PCOS stands for polycystic ovary syndrome –- is characterised by the growth of multiple small follicles on the ovary.
It is often undiagnosed as the person may still menstruate, but usually very irregularly, for example, having six week or a few months in between periods. The actual blood flow can also be quite scanty, so many women do not treat this situation as a problem, but it needs to be dealt with as it can lead to infertility.
The cause of PCOS is unsure but is usually thought to be connected to genes and lifestyle. For instance, having a family history of type 2 diabetes is known to increase the risk; also excessive production of testosterone (the ‘male’ hormone) which is caused by insulin resistance.
Some of the more unpleasant symptoms are a tendency to feeing bloated and retaining fluid, so that the woman cannot lose weight, no matter what diet and exercise regime she tries. There can also be recurrent acne – especially close to period time – which shows its hormonal cause.
Other signs include excessive hair growth – on areas apart from the head (hirsutism) or loss of, on the head (alopecia) due to the excessive testosterone being produced.
Physiologically this disorder occurs when these follicles fail to mature into eggs for fertilisation and instead remain immature and develop into cysts that produce imbalanced amounts of female and male hormones. It can be defined as glucose and lipid metabolism, reproductive and endocrine disorders.
Some more characteristics that indicate the possibility are long cycles, missed periods, scanty or complete lack of menstruation. It manifests as ‘anovulation’ (no measurable signs that ovulation has occurred). An important piece of information that can help in the acupuncturist’s diagnosis and treatment plan is to see a chart of the patient’s basal body temperature (BBT) during the monthly cycle. To give an accurate reading and diagnosis it is best if at least three cycles are tracked, so that ovulation can be regulated over another 3 months, before attempting any actual fertility enhancing treatments.
Practitioners of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) have known for decades, but now a Swedish study has shown that acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine help to improve ovulation in women with PCOS and increase their chances of conceiving. But it is important to go for these stress relieving treatments – and maintain various lifestyle changes (diet and exercise) that are suggested- well before the desire to start a family arises; it can take from 6 months to a more than a year to overcome this challenge.
Ideally, it is best that young women’s health issues are acknowledged and dealt with early on. This could possibly prevent the advent of the inability -as an adult- to conceive naturally, i.e. without ART, artificial reproductive technology, as in IVF. (TCM has been shown to increase the success rate of IVF too)
Between 12 and 18 per cent of Australian women of reproductive age are thought to have PCOS, so acupuncture can potentially help a lot of women.
(However, it is only through Western medical tests, including ultrasound, that we can know that a woman has PCOS.)