The Fertility Goddess, Jill Blakeway

written by Anjula January 25, 2009

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About Jill: Jill Blakeway is the Clinic Director of the Yinova Center in New York City. A licensed and board certified acupuncturist and clinical herbalist, she specializes in the care of women and children. A gifted acupuncturist and herbalist, Jill’s skill is in taking a system of medicine that is 3,500 years old and focusing this wisdom on the problems of modern women living in New York City. Women come to her for help with a range of conditions from PMS to menopause and New York Moms appreciate her safe, natural solutions for a wide variety of childhood ailments from constipation to bed wetting. In 2005, the New York Times named Jill as one of the top acupuncturists of the year, referring to her as a “fertility goddess,” as Jill is known for her work enhancing the fertility of women who are having trouble conceiving…

“When women consult me about getting pregnant my first task is to reconnect them with their reproductive cycle” says Jill, “I teach them how to recognize their most fertile period and give diet and lifestyle advice. From there I begin to help them improve their general health, balancing hormones, building the uterine lining, eliminating premenstrual symptoms and regulating the menses. Often this is all that is needed for conception to occur. If assisted reproduction techniques are needed, however, research has shown that acupuncture can increase the efficacy of IVF by up to 50%.”

Jill divides her time between New York City and Upstate New York where she lives with her husband Noah, daughter Emma and their dog Louie.

LM: As a gifted herbalist and acupuncturist, how did you get interested in Acupuncture and Asian Medicine initially?

JB: Years ago, I struggled with a chronic medical condition, swallowing antibiotics for six months with no improvement. My doctor said he was out of options, and finally sent me to a Chinese medicine doctor. Just a couple weeks of acupuncture and Chinese herbs sorted out the problem. My whole world turned upside down! This was a completely different paradigm than I’d ever been exposed to. That it worked at all was, frankly, a bit hard for me to believe, even though I’d experienced it myself in such a profound way. But I was drawn to understanding it better. I started reading everything I could get my hands on, and asked a lot of questions. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know, and ultimately I went back to graduate school for a M.S. Degree in Traditional Oriental Medicine.

LM: What type of acupuncture training/education did you receive prior to obtaining your license?

JB: I complete a four-year M.S. In Traditional Oriental Medicine at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, California.

LM: Was there a defining moment or experience that showed you your path, or did it come about gradually?

JB: While in school I went to a lecture by a doctor who changed my life again. She was trained in China in both conventional gynecology and in acupuncture and herbology, and so she talked about what Chinese Medicine could do that Western medicine couldn’t. But she also covered what Western medicine could do that Chinese medicine couldn’t. This vision of collaborative medicine excited and inspired me, and I’ve strived for that complementarity in the way I’ve worked ever since.

I have worked in several hospitals including San Diego Hospice, Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle, NY and Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, where I founded the inpatient acupuncture program. This experience gave me insight into how to integrate Chinese medicine into a Western medical system and how to communicate with doctors in a way that helped them to understand Chinese medicine better.

My patients appreciate that I regularly consult with their doctors about their case. I want to keep the doctors apprised of what I’m doing, and I want to fully understand their plans. I want to be sure our efforts will work together well. There are herbs I won’t give, for example, if I know a woman is taking drugs that function in a similar way. Most doctors are very receptive to working with me, and I believe that’s because my hospital training means that I speak their language. So I don’t call up and say “I’m treating So-and-So for kidney yang deficiency with blood deficiency.” I translate for them just as I translate for my patients, talking about hormone imbalance, and how herbs and acupuncture can level the hormones out.

Doctors’ biggest complaint about alternative medicine is that it is too open-ended. So I set time limits and assessable goals for my treatment, so that everyone — the patient, the doctor, myself – can judge how it is progressing. I’ll say, for example, that I expect specific signs of hormones coming back into balance (less painful periods and improved sex drive, perhaps) as treatment progresses through three menstrual cycles. I might suggest the doctor do testing along the way, too, to confirm that hormone levels are coming into balance.

 

I believe that most patients want integrated treatment and it is with that in mind that I got together with a Reproductive Endocrinologist Dr. Sami David to write our book, Making Babies: A Proven 3-Month Program for Maximum Fertility. The book will be published by Little Brown in the US and Virago in the UK this summer.

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LM: What led you to establish your practice, the YinOva Center?

JB: The YinOva Center is an alternative health center run by women for women and children. I founded it because I saw a need in New York City for a Chinese Medical Center that understood busy New York women and the kind of treatment they need.

I wanted to use my post-graduate OB/GYN training and my experience in hospitals to create a center that introduced women to Chinese medicine in a way that did not conflict with and, in fact supported, their Western medical care.

I have always intended for our center to be unintimidating. I set out to create a place where women could come for support, information, treatment and a sense of community. We are not scarily macrobiotic women at The YinOva Center. We are similar to our patients in that we are working women who are on our own health journeys and who are happy to use our training and experience to help other women take care of themselves and their families.

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LM: How does acupuncture work?

JB: I’m going to answer this question in three parts:

1. The Classical Chinese Explanation

2. The Western Explanation

3. How Acupuncture can enhance fertility according to current research

1. The Classical Chinese Explanation

The classical Chinese explanation is that there are channels of energy, called meridians, which run in regular patterns through the body. They are often compared to rivers running through the body in order to nourish the tissues. Stagnation in the flow of these energy rivers is like a dam that is backed up. The meridians can be effected by needling the acupuncture points; the acupuncture needles unblock the stagnation and reestablish the regular flow through the meridians. Acupuncture treatments can therefore help the body’s internal organs to correct imbalances in their digestion, absorption, and energy production activities, and in the circulation of their energy through the meridians.

2. The Western Explanation

The modern scientific explanation is that needling the acupuncture points makes the nervous system release chemicals into the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. These chemicals either change the experience of pain, or they trigger a cascade of chemicals and hormones which influence the body’s own internal regulating system. The improved energy flow and biochemical balance produced by acupuncture stimulates the body’s natural healing abilities, and enhances physical and emotional well-being.

However, there is a great deal we don’t yet know about acupuncture and why it works. As an example it’s worth looking at this study from UC Irvine. Traditionally acupuncturists have used a point on the little toe to address eye pain. The point is chosen because it is on the same meridian as the eye. Now scientists at UC Irvine have used an MRI to look at people’s brains whilst they are receiving acupuncture. What they found was that when the point for eye pain on the foot is stimulated the part of the brain that governs vision is activated. I wrote about this on my blog.

3. How Chinese medicine can enhance fertility according to current research

I have an article on my blog about scientific research into acupuncture and fertility –

But it’s worth stressing that acupuncture can help with infertility in the following ways: –

a. By stimulating and balancing hormone production, helping to regulate menstruation and ovulation

b. By increasing blood flow to the uterus, improving the quality of the endometrium, thickening it and optimizing it for implantation.

c. by increasing blood flow to the ovaries, improving their function and nourishing the developing follicles

d. It can help out with implantation by reducing uterine spasming

e. Relieving stress, decreasing the body’s stress response, including tamping down the stress hormones that can interfere with fertility

f. Eliminating underlying inflammation that may impair fertility

g. Regulating the immune system, which can interfere with fertility when overactive

h. Increasing sperm count and density in men with low sperm count

i. improving sperm quality and motility.

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LM: Do you think there is much difference between the acupuncture practiced in China and the US?

JB: I was trained to practice acupuncture by practitioners from China and so the philosophy behind what I do and the methods I use are similar to those used in China. In fact when I have worked alongside Chinese practitioners I have always been struck by how similar we are even though we trained in different continents.

What is different is the atmosphere in our clinic. In a clinic in China a practitioner typically sees between 7 and 10 patients an hour. Often there is little privacy and the process is more about getting results than the nature of the experience. At The YinOva Center we care about getting results but we also try to make the experience a tranquil and unhurried one. We diffuse essential oils, we play relaxing music and we spend time with our patients and listen to their concerns.

The other difference is that our patients are often new to Chinese medical concepts so we need to spend more time explaining what we do. Chinese medicine is rooted in Chinese philosophy so that a patient in China needs no explanation about yin and yang or the 5 elements. These are concepts they have understood since childhood. To our patients, Chinese medicine involves seeing themselves and the world in a different way and that means that we need to communicate our philosophy to each patient.

LM: Can you tell us about your specialty and what modalities you use?

JB: I use acupuncture, Chinese herbs, nutritional counseling, lifestyle counseling and Chinese massage (tui na) to treat women and children for a wide variety of disorders. I treat women for menstrual issues, digestive problems, allergies, menopause, pain and emotional problems to name but a few. My specialty is treating women to enhance their fertility.

LM: Do you think a patient’s attitude towards acupuncture influences the success or failure of the treatments?

JB: I do but you don’t need to believe in Chinese medicine to benefit from it. I always say that my favorite new patient is an open skeptic. Open enough to participate in their own healing and learn about Chinese medicine and skeptical enough to make up their own mind whether it works for them.

LM: How long does a typical treatment last?

JB: An initial consult at The YinOva Center lasts for 1 hour and 15 minutes and includes an acupuncture treatment. A follow up appointment lasts for 50 minutes. Typically people are on the table receiving acupuncture for 20 – 30 minutes.

LM: What are some of your professional goals for the future?

JB: I am looking forward to Making Babies being published this summer and I hope that it helps women use the wisdom of Chinese medicine to enhance their fertility. I am thrilled to have written the book with Dr. Sami David and want to continue to reach out to Western doctors and work with them to use this powerful ancient medicine for the benefit of our patients.

I am proud of what we have created at The YinOva Center. The practitioners who work for us are well trained and talented acupuncturists and herbalists who embody our YinOva philosophy of making Chinese medicine appropriate and accessible to busy New York woman. I want to continue to expand our center so we can serve as many women as possible.

LM: Can you describe a typical client session?

JB: When a patient comes to us for the first time we spend a lot of time taking a complete history. We ask all the questions that you would expect any thorough health care practitioner to ask but our patients are often surprised to be asked questions that no one has ever asked before. For example we may ask

  • Do you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • Do you have vivid dreams
  • Do you wake up at the same time every night
  • Do you crave a particular food
  • Given a choice would you prefer a cold or a hot drink

We than make a Chinese diagnosis and work with the patient to set both long and short term goals. So, for instance, a patient suffering from infertility will have the long term goal of getting and staying pregnant but we may also set some short term goals that let us know we are on the right path. For instance we may give ourselves three months to achieve no PMS, or a regular cycle or no menstrual cramps.

After we make a treatment plan the patient gets an acupuncture treatment. They strip off to their underwear and lie down on a special acupuncture table covered by a sheet. They lie face up, face down or on their side, depending on the type of treatment, and their head and knees are, usually, supported by a pillow. We use single use, sterile disposable needles which are hair thin. So thin that you could tie them in a knot if you needed to! About 10 – 15 needles are gently inserted at specific acupoints and the patient relaxes listening to music for about 20-30 minutes. Patients usually tell us that the needles induce a sense of deep relaxation and well-being. Whilst the patient is receiving the acupuncture the practitioner writes them an herbal formula if necessary. The herbs we prescribe come from a pharmacy in Cape Cod and are of the highest quality. We pull out the needles and dispose of them and discuss with the patient their herbs and when they will next need to see us. Most patients visit us weekly.

LM: What unique challenges and rewards come from working with your clients?

JB: I consider myself very lucky to be able to help women to have babies. I can’t imagine any other job that would give me as much satisfaction and pleasure. Often women we have helped bring their children in to see us and some of those children are now heading to middle school. It’s hard to describe what a great feeling it is to have played a small role in helping these women become mothers.

As New York acupuncturists we serve a population that is very driven and busy. At The YinOva Center we are really conscious of how over-scheduled our patients are and we try to make our center an oasis of calm for them. However we also try to support them by always running on time so that they can bank on us not to delay them and add to their stress.

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LM: As an herbalist, what herbs do you use the most commonly?

JB: As an herbalist, I have about 500 herbs that I have regular access to. Of these I use about 100 really regularly. My focus on gynecology ensures that some herbs are real favorites of mine, such as:

  • Gou Qi Zi – (Fructus Lycii) This delicious fruit, high in anti-oxidants has been used in Asian medicine for generations as a blood and yin tonic. We use it at The YinOva center for its fertility enhancing properties and also in formulas for weight loss. You can buy gou qi berries in health food stores and sprinkle them on your oatmeal in the morning or use them as a healthy snack. These tiny red berries contain polysaccharides which have been demonstrated to boost the immune system. They are also very rich in vitamin C and B vitamins and are the richest source of carotenoids, including beta carotene, of any known plant. No wonder so many Chinese people use gou qi berries as a daily tonic and mood enhancer.
  • He Huan Pi – (Cortex Albizia) The bark of the albizzia tree is used to treat stress and emotional problems. Traditionally it was said to help mend a broken heart. At The YinOva Center we add it to formulas for women who suffer from PMS and also for women who have suffered a loss making it very helpful to women who are recovering from a miscarriage.
  • Ba Ji Tian – (Radix Morindae Officinalis) This herbs is a yang tonic in Chinese medicine and an important ingredient in fertility formulas for women who run cold and have poor circulation. It can be used for irregular menstruation, menstrual cramps and cold sensation in the lower abdomen especially when combined with other warming, tonic herbs.
  • Yin Yang Huo – (Herba Epimedii) Commonly known as Horny Goat Weed (because of the effect it has on goats who eat it) this herb has been used in Eastern and Western herbalism to increase libido. In clinical research yin yang huo has been shown to increase sexual activity in animals and humans. It stimulates the sensory nerves throughout the body but particularly in the genitals. At The YinOva Center we use it in formulas that enhance female fertility and also to increase sperm production in men. The only drawback to yin yang huo is that it can be a bit too drying and people who have been diagnosed with yin deficiency or who suffer from dry hair and skin should use it cautiously and in combination with yin tonic herbs.

LM: What are some common myths about the use of herbs?

JB: I think that because people aren’t familiar with Chinese herbs they think of them as all the same. People know that pharmaceuticals are all different that some are benign and some have side effects but they don’t know enough about Chinese herbs to be able to differentiate between them. This leads to doctors advising their patients not to take any Chinese herbs at all instead of warning against specific herbs.

Most herbs are remarkably low in side effects when compared to Western drugs and used properly are very safe. However some herbs from some sources can be contaminated or impure and my advice is to find a practitioner you trust and be guided by them. At The YinOva Center our herbs come from a lab that we know and trust and that only sells herbs that meet rigorous standards of testing and clinical effectiveness. The formulas made on our behalf comply with the FDA cGMP standards, FDA Labeling Requirements, and HIPAA.

LM: Practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) believe that a variety of energy patterns can interfere with becoming pregnant. Can you tell us a little more about why that is?

JB: In our book, Making Babies, we have divided the most common patterns we see in cases of infertility into 5 basic types. For the sake of making them accessible we gave them our own names. Tired, Dry, Pale, Stuck and Waterlogged.

  • Tired are women who have a Chinese diagnosis of Qi and Yang Deficiency – These are women who are tired and worn out. They often feel cold and tend to have metabolic problems such as hyperthyroid. They are yang deficient, in part because they are qi deficient. Qi, sometimes described as life-force, or energy, isn’t a specific physical thing. It describes several key bodily functions: movement, transformation, transportation, warming, protecting, and containing. When it comes to fertility, each of these functions comes into play. The ability to have an erection relies on qi, for example (movement). So does its ability to transform an egg and a sperm into an embryo (transformation). The body relies on qi to get an egg from the ovary to the uterus (transportation) and to create an environment of the right temperature in the uterus (warming). A healthy immune system is a function of qi (protecting) – and a key to a successful and healthy pregnancy. The body also uses qi to keep things where they are (containing) – including keeping a baby in the uterus.
  • Dry are women who have a Chinese diagnosis of Yin Deficiency – Yin describes the functions of the body that are cooling, nourishing, moistening, and substantial. Without enough yin, the body both dries out and gets hotter. Yin deficient women feel hot and suffer from dry skin and eyes. They often have low estrogen and have sometimes been diagnosed as perimenopausal. They tend to suffer from hot flashes and night sweats.
  • Pale are women who have a Chinese diagnosis of Blood Deficiency – The term blood deficiency doesn’t mean that a patient does nothave enough blood in their bodies, but rather that the quality of the blood leaves something to be desired. Furthermore, the concept of blood in Chinese medicine encompasses not just the stuff coursing through our veins and arteries but also the body’s ability to nourish its tissues and organs. Looking at it this way, blood nourishes the endometrium, making it a nourishing home for an embryo to settle into so blood deficient women sometimes have a thin endometrium. Blood deficiency can be caused by a tendency to anemia, which some people are just born with. Blood deficiency can also be caused by a poor diet, or by too much blood loss from heavy periods.
  • Stuck are women who have a Chinese diagnosis of Qi and Blood Stagnation – This condition stems from poor flow of energy and blood through the body. Over time this weak circulation leads to stagnation in the reproductive system as well. This leads to poor hormone transitions, resulting in PMS symptoms. In women, qi stagnation can lead to problems with the ovary releasing the egg, and to lack of flexibility in the fallopian tubes. Qi stagnation is seen as leading to blood stagnation, and it is the blood flowing less smoothly that can cause painful periods or a stop-and-start flow to the period. The poor blood flow leads to denser and denser tissues, potentially creating the reproductive system obstructions such as endometriosis, fibroids, polyps, cysts, and fibrocystic breasts.
  • Waterlogged are women who have a Chinese diagnosis of Damp – “Phlegm damp,” or “damp stagnation,” is a concept unique to Chinese medicine. It describes fluids congealing at certain sites or in certain systems in the body, to the point where normal function is disrupted. Damp stagnation often develops in the wake of other issues – yang deficiency or blood stagnation, in Chinese terms. But it can also simply be the result of eating rich, sweet foods to excess. Such a diet damages the digestive system so that it can’t properly break down food and fluid. This creates fatty deposits that can eventually disrupt organ function. This is the link between damp stagnation and obesity.

In this type, the primary cause of hormone imbalance is this stagnation. Stagnant fluids lead to poor transitions of every kind, including the many tricky hormone shifts involved in the menstrual cycle, conception, and implantation.

LM: As acupuncture can be used in combination with other treatments for infertility when trying to get pregnant, do you recommend that your patients work both with Chinese herbs and Acupuncture?

JB: I recommend that patients allow themselves to be guided by a good practitioner, when they are making the decision whether to combine herbs with acupuncture. At The YinOva Center we prescribe Chinese herbs for most of our patients however we do not give herbs to patients who are taking fertility drugs except in rare cases. This is because in most cases the herbs can make the effect of the drugs unpredictable in a way that is not helpful to the patient’s prescribing physician or for that matter to the patient.

LM: I read recently that acupuncture, a noninvasive, holistic approach to reversing infertility has a surprising success rate of sixty percent among infertile women; a very high number, considering that many women discover acupuncture late in their search for infertility solutions. Is this statistic accurate and if so, why aren’t more women investigating this option?

JB: In our experience at The YinOva Center this statistic is accurate although the success rate varies according to each individual woman’s case. For many women the gentle balancing effects of Chinese medicine are a very good treatment for the subtle imbalances that result in infertility. However for other women a combined western and eastern approach is the best route to a healthy pregnancy. A good practitioner should be able to advise you whether to pursue Chinese medicine alone or to combine it with conventional artificial reproductive techniques. The combined approach can be very worthwhile. It is worth drawing people’s attention to the research study that showed that acupuncture increases the efficacy of IVF by 50%. Yinovacenter.com also provides a great pdf of the study.

The study divided 180 women who were having IVF into two groups of 80 women. One group had IVF with acupuncture and one group had IVF without acupuncture. The group that had acupuncture had a pregnancy rate of 42.5% versus the group that had no acupuncture that had a pregnancy rate of 26.3%. That ‘s almost a 50% better outcome in the acupuncture group.

5 comments

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5 comments

julia January 31, 2009 at 4:19 pm

This is the most thorough, balanced, and sensitive explanation of Chinese medicine and fertility that I’ve seen anywhere on the web. Thank you, Jill Blakeway, for being such a wonderful educator.

Jill Blakeway February 2, 2009 at 10:18 am

Dear Julia,

Thank you so much for your kind words. Chinese medicine is sometimes portrayed as this weird, esoteric, new age medicine when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth. Rooted in folk medicine and based on thousands of years of empirical observation Chinese medicine is practical and straight forward. In my own practice I find that if I explain the concepts without jargon or added mystique my patients respond with enthusiasm because they recognize a way of seeing the world that expresses some universal truths.

Jill

Ekaterina Todarello August 30, 2010 at 1:32 am

Dear Jill,
Thank you for this wonderful account although I’ve been disappointed not in Chinese Medicine but what it can do for me. I’ve been trying to conceive for 3 years since I met my husband at 40. I live in Sydney, Australia, and I tried 4 Chinese Medicine specialists, 2 Western herbs ones, and one who combined them. I haven’t achieved my dream after thousands of dollars spent on it.

Claire McAndrews August 2, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Dear Jill,
I am 43 years old & have been trying to conceive for the past 2 years after having met my husband. Following a recent laparoscopy procedure, I have been diagnosed with fibroids. Two of these are the size of a small orange & are blocking my ovaries.
The consultant was very bleak & suggested that I have a myoectomy performed. I am petrified of this as the consultant highlighted all the risks, including hysterectomy & death. Yet I want to try everything possible.
I would appreciate your views on this & whether there is any benefit of trying Chinese medicine.
Thank you.

Baz November 1, 2012 at 8:45 pm

Wish Jill was in Brisbane Queenslan Australia

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