Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine for Fertility [Podcast with Dr. Heather Seay] - PCOS Diva
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Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine for Fertility [Podcast with Dr. Heather Seay]

PCOS Podcast 158 - Acupuncture Chinese medication for fertility Dr. Heather Seay is a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine who has been in practice for 12 years. She is also a fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine. In her practice at Eastern Bench Holistic Healthcare in Salt Lake City, she commonly works with women who have fertility issues. As more positive research about the benefits of acupuncture becomes available, more traditional doctors are integrating it into treatments for those with PCOS. Listen in or read the transcript as Dr. Seay and I discuss:

  • What is Chinese medicine and how does it differ from Western medicine?
  • Benefits of acupuncture for fertility and PCOS
  • How to approach acupuncture with primary care or OB GYN doctors
  • Is it safe to practice acupuncture when using Clomid or Letrozole?
  • Possible treatment options for hair loss & weight loss

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Complete Transcript:

Amy Medling:

On today’s PCOS Diva Podcast, I’m going to be talking to Dr. Heather Seay. She is a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine who’s been in practice for 12 years. She is also a fellow of the American Board of Oriental Reproductive Medicine. She practices at Eastern Bench Holistic Healthcare in Salt Lake City. Welcome to the PCOS Diva Podcast, Dr. Seay.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

Amy Medling:

Well, we’ve talked a lot about Western medical philosophy on the PCOS Diva Podcast. We’ve talked about acupuncture, but I haven’t really done a deep dive into Chinese medicine. That’s why I was really excited when you reached out to me, and I thought you’d be a great addition to the conversation here. So, I would love for you to just start off with, how did you get into studying Chinese medicine and acupuncture?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Okay. I actually was on the track of Western medicine. My mother’s a social worker, and my sister is a nurse practitioner now, but she was a registered nurse earlier. I went to the University of Utah and I really wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do. I kind of bounced around a little bit, but I ended up looking into physical therapy.

To get my feet wet, I ended up working as a physical therapist aide at a couple of hospitals in the area. I found that I really enjoyed working with the patients and getting to know them, and putting them through their exercises. But I became disenchanted with the Western medical model, that it was just superficial and not really looking deep into why these people were having the issues that they were.

So, a good friend of mine, a college friend, introduced me to massage therapy school. I followed my heart and I enrolled in night school at Utah College of Massage Therapy, and that changed my life. It transformed my health physically, mentally, emotionally. And I learned about acupuncture and Chinese medicine through massage therapy school and just knew that that’s what I had been searching for. Fast forward four years or so, I enrolled at Five Branches University where I got my master’s. Then just recently, I got my doctorate from Pacific College of Human Health and Sciences in 2019. That’s the story.

Amy Medling:

You’re working with a lot of women with fertility issues. I know that there’s been a lot of studies, positive studies, that acupuncture helps women with PCOS ovulate. And I know for me, I have a lot of adrenal issues that I have to keep on top of. Stress really impacts my PCOS, and I have found that acupuncture has been a great tool in my tool kit to help me when I really get caught up in that fight or flight mode. Tell us more about, what is Chinese medicine? Let’s just start there.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Chinese medicine is a whole body system of healthcare. It’s one of the oldest. I mean, it’s probably about 5,000 years old. It views the body as a whole, so it doesn’t segment the body into systems or organs, or symptoms. It looks at everything and how it all relates. The premise of it is that we have chi, which translates loosely into energy. It’s really a life force that travels throughout our body and interacts with everything. It travels along pathways called meridians, which will go into organs and tissues and just, it permeates everything. When we have an imbalance in a meridian, then we can start to see problems arise. And so, acupuncture is a technique underneath Chinese medicine that helps to balance out the chi flow.

Amy Medling:

Typically, when we go to the doctor, allopathic, Western medicine doctor, they treat the symptoms. We have issues with acne and you might get a topical prescription or possibly Accutane. If you’re having problems with blood sugar and insulin resistance, you might get Metformin and so on. Kind of treating all of the symptoms, but that’s different in Chinese medicine. You’re really looking at the root cause factor. Maybe you could walk us through how you would typically assess a patient that has PCOS and what that appointment would like.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Okay. The first appointment is a whole health history, so we’re going to go into everything. We ask a lot of questions, and that’s something that a lot of patients are surprised by. The appointment’s an hour and a half, usually. We’re doing a deep dive into everything that they’ve experienced up to that point. For a woman with PCOS, we’ll want to know really what their goals are. Are they looking to get pregnant? Are they looking to just balance out their operation or their menstrual cycle? So we first establish that, and then we’ll know where we want to focus.

After we ask all the questions, we take their pulse, which gives us an idea of how their energy flow is happening through their meridians. We look at their tongue, and that tells us what’s happening with the organs and some of the disease mechanisms that we look at. Mostly, they’re related to weather patterns. They have a name of weather patterns, like heat or cold, or dampness, things like that. The tongue will show us whether those things are happening. Then we will decide what type of acupuncture points we’re going to use to balance out the pattern that is presenting from what they tell us and from their pulse and tongue.

Amy Medling:

Are you doing any blood work or anything, other lab testing?

Dr. Heather Seay:

I will look at their labs if they have had them. A lot of times, they won’t have had enough labs really to determine what’s happening. But if they do have them, I will look at them. A lot of times, I’ll have infertility patients or PCOS patients do a Dutch test. That’s pretty helpful to see how their metabolites are and that kind of thing.

Amy Medling:

Yeah. For listeners who aren’t familiar with the Dutch test, I’ve done a couple podcast episodes about that. So, we’ll put those in the show notes so people can refer back. Is there a meridian imbalance, I’m probably using the terminology wrong, that is common in PCOS? Is there a common theme, an underlying factor in all women with PCOS in terms of, I guess, diagnosis in Chinese medicine?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yep. There are several patterns involved in PCOS. It just really depends on their presentation. So we will always look at how the patient is presenting, and then use science to back up what we’re doing. So the main patterns in PCOS are Chinese medicine names, and they will have an organ involved, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the physical organ that’s in disharmony. It’s usually the energetic aspects of that organ. And the main patterns are Chong and Ren disharmony, liver chi stagnation, and spleen and kidney deficiency.

Amy Medling:

Do those correspond with different say, phenotypes of PCOS if there’s somebody that has more of the classic insulin resistant type of PCOS versus somebody that has more of the adrenal androgen type of PCOS?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amy Medling:

Okay.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. Those three will usually show up in each PCOS patient to varying degrees. Then there may be other root patterns that are having a play in it as well. Like for the classic, a lot of times it’s stress involved. So then liver chi stagnation comes into play a lot, because the liver is responsible for the smooth flow of chi and blood. So with that classic, it really shows up as a liver chi stagnant issue. With the ovulatory, because they have normal ovulation usually, but they have the elevated androgens and the PCO, there will be a liver chi stagnation component as well, but some spleen and kidney deficiency.

Amy Medling:

Okay. So the healing modalities then would be acupuncture. Are you using herbal mixtures as well?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. Mostly, we work off of the phases of the menstrual cycle. Now, if someone isn’t menstruating or is really imbalanced and not happening, we will work to get it to start back up again, and then we will work through the phases. And we will apply herbal medicine to each different phase.

Amy Medling:

Okay. An herbal combination that is quite popular for women with PCOS that I think is rooted in Chinese medicine is licorice and peony. In what type of phase would that be applicable?

Dr. Heather Seay:

That’s really for the follicular phase. If someone’s bleeding, we will give a formula to clear out all of the menstrual products and make sure that the body can lay down a fresh lining, and there isn’t anything left in there. So that will have more blood moving herbs, and then in the follicular phase, we will often use something like licorice and peony to help the follicle develop. Then in ovulation, we will use something to help the body to release the egg nicely and deal with some liver chi that maybe stuck. Then in the luteal phase, we’ll look at kidney yang boosting formulas because kidney yang has a lot to do with progesterone production. And that’s what happens in the luteal phase.

Amy Medling:

Oh, that’s really interesting. Most women with PCOS have had low progesterone and probably issues with that. Your called it what type of yang?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Kidney yang.

Amy Medling:

Kidney yang. Okay.

Dr. Heather Seay:

It’s just an underlying kidney deficiency.

Amy Medling:

You had mentioned kidney and spleen, what else can we do to support our kidney meridian?

Dr. Heather Seay:

We can do practices like chi gong or Tai Chi that will help the energy production and energy flow. We want to keep the uterus warm, so we can do foot soaks, and that will help the kidney and the kidney yang.

Amy Medling:

Is there anything special we should put in the water for the soak?

Dr. Heather Seay:

No, not necessarily. I mean, a lot of acupuncturists now have access to special foot soak reformulations. Some people will be able to use that, but really just warm water is fine.

Amy Medling:

And then, what about … I love warm water and lemon in the morning. I think in Chinese medicine, cold water, isn’t that considered a no-no like ice water, that water should be drank at room temperature or warm?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. We don’t like anything really cold. Cold water just is hard to digest. It just really dampens the metabolism, so warm lemon water will help stimulate the liver and just room temperature water throughout the day, just to keep everything from not getting stagnant.

Amy Medling:

I’m just curious, the patients that you’re working with, are their other doctors receptive to your fertility work with them? I know that there seems to be more fertility practices that are integrating acupuncture and Chinese medicine, but just curious what the overall perception is.

Dr. Heather Seay:

I think that the Western medical model is warming up to the idea. In certain areas, there are still some stigmas or not believing that it works. So in those areas, it might be a little bit more difficult. But out here, it seems like it’s a middle of the road kind of thing. But there are some Western doctors that are receptive to it and others aren’t.

Amy Medling:

If a listener is interested in giving Chinese medicine and acupuncture a try, especially if they’re trying to conceive and they’re having issues, do you have any advice on how to approach that topic with their primary care or their OB GYN that they want to add another practitioner to their team and how to, I guess, bridge that conversation?

Dr. Heather Seay:

I always encourage the patient to realize that they are in control of their health and their decisions about what they want to do. I would also approach their medical provider in saying that they want to try this, and that they’ve heard that there are good results, and then have their acupuncturist or Chinese medical practitioner contact their Western medical provider and start a relationship with them. Just so it can be integrated, and that they know that we’re working together with them and not trying to take over.

Amy Medling:

If somebody was on a cycle of Clomid or Letrozole, could you do the Chinese herbs in tandem with that?

Dr. Heather Seay:

You can, some medical providers are not open to that. A lot of times when I have an IVF patient and they’re stimming, I won’t put them on any herbs because I just don’t want it to interact with what the Western medical is trying to do. After they stim, it’s fine to be on herbs. But just like any medicine, herbs interact with the body and they can change hormone levels and things like that. So, I just don’t want to interrupt any of that.

Amy Medling:

What are the toughest symptoms to treat with a PCOS, I think is hair loss and the hirsutism. Is there treatment options? Is there anything that you can do from a Chinese medicine perspective for hair issues?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. We can use some herbs in there or some acupuncture points that will help hair growth or hair loss.

Amy Medling:

The same with weight loss. I think for some women, weight loss is just really tough. Just wondering what you can offer for a woman with PCOS that’s really eating all of the right things, exercising, but just having problems losing weight.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. It just might be a spleen type of imbalance where they just need to have some treatment to boost up their metabolism and their digestive capacity.

Amy Medling:

So that treatment would include acupuncture? What would that include?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah, it would include acupuncture and it would include a customized verbal formula for that individual.

Amy Medling:

Okay. How often do you have to go to acupuncture to really see a difference?

Dr. Heather Seay:

In the beginning, you’re wanting to come in once to twice a week to really get things back towards balance. Acupuncture is a type of treatment that’s cumulative, so each treatment builds on the one before it. It’s also dose dependent, so you really have to get enough of it to start to see a change.

Amy Medling:

Is it something that you’re going to have to stick with over the course of your lifetime, or can you get to a point where things are balanced and you can move beyond?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. Usually, you’ll go through a treatment plan. The acupuncturist will determine based off of the presentation how often that patient should come in. Then they go through their treatment plan, and then working with their practitioner, they determine if they should continue once a month or if they’re good and they don’t need to come back again.

Amy Medling:

I was wondering if you could share some success stories to give listeners hope with some of your patients with PCOS.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah. I do have a case study I can share. It was a 32-year-old female. She was trying to conceive, and she had been trying to conceive for 22 months. She had a family history of type two diabetes. She had tried three IUIs before starting acupuncture treatment. She had gotten pregnant from one IUI, but miscarried. When she came to see me, she was beginning her first IVF cycle. Her history was oligomenorrhea. She also had PCO on ultrasound. We always assume with a PCOS patient that there is some insulin resistance and some inflammation in varying degrees. She had mild insulin resistance, but moderate inflammation due to her job that created a lot of stress for her.

And so, she came to see me and we started treatment. At the time, her menses was four days. She had two days of heavy bleeding and two days of light, but it was very irregular, every 60 days or so. As we started working together because she was on IVF or she was doing an IVF cycle, we didn’t do as much herbs, but we did a lot of acupuncture. She came in twice a week when she was stimming. And so, she got pregnant on her first IVF cycle, but miscarried at seven or eight weeks, if I can remember correctly.

After the miscarriage, as we all know, there’s a lot of grief and it’s a very stressful time. So she was still coming in once a week to help clear a lot of the hormones that she had been on, clear some of the stress that related to the miscarriage. We worked through all of that and she started her second IVF cycle, and she got pregnant from that one as well and continued to see me through 25 weeks. Then after that, she had a healthy baby girl. So, yeah.

Amy Medling:

Oh, that’s, that’s awesome. The miscarriage, do you think was indicative of low progesterone early in that pregnancy, or was it hard to tell?

Dr. Heather Seay:

Well, I didn’t ever see her progesterone levels. They never took them. A lot of times when patients go to a fertility clinic, it’s very basic labs. They don’t really go into depth, which is interesting. But they really don’t need to, they just need the basics. Yeah. Obviously, they’re going to be controlling that person’s body with their medications. So it really doesn’t matter. But she had underlying kidney deficiency, so I would assume that her progesterone levels were low.

Amy Medling:

Yeah. That is so fascinating. I had no idea. I’m going to be soaking my feet, I think tonight. Honestly, that sounds nice anyway.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Yeah, it’s pretty relaxing.

Amy Medling:

Yeah. Anything else we could do to boost up our kidney function or our kidney chi?

Dr. Heather Seay:

You can eat a lot of black beans or dark berries, things like that, because the color associated with the kidney system is blue or black.

Amy Medling:

Oh, interesting. Well, I love blackberries. So that sounds like a good prescription for me. Tell us more about how women can find out more about your work. Do you do tele-consults? If somebody just wants some extra support around fertility treatments, where can they learn more about your work?

Dr. Heather Seay:

My website is www.easternbench.com. We have online schedules through Jane App so they can make an appointment if they would like to do telehealth consults. I do offer that. And I have a PDF on my website for 10 questions to ask your doctor about infertility to gain more clarity on their situation if they’re trying to conceive. So they can go to my website and download that if they would like.

Amy Medling:

Oh, fantastic. We will post that in the show notes on pcosdiva.com so you can see the transcript and get all of those materials on our websites. But thank you, Dr. Seay, for giving us some clarity around how Chinese medicine can help PCOS and our symptoms.

Dr. Heather Seay:

Well, thank you for having me.

Amy Medling:

And thank you, everyone, for listening. I look forward to being with you again very soon. Bye-bye.

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