Treating PCOS with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
Wednesday, 11th August 2021
Written by Keren Rochwerger
Treating PCOS with Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine
A recent trip to the Doctor confirms a diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
Feelings of confusion and despair arise. You search online trying to understand what this diagnosis means for you and what you can do about it. There is so much information to sift through, you end up down a rabbit-hole feeling worse than before and still with no clarity.
After a discussion with a friend, she suggests you try Chinese Medicine to help you with your symptoms and bubbling feelings of anxiety.
PCOS and Chinese Medicine, How can we help?
Chinese Medicine will take you on a journey toward understanding your health and restoring equilibrium within the body by employing techniques such as acupuncture, herbal medicine, dietary therapy & lifestyle advice.
What Is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Symptoms (PCOS)
Let’s first understand the basics of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, how is it diagnosed? What are the symptoms that you may experience?
In order to be diagnosed with PCOS, you must present with at least two of the following criteria:
- Cysts on the ovaries as revealed by ultrasound. These cysts are actually multiple small underdeveloped follicles developing within the ovary simultaneously causing the ovaries to appear enlarged and swollen.
- Irregular menstrual cycles with infrequent ovulation and in some cases no period at all (amenorrhea).
- Hormonal imbalances with high levels of androgens that may manifest clinically as acne, hirsutism (male-patterned hair growth), weight gain or occasionally male-patterned hair loss.
Please note, it is possible to have polycystic ovaries without having the full syndrome. It is important to discuss with your health care professional where you fit in this diagnosis.
You may be wondering if these symptoms will persist indefinitely? Is there something you can do to support yourself?
Firstly, it is important to understand that you are not your diagnosis!
You are merely experiencing a cluster of symptoms that have also affected between 12-21% of women. All of these women are affected in different ways and therefore, require an individualised approach in their treatment by either medical professionals and/or allied health practitioners. This is where Chinese Medicine can provide the appropriate care and tailor a treatment protocol to your specific needs.
Goals of Treatment of PCOS through Chinese Medicine
PCOS is multifactorial, presenting with a variety of symptoms. The main focus of treatment is to re-establish regular ovulation in order to correct the hormonal imbalances of excess androgens and this will in turn, kick-start a regular menstrual cycle.
According to Chinese Medicine, treatment is dependent on the pattern that will emerge from all the detailed questioning from your Chinese Medicine Practitioner.
If you haven’t been to a session yet, you will soon discover that a plethora of questions are asked, ranging from the colour and consistency of your menstrual flow to the quality of your sleep and finally, to the frequency of your bowel movements. This is followed by tongue and pulse diagnosis. All of these answers will create a pattern that will enable your practitioner to come up with a diagnosis specific to you and a comprehensive treatment plan.
From a Chinese medicine lens, the driver of the menstrual flow (Tian Gui) is the responsibility of the Kidneys.
It is important to pause here and explain that any reference to organs is not to be taken literally. This is a brief explanation from a Chinese medicine perspective of how disharmony between the energetics of the organs can manifest in PCOS.
The Kidneys are responsible for growth, development and importantly, initiating and maintaining reproduction. The capability of the Kidneys is directly influenced by our genetic makeup. This ties in to the explanation that there is a genetic predisposition to PCOS.
As women age, the menstrual cycle comes under the influence of the landscape they live in. This primarily refers to the food ingested, the physique of the body, the emotional state and the environment.
How does your body shape influence PCOS?
Whether a woman is slightly obese or has difficulty losing weight, these key factors have a significant negative influence on ovarian activity and impact on the menstrual cycle.
In Chinese medicine, treatment focuses on strengthening the digestive function, the spleen & Stomach, in order to counteract Phlegm-Damp accumulation within the body.
Imagine there is a furnace burning in our digestive organs, this fire aids the digestion to transform & transport all the food & fluids that enter through the mouth and into the digestive tract into nutrition for the body that provides us with the vitality we require to function. However, if that fire is not ignited, there is no power to generate the food & fluids and in turn, everything becomes soggy. When this occurs, damp is produced. How can anything grow & flourish in a muddy environment? Often dampness can manifest with a symptom picture of foggy-headedness, sluggishness, bloating, nausea and possibly soft, sticky stools. Over time, damp can transform into Phlegm. Phlegm can deposit in the body as excess weight, cystic acne and as fluid-filled cysts in the ovaries which can also thicken the ovarian casing.
What Food Strategies are Used to Overcome Damp-Phlegm Accumulation in the Body?
This involves strengthening the digestive function and keeping that fire ignited by consuming warming foods & fluids. We tend to think that cold salads & raw foods are preferable choices but in this scenario when a woman is struggling to shed their unwanted weight gain, they will often notice that it is difficult to achieve their goals. Sometimes, this slight modification can make a difference.
Other Foods to Avoid
Other foods that can also contribute to an accumulation of dampness include:
- Refined carbohydrates & white flour products.
- Refined sugars.
- Dairy products (sheep & goat’s products are preferable).
- Processed foods.
- Fried foods.
- Other foods include beer, roasted peanuts & concentrated juices.
Chinese Medicine – Using Food to treat PCOS
Certain foods such as mustard seeds or radish seeds can be employed for their pungent qualities to help break up phlegm deposits in the body. Other food-based herbs like matured citrus peel, Job’s tears seed and a type of mushroom fungus that grows on the side of pine trees can help change the quality of the soil and improve the drainage function.
And, of great significance, particularly in PCOS, is the use of the herb cinnamon which has been shown in studies to help regulate blood sugar levels.
What is the connection between insulin resistance & PCOS?
Women with PCOS who consume a diet mainly consisting of refined carbs & sugars (think cake, muffins, biscuits, white bread) get stuck in a vicious cycle where the body overproduces insulin in an attempt to maintain normal blood glucose levels. Eventually, the body builds up a resistance to insulin where insulin is no longer able to escort glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells.
Consequently, this leads to high levels of both glucose and insulin in the blood. This high level of insulin is quite harmful in PCOS as it causes the ovaries to raise androgen levels which in turn, interfere with ovarian function and the menstrual cycle.
The benefits of a comprehensive lifestyle change cannot be overemphasised. The combination of weight loss, dietary changes and an appropriate exercise regime can bring about positive results in women with PCOS.
What other dietary modifications can also be beneficial in a woman with insulin-resistance & PCOS?
Simple practical steps that can be taken to address insulin-resistant PCOS include low glycaemic foods, high fibre foods, avoiding carbohydrate-heavy foods, reducing refined sugars… it’s starting to sound very similar to the approach mentioned earlier about reducing damp-producing foods in the diet… interesting connection…
What type of exercise is beneficial?
It would be preferable to seek out an exercise physiologist to receive a tailored regime. There is sufficient evidence that suggests that even a small amount of weight loss (about 5kg) improves ovulation frequency, enriches the environment in which the eggs mature and in turn, enhances fertility. For those carrying extra weight the type of exercise that is preferable is high intensity interval training (HIIT) as well as core strengthening exercise to direct blood circulation to the abdomen. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, movement is especially key to help break up heavy, sticky substances lingering in the body like damp and phlegm.
STRESS and PCOS!
Stress has a massive role to play in all of this, feelings of helplessness in not being able to maintain a regular cycle, frustration with a lack of control of their body presenting with acne & facial hair, increased susceptibility to weight gain and possibly, hopelessness in dreams of one day having children.
Over time, stress can significantly impact the flow of the Liver and then the impact this has on the Heart. The Liver in Chinese Medicine is responsible for a smooth menstrual flow and also facilitates the movement at ovulation. The Liver easily becomes impeded by emotional stress and when obstructed, this may result in an interrupted period, painful period & premenstrual symptoms. Even more so, when the body & mind are under a degree of stress, this disturbs the ability of the Heart to find emotional stability.
Steps to manage Stress
- Mind-calming & breath techniques such as Yin Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong and meditation.
- Adequate & quality sleep to allow the body & mind to replenish, repair & rest.
- Regular Acupuncture sessions to lower cortisol levels within the body and switch off the sympathetic nervous system.
How Does Acupuncture Assist with PCOS?
There has been a plethora of research examining the effects of Acupuncture for PCOS in improving ovarian function, increasing ovulation frequency, reducing androgens levels and reversing insulin resistance.
There was a study that was performed where a small group of women were treated for 3 months with both Acupuncture & Electro-acupuncture and the ovulation rate jumped from 15%-66% per month. Electro-acupuncture provides a stronger stimulation and intensity to the ovaries. Primary points were chosen on the Acupuncture meridians (channels) that are responsible for menstruation. Points on the abdomen were also chosen that relate to the sympathetic nervous system segmental innervation of the ovaries at the level of T9-L2. And, sacral and medial leg points were also chosen that relate to the parasympathetic nervous system segmental innervation of the ovaries at the level of vertebrae S2-S4 (Feng Y, Johansson, J, Shao R, et al. Hypothalamic neuroendocrine functions in rats with dihydrotestosterone induced polycystic ovary syndrome: effects of low frequency electro-acupuncture. PLoS One 2009;4(8):e6638).
This study demonstrates that the frequency and regularity of Acupuncture treatments appear to be important for reproductive health. This is where your personal Chinese Medicine practitioner will be able to effectively work with you and tailor a treatment protocol based on your needs.
Finally, some hope for your diagnosis of PCOS
When entering into a Chinese medicine clinic, your practitioner will do their very best to unravel all the signs & symptoms and find ways to effectively treat you holistically.
Keren Rochwerger is a highly trained and committed Chinese medicine practitioner whose qualifications include a Bachelor of Health Science in Chinese Medicine and a Bachelor of Biomedical Science. With this unique combination of knowledge, Keren delivers a level of professionalism and expertise based on current research and modern advancements in both Chinese and Western medicine.