A study has found that women undertaking fertility treatment as well as complementary therapies were 30 per cent less likely to fall pregnant than women undertaking fertility treatment alone, raising concerns that some complementary therapies may be harming women's chances of becoming pregnant.
The findings, by a team of psychologists led by Jacky Boivin of Cardiff University, were presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Lyon. The study examined the medical and psychological profiles of 818 Danish women who were beginning fertility treatment, identifying which of the women went on to use complementary and alternative therapies during the following 12 months. It was found that 32 per cent of the women had used some type of complementary therapies, including nutritional supplements, reflexology and acupuncture. Dr Boivin commented that 'it looks like complementary therapies might not be as benign as previously thought'.
The study found that the women who had used alternative medicines in the 12-month period had an average of 2.4 cycles of IVF treatment, and this had led to pregnancies in 45.2 per cent of them. Conversely those who only undertook conventional fertility treatment had an average of 1.91 IVF cycles, which lead to pregnancies in 66.4 per cent of them.
Many women take herbal supplements to ease the stress experienced while undergoing fertility treatment, and some experts argue that it may be the raised stress levels that cause the difficulty conceiving, rather than the remedies themselves. Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, cautioned against the findings advising that 'those women who are more prone to stress and have more health problems are more likely to try complementary medicine, so complementary medicine could only be a marker, and not the cause, of stress or lower success rates'. Dr Boivin maintained that the study had taken account of such additional factors, including the women's mental health, although she agreed that persistent failure to become pregnant might cause women to seek out alternative therapies.
Alison Denham, of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists, said that it was possible the certain herbal treatments, including St John's Wort, could interact with IVF drugs, and advised that 'herbal practitioners would be aware of this possibility and prescribe accordingly'. However, she maintained that a range of studies supported improvements in diet, and that non-medicine based complementary therapies could not interact with IVF treatments.
The team now intend to follow the patients for a further five years to continue to assess pregnancy rates over the longer period of time. Dr Boivin considered this important because over time 'women might become more and more susceptible to deceptive advertising about ineffective complementary and alternative therapies or other unproven treatments'.