Acupuncture and herbs can help to alleviate often overlooked PCOS symptoms
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age. It is estimated to affect between 5-18% of the general population. The syndrome is named after the build up of characteristic cysts formed from immature follicles in the ovaries. Other defining symptoms pertaining to the syndrome include excessive androgen activity, and menstruation with infrequent irregular ovulation or no ovulation.
The exact cause of PCOS is uncertain and there is no known cure, The cysts are associated with higher testosterone levels which disrupt ovulatory cycles and also cause acne, male-patterned hair growth, or hair loss. There is also a complex relationship between high androgen levels and insulin resistance that lead many PCOS patients to gain weight that's difficult to lose. These hormone imbalances are further linked with mood swings, increased anxiety, poor stress coping, insomnia and recurrent headaches. If left untreated, PCOS could have serious reproductive and medical consequences. Many women are unaware that long-term consequences of not having regular shedding of uterine lining through proper menstruation may also be linked to uterine cancer. About 1/5 of women with infertility are affected by PCOS.
In Chinese medicine, PCOS is perceived through the pattern of symptoms. The common associated symptoms we treat are:
1) Irregular menstruation: scanty menses, long cycles or no menses.
Regulating the menstruation and restoring ovulation is the core principle of PCOS treatment in Chinese medicine. This is because allowing the body to function according to its natural intended cycles, is most in alignment to health. As a result, this leads to proper elimination of waste while also implying proper rest and restoration are taking place. According to classical theories, the acupuncturist would first assess the holistic pattern contributing to irregular menstruation and then treating that accordingly. The most common diagnosis for PCOS is Kidney deficiency with Chong and Ren disharmony - which can be broadly interpreted as insufficient follicular growth and hormone imbalance.
It is worth noting that a PCOS diagnosis does not mean PCO, nor that those with PCO necessarily has PCOS. If cysts are present, then there is stasis build up that we need to clear which may help relieve pelvic pain if any. Due to not having regular menstruation for long periods of time, women will then have a heavy and painful period when it does happen. It is indicative of a buildup of blood stasis; and so according to theory, the treatment approach is to clear and move the blood in the pelvic area and to restore regular flow. This is especially a common problem amongst teenagers when they are not particularly aware of what's normal and don't know how to talk to anyone about it.
Nowadays, the acupuncturist will also combine modern BBT charting to help assess ovulation and use that to further calibrate how that changes the pattern diagnosis according to Chinese medicine theory. By restoring menstruation cycle and ovulation through acupuncture and herbs, we are effectively regulating hormone balance related to excessive androgen activity and thereby helping to reduce cysts.
However, if a patient desires to do family planning with birth control, then we would still treat according to the pattern presented. We might still able to help address the other common symptoms listed below.
In short, acne is typically an inflammatory symptom and anything to reduce the sources of inflammation within the body will help relieve acne. Acne can be caused by improper diet of eating spicy, greasy foods; regular intake of alcohol; chronic stress; and excessive androgen. Adipose tissue buildup also contributes to increases in androgen, which causes acne. In Chinese medicine, we advise our patients to cut down or eliminate foods that contribute to acne growth, while at the same time, try to manage stress better, and sleep more, Regular periods will help to this end too, as it clears unwanted buildup within the body and restores hormone balance. Acupuncture and herbs are chosen to clear the heat within the system, helping to decrease the inflammatory responses contributing to acne.
3) Unwanted hair growth or hair loss
Unwanted hair growth is related to "Blood" heat, while hair loss is related to "Blood" deficiency. In Chinese medicine, "Blood" the fluid matter that carries nutrients and includes the hormone found in the blood. Depending on the symptoms present, the acupuncturist will either clear the heat or build the blood. Unwanted male-patterned hair growth is often found along with acne, and many of the dietary and habit recommendations will apply. On the other hand, hair loss likely implies the excessive Blood heat has injured the Blood leading to deficiency that need to be replenished. Blood deficiency patterns are best supplemented with herbal products to restore hair growth through nourishing yin and blood.
4) Fatigue and weight gain
The complex link between excessive androgen activity and weight gain can best be explained as deficiency in Kidney Qi, which is considered the main source of metabolism in our body. In short, the inability for follicles to mature and be ovulated could possibly be linked to Kidney Essence and Qi insufficiency. When menstruation is regulated to help promote ovulation, we generally will employ methods to help boost Kidney Qi as well according to the cycle. Excessive weight gain that is difficult to lose imply the presence of cold damp accumulation that needs further addressing. Therefore, addressing all of these in theory tends to help with fatigue, and improve metabolism leading to weight loss and better energy, which then in turn creates positive feed back to restore normal ovulation.
We would encourage patents to adopt dietary changes and incorporate regular light exercise routines like qi gang and yoga into their activities. Mindfulness and stress reduction can also assist with weight loss, as reduction in cortisol levels reduces irregular cravings and allow for proper rest.
5) Mood swings, stress, anxiety, headaches
These are symptoms related to the stagnant flow of Qi and Blood such that things are not flowing smoothly. Such obstructions may causes pain like recurrent headaches; or pent-up emotions not being properly released leading to mood swings, poor stress coping, and anxiety. Often times, people who are Qi and Blood deficient are more prone to these symptoms. And so our treatment to address these involve facilitating smoother energetic flow while building up the resources for such flow to happen more optimally.
In Chinese medicine, there is a strong link between emotions and physical health, and vice versa. Much of down regulating the stress response, calming the shen/mind so to speak, help to "descend the blood" to the uterus to promote menstruation. Women's moods are particularly prone to hormonal imbalances associated with menstrual irregularity. We address the mind and body holistically in our treatments to achieve relief, allowing for down regulation of the HPOA to restore hormone balance and improve metabolic function.
Improper diet, inflammation, chronic emotional imbalances all can lead to difficulties with sleep. It is common for PCOS patients to experience insomnia due to the collection of symptoms that is associated with the syndrome. It is very likely that addressing insomnia will help other symptoms and vice versa. This is the benefit of holistic approaches like Chinese medicine which can help address many things together because the underlying etiologies may be very similar according to holistic Chinese medicine theory.
In this blog post, we've discussed very broadly how Chinese medicine approaches symptoms relief for PCOS. This is a very complex syndrome that requires full commitment from the patient to follow-through on habit and diet changes while working with the acupuncturist in collaboration with Western doctor to restore hormone balance the natural way. A minimum of 3 months of treatments should be expected to begin creating the shifts to improve chronic symptoms.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions or to take advantage of our complimentary 20 minute exploratory call to determine if acupuncture and herbs can help you manage your PCOS symptoms.