By Fiona McCulloch, ND
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is the number one reproductive disease in women. This disease disrupts normal ovulatory cycles which can result in heartbreaking infertility for millions of women. Known hormonal changes in PCOS include excess androgens (ie: testosterone), and insulin resistance. Most thought now is leaning towards insulin resistance being the primary cause of PCOS, with genetic factors playing a role, but once the cycle of anovulation begins it feeds back on itself, causing the condition to remain in a vicious cycle. Women with PCOS have not only insulin resistance, but also have neuroendocrine imbalances, resulting in elevated LH (lutenizing hormone) levels. Having a high LH to FSH ratio is one of the hallmarks of polycystic ovarian syndrome or persistent anovulation. In response to a combination of high LH and insulin resistance, the follicles in the ovary will begin to secrete too many male hormones (androgens) which then inhibit the hormonal pathways that are needed to stimulate ovulation.
Various medications are traditionally used to induce ovulation in women with PCOS. A growing body of evidence now exists indicating that low-frequency electroacupuncture is as effective as commonly used medications in inducing ovulation. Furthermore, this form of acupuncture can benefit many of the hormonal imbalances seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome. Thousands of women worldwide use acupuncture therapy for PCOS and so I’d like to discuss how it works, and why it is so beneficial to induce ovulation.
General principles of how electroacupuncture stimulates the ovaries through the nervous system
Electroacupuncture has been found to profoundly effect the reproductive organs, through mechanisms in the sympathetic nervous system, endocrine system, and neuroendocrine system. When needles are inserted into certain points and stimulated in a specific manner, this produces a neurological reflex transmitted to the organ correlated with that nerve pathway. For example, needles inserted into the leg muscles below the knee, lower back, or abdomen in specific regions cause a response which measurably affects the ovary. In addition, the nervous system will transmit a signal to the brain, and the brain then emits a response which affects the organ from a central mechanism. These effects have been investigated through measurements of hormones, neuropeptides, and circulatory changes on both animals and humans receiving this specific type of electroacupuncture.
Nervous system alterations in PCOS
Evidence indicates that women with pcos have abnormal circulating levels of a neurohormone called β-endorphin. β-endorphin is known to increase insulin production and reduce insulin excretion by the liver, which is very much implicated in PCOS. It has also been found that women with PCOS have unusually high amounts of sympathetic nerve fibres in their ovaries. These nerve fibres cause unusual stimulation of the ovary by the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system associated with “flight or fight” responses in the body, among other processes). Stimulation of these nerve fibres can cause the ovaries to produce androgens, which then impair normal ovulation. Women with PCOS have also been found to have high amounts of nerve growth factors in their ovaries, something which is associated with high levels of sympathetic nervous system activity. Disturbances in central and peripheral β-endorphin release, high androgens, insulin resistance, abdominal obesity, and cardiovascular disease are associated with increased sympathetic nervous system activity, and all of these are also associated with the pathology of PCOS. In a recent study by Elizabet Stener-Vitorin in Sweden, direct intraneural testing found a strong correlation between levels of sympathetic nervous system activity and testosterone levels in women with PCOS. Those who had the highest amounts of sympathetic nervous system activity were found to have the highest testosterone levels and the most severe PCOS conditions.
What evidence exists for acupuncture inducing ovulation?
Several studies exist on low frequency electroacupuncture and ovulation induction. In one trial, the effect of a series of 14 electroacupuncture treatments on 24 anovulatory women with pcos was investigated. In 38% of these women, regular ovulation was induced. Three months after the last treatment, LH/FSH ratios and testosterone levels were significantly decreased, a sign of improvement in PCOS pathology. In another study done on a group of women given human menopausal gonadotrophin (a commonly used drug in the treatment of infertility), acupuncture was compared to hCG injections in order to assess its effect on ovulation. Traditionally hCG is given to stimulate ovulation during medicated cycles at fertility clinics. It was found that a single acupuncture treatment induced ovulation as effectively as the as the hCG injection and reduced the incidence of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a painful side effect of medicated cycles. Other studies have also indicated enhanced ovarian response when acupuncture is added to medicated cycles. Female rats with PCOS induced by chronic exposure to DHT (a form of testosterone) were given low frequency electroacupuncture and physical exercise. The treatment increased the amount of healthy follicles in the ovaries, and significantly normalized cycles.
Effects of electroacupuncture on nervous system changes in PCOS
It has also been found that electro-acupuncture can regulate parts of the central nervous system related to dysfunction in PCOS. Specifically, beneficial effects on neurohormones such as GnRH(Gonadotropin releasing hormone) and androgen receptor proteins, indicate that electro-acupuncture significantly benefits the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis and through this can help to restore normal cycling. Electroacupuncture was also found in 3 recent studies to increase ovarian blood flow through effects on sympathetic nervous system pathways. In addition, it has been found in two studies to reduce high peripheral circulating β-endorphins in women with PCOS, and thereby improve insulin resistance. As sympathetic nerve activity appears to contribute to the development and maintenance of PCOS, the beneficial effects of electroacupuncture, and also exercise, may be mediated by nervous system modulation to the ovaries.
Electro-acupuncture appears to work through multiple pathways to disrupt the “vicious cycle” of PCOS. Even though much more research needs to be done to determine all of the mechanisms involved, its safety and low incidence of side effects makes it an excellent therapy to stimulate ovulation naturally for the many women who suffer with this disease.
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