Alternative Medicine May Be the Key to Hormone Regulation for Some Women

December 04, 2006

Nov. 17, 2006 -- Can acupuncture normalize hormones in women with irregular periods? The ancient Chinese therapy has long been thought to cure everything from cancer to addictions. Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System have been studying the possibility that acupuncture could stabilize the hormones of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) in the first federally funded acupuncture study at the Medical Center.

PCOS affects 5 percent of reproductive age women. The syndrome is characterized by a hormonal imbalance, interfering with ovulation and ultimately, fertility. Some women with PCOS have small cysts on their ovaries. Others may not have cysts, but may have symptoms such as heavy or irregular vaginal bleeding, male-pattern hair growth and acne. Insulin resistance and pre-diabetes also can occur.

While there are many traditional drugs and therapies that manage this syndrome, acupuncture may succeed in regulating hormones and curing the symptoms of PCOS. In Asian medicine, practitioners believe that everything in the universe forms a unified whole made up of two opposing and complimentary forces called Yin and Yang. Illness is thought to be the result of those forces being out of balance. For the menstrual cycle, that delicate balance of Yin and Yang lies within the kidney meridian.  By pricking certain pressure points affecting this region with tiny needles, researchers hope to learn whether acupuncture restores this balance.

According to Dr. Lisa Pastore, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at U.Va. Health System, hormones normally go up and down throughout women's menstrual cycles. In women with PCOS, the hormone levels stay fairly flat.

"In western medicine we tend to think about treatment in terms of making things go up or down and stay there, such as medication to bring down blood pressure or medication to bring estrogen levels back up after menopause," Pastore said. "But with PCOS patients we want to make those ups and downs happen. We want women to experience their natural cycles and get their rhythm back."

Some women have recovered their hormonal rhythm. Since the study began, some participants who never had regular monthly periods, suddenly began having periods with some regularity.

"I hope to enroll even more women with PCOS into the study," added Pastore. "My goal is to help them get women to have monthly, ovulatory menstrual cycles and to regulate their insulin and glucose levels."

PCOS is the top hormonal cause of infertility in women. With research underway, acupuncture may come to represent an important alternative, non-drug therapy for women with ovulatory and hormonal irregularities. For more information or to conduct interviews, please call the U.Va. Health System Public Relations Office at (434) 243-2734.