PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. It’s an endocrine (hormonal) disorder characterized by infrequent or absent periods, multiple cysts on the ovaries, obesity and high levels of androgens (such as testosterone and DHEA-S), which leads to excess facial and body hair, hair thinning or male pattern baldness and acne. Many PCOS patients have insulin resistance, which means that your body isn’t able to properly absorb and process sugars and other carbohydrates. Other complications include type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression and difficulty becoming pregnant.
It’s important to know that there is a wide range of severity of the condition- some patients with PCOS have only slightly irregular periods as the only obvious symptom, while others may have never before gotten a period on their own and have every other symptom such as obesity, excess hair and acne.
PCOS can’t be diagnosed by just one symptom or test alone, but instead doctors look for the presence of several signs and symptoms together. Not all PCOS patients have acne, excess body hair or obesity, but all will have high levels of androgens (testosterone and DHEA-S) and chronic anovulation (irregular or absent periods). Many times a woman is first diagnosed with PCOS because she is unable to become pregnant due to lack of consistent ovulation.
Western Treatment for PCOS includes hormonal birth control pills to artificially “regulate” cycles and reduce androgens.
A recent research article came out that used electro-acupuncture for 16 weeks and found a significant improvement in PCOS outcome.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) sees PCOS in a few different ways, depending on how it presents in your body. Western medicine tends to treat all PCOS patients in the same way, where TCM looks at each patient’s pattern of symptoms before making a diagnosis.
Acupuncture increases blood flow to the uterus and therefore uterine wall thickness, an important factor for fertility. It also increases endorphin production, which, in turn, promotes the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) to regulate reproduction. Acupuncture can also lower stress hormones responsible for infertility; normalize plasma levels of the fertility hormones: follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteininzing hormone (LH), estradiol (E2), and progesterone; and normalize the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis to regulate menstruation, a key process in fertility.
What prompted this blog entry is a recent Swedish study using acupuncture with a TENS unit called “Electro-acupuncture” (it does not hurt at all) was done that showed significant improvement in PCOS treatment outcomes. There were 3 groups totaling 84 women. One group was assigned exercise, another assigned acupuncture and a control group with no intervention. The study lasted for 16 weeks with the acupuncture group receiving treatments 2x/week. The acupuncture groups had a 25% reduction in testosterone, 30% reduction in other androgens and significant improvement in menstrual cycle regularity. What is most interesting is that the acupuncture group had the significant improvement in PCOS outcomes independent of weight loss. This is important as weight loss is typically key to helping improve PCOS symptoms, however in this Swedish study there was no significant weight loss. This study demonstrates how acupuncture alone can help regulate hormonal levels even when other variables (such as diet) are kept constant.