by Xiaomei Cai, L.Ac., Ph.D.
I recently had the honor of giving a presentation at the 2nd World Congress on Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome in Orlando, Florida. As a TCM practitioner who has been passionate about treating Women’s Health issues for 30 years, I know that women everywhere, in every stage of life, can benefit from an integrative approach. Combining the best of Western and Traditional Chinese medicine have to offer allows women to find not only palliative care, but true solutions to their problems. PCOS is a perfect example of a condition that can be treated effectively with acupuncture, herbs, and the whole range of lifestyle improvements that we encourage as TCM practitioners.
What is PCOS?
PCOS – polycystic ovarian syndrome – is a complex condition that affects as many as 10% of women. It can begin as early as her teens, and continue all the way through her 40s. Some women don’t realize they have this condition. The major complaint is irregular cycles, sometimes only having a period every few months or even only a few in a year.
- Irregular cycle
- Unexplained weight gain
- Excessive body or facial hair
- Darkening of skin
- Infertility, miscarriagePCOS is not only a reproductive disorder; it is related to the metabolic/digestive system and endocrine system, as well. According to Western medicine, the causes of PCOS are still mysterious. Treatment for PCOS generally involves some type of hormone therapy medication- usually birth control pills, to regulate the menstrual cycle. Some patients may be given metformin to regulate their insulin. Women with PCOS who want to become pregnant are given Clomid and Letrozole. Women are advised to use various hair removal methods and given antibiotics to help their acne. But the condition is not being treated at its source.
PCOS in TCM
In TCM, we have been studying and treating PCOS-related conditions for thousands of years. PCOS is not classified as an isolated condition; it is related to other conditions, such as irregular menstruation, amenorrhea, and infertility. More specifically, PCOS falls under a category of conditions called “Zheng Jia” –roughly translated as “masses”– in which we would also include endometriosis and uterine fibroids. All of these are caused by stasis or stagnation in Qi, Blood, and Fluid. In TCM, we view the woman as Yin, related to water. Women’s menstrual cycles correspond to the moon cycles. Women with PCOS have their Qi flow obstructed, causing fluid stasis. Irregular cycles and anovulatory periods can then cause women to have problems with their fertility. Some women do not realize they have PCOS until they start trying to get pregnant.
In general, in TCM, we view disease as being due to either external factors or internal factors.
External Factors Internal Factors
Cold worry, over-thinking
Heat lack of sleep
Dryness improper diet
Injuries lack of exercise
PCOS is caused by internal factors. One typical PCOS manifestation according to TCM is spleen and kidney yang deficiency, which presents as overweight, pale, water retention, long cycles, and light period flow. This might be hereditary, or due to lifestyle. Overconsumption of ice-cold food and beverages is one of the primary examples I see among American patients, who tend to have cold drinks and ice cream often. Cold can weaken the body’s yang fire energy, which can negatively affect the processing of fluid, leading to water retention. Cold also creates more stagnation, especially before or during the period.
For menstruation to work well, there must be a good flow of energy, blood and fluid throughout the systems.
With acupuncture treatment, we work on this energy flow. Chinese herbal tea formula will strengthen the kidney and spleen yang. But lifestyle changes are very important, too. Stress management (Qi gong, Tai Chi, yoga, meditation) will help balance the emotions. Eating properly, reducing mucous-producing foods like dairy, deep-fried, sugar, is crucial. These types of foods create stagnant mucous that can contribute to the development of cysts and tumors. We recommend eating more warm foods, both temperature-wise and energy-wise. We view diet/food not just in terms of calories or vitamins, but as energy.
TCM principle is simple: if a part of you is weak, we need to strengthen it; if its action is excessive, we need to reduce it. In TCM, we always view each patient as a unique individual, and each treatment session as a unique opportunity to work with the patient on what is happening in her life and her body in that moment. Especially when we are treating a woman in relation to her menstrual cycle and the development of follicles on her ovaries, it is no exaggeration to say that every day, every moment is different, with different requirements. That is what I mean when I say that a fluid condition such as PCOS requires flexible treatment options from her health care practitioners.
Mind-Body exercises such as Tai Chi or yoga can help alleviate stress, balance the emotions, clear the mind, and allow for smooth functioning of the body’s complex systems. Take time for yourself.