.

''Where houses have lines of geopathic stress running through them, particularly the bedroom, it can affect sleep, make people tired, fractious and argue, and affect fertility.

''If we go to somebody's house and they are having problems conceiving, 95 per cent of the time there will be a line of geopathic stress on the bed. There may be other reasons, but when you add up a number of things, geopathic stress is often present.''

Practitioners are able to clear the earth energies. They may also tackle infertility by placing something in the house. ''I'm not saying a practitioner will go in, rearrange the furniture and that person will have children. I can say it's a possibility.''

Dr Brinsden believes many of the claims for alternative therapies are ''grossly misleading''. ''I am generally supportive of most forms of alternative therapy, and have practised acupuncture and hypnosis for some 30 years. Having been brought up in China I know the potential benefits of some treatments and therapies.

''However, what I am absolutely against is misleading information largely based on anecdote being given to infertile couples who are desperate to have a baby, when there is no scientific basis for most of the claims being made. What we need is properly conducted controlled trials on some of these therapies. No one would be more delighted than myself, a believer in certain forms of alternative therapy, if we could prove scientifically that some do help. Anecdotal evidence is just not good enough when you are advising patients on something as important as trying to have a baby. To mislead couples about the potential effectiveness of such treatments is the worst thing these alternative therapists can do, however well-intentioned,'' he says.

One charity which offers holistic care before conception even goes as far as claiming an 86 per cent success rate with unexplained infertility. Belinda Barnes, director of Foresight, which advises couples to change diet and lifestyle, says: ''It is well worth people first exploring the possibilities of alternatives before going for the hi-tech. They can spend £3,000 on IVF and get no baby, and with us they will probably spend £300 and get a baby. The highest success rate of any [conventional] clinic is 36 per cent, the lowest 6. And not all fertility drugs are safe. The only real reason for IVF is if a woman's tubes are blocked,'' says the ex nursery nurse.

In 1995, the Journal of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine published a study of 367 couples who followed the Foresight programme between 1990 and 1992, 204 of whom had a history of infertility. By 1993, 175 of those thought to be infertile had had a healthy baby.

Dr Brinsden agrees with Foresight's recommendation of a good diet, taking vitamins and minerals, and stopping smoking and drinking. However, he is extremely critical of its claim of an 86 per cent success rate. ''I admire what Foresight do, but any statistician would have a field day with the data in that paper,'' he says.

Concepts (enclose SAE), 26 Church Street, Hampton, Middlesex, TW12 2EG; Foresight, 01483 419468; Feng Shui Network International, 07000 336474; Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine, 07000 790332; National Institute of Medical Herbalists, 01392 426022