Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, PCOS is also known as Stein-Leventhal Syndrome. This syndrome is becoming increasingly common among women of reproductive age. The first sign many women will notice before a diagnosis is made is a longer than normal menstrual cycle that may or may not include ovulation. This happens because instead of normal follicular development in which an egg is released, cysts develop because the egg growth is stunted. When evaluated by ultrasound, ovaries in women with PCOS appear to have a thick, waxy coating and many rows of cysts. These cysts secrete androgens which are male hormones such as testosterone. The increased levels of androgens prevent ovulation and are responsible for the side effects that some, but not all, women experience such as an increase in facial hair, weight gain, acne and an increase in body hair.
Another endocrine imbalance also exists for many women with PCOS and that is impaired glucose tolerance and insulin abnormalities which lead to increased weight gain and sometimes obesity. The higher levels of insulin circulating in the body also contribute to androgen production within the ovary.
Today doctors do not know what causes PCOS and thus treatment strategies have not been as effective as women struggling with the syndrome would like. Currently western treatment focuses on stimulating ovulation and normalizing insulin levels with drugs such as glucophage. Stimulating ovulation alone does not address the poor health state of the eggs which have been maturing in the androgen-rich environment.
What can Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture do for PCOS?
Acupuncture seeks to address the hormonal chaos at its root. A study in the medical journal, Biology of Reproduction, illustrated acupuncture’s effects. The scientists were able to induce PCOS in rats by increasing stress on the ovaries. More specifically, they increased the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and concentrations of nerve growth factor in the ovaries and the adrenal glands. The group treated with electro-acupuncture restored ovulation by reducing this stress on the ovary. The study also showed that acupuncture influenced neuroendocrine and endocrine parameters found in PCOS such as LH/FSH ratios and testosterone concentration. The bottom line is that because of the effect acupuncture has at relaxing the sympathetic nervous system (the part of our nervous system that reacts to stress), normality could be restored to ovaries.
Herbal medicine can also be a helpful adjunctive treatment in treating PCOS. There are different herbs which can help to dissolve the waxy coating found on the ovaries and also to encourage normal ovulation. Each individual woman is evaluated and then treated according to her particular pattern and unique features and symptoms of PCOS. You should always check that your practitioner has had full training in the use of herbal medicine and experience working with your disorder before taking herbs.
How many treatments will I need?
Women experiencing an infertility diagnosis of PCOS need not despair. The benefits of acupuncture, herbal medicine, and western interventions if they are needed often result in normal pregnancies and healthy children. It is the case however, where more care needs to be taken in the months leading up to conception to ensure the health of the woman’s eggs. A sample treatment plan will be once a week for a 4-6month period of time. An exact treatment plan will be tailored to each individual and will depend on which symptoms are most prevalent. Some women will focus more on herbs and some on acupuncture.
What other tools will I receive to ensure my treatments are effective?
As we already discussed, acupuncture and herbs can play a role, but the need to modify the diet is also very important. Stabilizing blood sugar levels in order to lower insulin resistance is one very important goal. Women with PCOS should eliminate all refined sources of sugar in their diet. This includes the white foods- white flour, white pasta, white rice, white bread, most cereals, etc. They should also eliminate soda, juices and any sugary drinks completely while increasing lean proteins and complex, whole grains and vegetables. A good diet combined with moderate exercise is the basis of any treatment for PCOS. An assessment of your diet and future goals will be discussed at your initial consultation.