Using Chinese Medicine to Treat PCOS
Several recent studies have explored the use of acupuncture to treat polycystic ovary syndrome with encouraging results. We see quite a number of women who are suffering from PCOS at the Yinova Center and have found that a combination of acupuncture and Chinese herbs can be really helpful. PCOS is a complex endocrine and metabolic syndrome that affects 5% – 10% of women of reproductive age and is characterized by small ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycles, abnormal hair growth, acne, and metabolic problems leading to weight gain. The cysts associated with PCOS cause a hormone imbalance that means that sufferers have increased male sex hormones. This can disturb ovulation and lead to infertility. Women who suffer from PCOS also have a higher risk of developing hypertension and diabetes and are at an increased risk of heart disease.
A study at Goteborg University in Sweden showed that electro-acupuncture may help some women with PCOS to ovulate. Electro-acupuncture was developed in China as an alternative to manipulating acupuncture needles by hand. It involves the application of a pulsating electrical current to acupuncture needles as a means of stimulating the acupuncture points.
During the study, one group of women with polycystic ovary syndrome received acupuncture regularly for four months. A second group of women were provided with heart rate monitors and instructed to exercise at least three times a week. A control group was informed about the importance of exercise and a healthy diet, but was given no other specific instructions.
The study showed that activity in the sympathetic nervous system was lower in the women who received acupuncture and in those who took regular exercise than it was in the control group. The acupuncture treatment brought further benefits. “Those who received acupuncture found that their menstruation became more normal. We could also see that their levels of testosterone became significantly lower, and this is an important observation, since elevated testosterone levels are closely connected with the increased activity in the sympathetic nervous system of women”, says Elisabet Stener‑Victorin the lead researcher. 38% of women who received the electro-acupuncture experienced regular ovulation. However, the electro-acupuncture was not effective in the more severe cases (obese, highest waist-to-hip ratio, and highest testosterone and insulin individuals).
What causes PCOS remains a mystery, but we do know that PCOS sufferers have a higher sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity than other women so it may be that the acupuncture is calming the SNS and thus leading to a reduction in symptoms.
In Chinese medicine PCOS is usually attributed to Kidney Yang Deficiency (poor metabolism) and Damp Accumulation (fluid filled cysts) and has been treated for hundreds of years using a combination of herbs and acupuncture. Some herbs such as zao jiao ci (Spina Gleditsiae Sinensis) have the ability to dissolve the waxy coat around the ovarian cysts and at the Yinova Center we use them as part of a larger formula to reduce cysts. Other herbs such as bu gu zhi (psoralea) and xian mao (circuligo) help metabolic slowdown and insulin resistance and at the Yinova Center we usually combine them with herbs that calm an overactive system such as huang jing (polygonatum) and herbs that balance hormones such as dang gui (tangkuei).
In our book Making Babies we give the following advice to PCOS sufferers
- Lose weight if you need to. Studies have shown that losing just 10% of your body weight can result in normal ovulation in women with PCOS
- Cut down on animal fats and increase essential fatty acids
- Eat a wide range of fruits, vegetables and low fat protein such as chicken, fish and beans.
- Balance your blood sugar by limiting your carbohydrate intake. Don’t cut out carbs altogether, though, as that can lower serotonin levels and leave you feeling depressed. Instead eat healthy carbs such as whole grains.
- Take N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) to help reduce circulating testosterone, cholesterol, plasma triglycerides, low density lipoproteins and insulin.
- Get plenty of anti-oxident nutrients from foods and supplements. They fight inflammation which can exacerbate PCOS.
- Get regular exercise to increase your metabolism. Aim for a half hour of brisk walking a day.
- Practice stress management. Stress stimulates the production of more hormones, including testosterone, which makes PCOS worse. Try yoga meditation or a warm bath.
- See an acupuncturist for help restoring ovulation.
- See an herbalist about creating a formula that reduces cysts and balances hormones.
- Allow at least three months of treatment before trying to conceive. Follicles exposed to excess androgens will be of poor quality and lead to higher risk of miscarriage.