Preparing to conceive – immune factors


Implantation of the embryo in the uterus is a vital and pivotal event which determines the success of an ongoing pregnancy after conception, or after transfer of an embryo in an IVF cycle.
Recently the crucial role that the immune system plays in the process of implantation and the development of the placenta has been elucidated. A positive finding of immune factors like anti-cardiolipin antibodies, anti- thyroid antibodies or anti-nuclear antibodies can indicate that there may be subtle imbalances in the immune environment of the uterus which are not conducive to establishing a healthy pregnancy. Acupuncture has proven effects on modulating immune function possibly through its ability to increase endorphins and other neurotransmitters.


Schedule; acupuncture once a week, 3 times a week at time of ovulation, or twice on the day of embryo transfer.


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It is estimated that around around 50% of chromosomally normal embryos do not implant successfully. (1, 2)

Increasingly we believe that the immune system plays a crucial role in both successful and unsuccessful implantation. (3, 4) Autoimmune disease, or subtle imbalances in the immune regulation of the uterine environment can have a large impact on the success of a conception. For example elevated levels of certain immune cells called natural killer (NK) cells have been shown to impede successful implantation or establishment of pregnancy, as have activated T lymphocytes. (4) On the other hand the actions of some T cells and NK cells are necessary to promote a favourable environment for implantation. (5)  It is largely through the secretion of signaling agents called cytokines  released by these immune cells, that the intricate processes of implantation and creating a placenta can be enhanced or stymied.

Evidence suggests that acupuncture influences not only the nervous system but also the the immune system. Research examining the influence of acupuncture on the immune system is revealing interesting effects – the exact mechanisms are not yet clear and may turn out to be as intricate and involved as the immune system itself.

One of the areas we are particularly interested in, in reproductive medicine, is the anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive actions of acupuncture. Many disorders involving an auto immune reaction in the body show an imbalance between T helper 1 cell-derived and T helper 2 cell-derived pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines. The modulation of this Th1/Th2 balance has been a key strategy in the treatment of various immune disorders.  Research has shown that this ratio may be reset by acupuncture by increasing levels of the cytokine TNF-alfa and decreasing levels of Interleukin (4, 6) Herbal formulas known to be helpful in reducing the risk of miscarriage have also been shown to correct a Th1/Th2 imbalance. (12)

Recent reviews on the effect of acupuncture on the immune system have concluded that appropriate and frequently applied acupuncture treatment can provoke sustained anti-inflammatory activity, without stimulation of pro-inflammatory cells. (7, 8)

We know that stress also affects the immune system, elevating levels of activated T cells which can reduce implantation rates of embryos. We also know that high resting levels of cortisol are linked with elevated markers of inflammatory processes in the body which may affect implantation of the embryo. (9)

Fortunately acupuncture  has been shown to exert a benefcial modulatory effect on such immune imbalances caused by anxiety and stress. In one study the maximum effect on the immune system of women suffering heightened anxiety was measured 72 hours after they received acupuncture and the effects of a course of acupuncture were still evident a month after it was completed. (10)

It is thought that the immunomodulatory effect of  acupuncture may result from the increase in levels of endogenous opioids, -endorphin, met-encephalin, leu-encephalin, serotonin all of which increase with acupuncture treatment. These neurotransmitters create a sense of relaxation and have immunomodulator effects on the immune system. (11)



  1. Coulam C et al, 1996, Am J Reprod Immunol, 35 330 – 337.
  2. Munne et al 1995 Fertil Steril 64, 382 – 391.
  3. Clark DA et al, Hum Reprod, 1994, 9, 2270 – 2277
  4. Coulam C, Roussev R, Am Jnl Reprod Immunol. 2003, 50, 340 – 345
  5. Eva Miko et al Reproductive BioMedicine Online (2010) 21, 750 – 756
  6. Song C et al Pharmacopsychiatry 2009; 42(5): 182-188
  7. Zijlstra F et al  Mediators of Inflammation, 2003, 12, 59 – 69
  8. Sun K K,  Hyunsu B Autonomic Neuroscience: Basic and Clinical 2010, 157, 38-41
  9. Gallinelli A et al Fertil Steril.2001, 76, 1, 85-91
  10. Arranz L et al Am J Chin Med. 2007, 35, 35-51.
  11. Cabioglu MT and B. Eren Cetin Am J Chin Med, 2008, 36, 25-36
  12. Liu F, Luo SP. Chin J Integr Med. 2009 Oct;15(5):353-8.