Q: I have infertility, and I’ve been told that I may have PCOS. Can you explain what PCOS is, and tell me if there are any natural treatments for it?
PCOS is an abbreviation for “polycystic ovarian syndrome”. This syndrome is associated with female infertility as well as other conditions that include abnormal menstrual cycles, increased body weight, insulin resistance, and excessive testosterone in the body (also known as hyperandrogenism). PCOS affects five to ten percent of reproductive-age women. Typically, women with PCOS have an imbalance in the amount of testosterone in their bodies because they don’t convert testosterone to estrogen efficiently. According to the 2003 Rotterdam PCOS Consensus Workshop, in order to diagnose a woman with PCOS she must have two of the following three symptoms: irregular (or lack of) ovulation, signs of hyperandrogenism (such as increased facial hair, hair loss, or acne), and more than 12 cysts on her ovaries.
Natural medicine has a lot to offer women with PCOS and infertility. Certain foods and dietary substances that naturally increase SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin) can help to lower the excessive levels of testosterone associated with PCOS. These include nettle root, flax seeds, soy, and caffeine. Saw palmetto, an herb often used by men to prevent prostate enlargement, can be effective in helping women who suffer from PCOS associated hair loss and acne.
Spearmint tea can also help women with PCOS. A study published in Phytotherapy Research in May of 2007 found that when women with PCOS drank spearmint tea twice a day for five days during the follicular phase of their menstrual cycles (that is, days 1 to 14 of their cycles), there was a significant decrease in their testosterone levels, an increase in estrogen, and an increase in other key hormones important for reversing PCOS.
Lifestyle and dietary changes can be helpful to women with PCOS, especially if they also suffer from insulin resistance. One hour of aerobic exercise a day, combined with a low-carbohydrate diet (less than 80 milligrams a day of low-glycemic carbohydrates), can significantly decrease some of the long-term effects of PCOS associated with insulin resistance, which include heart disease and diabetes. The mineral chromium can also help to decrease insulin resistance in women with PCOS. The recommended dose of chromium is 500 micrograms a day.
Acupuncture has also been found to help women with PCOS and infertility. According to a recent research study conducted by the University of Virginia Health System, acupuncture can help to regulate women’s menstrual cycles and increase the rate of pregnancies in women with PCOS.
Dr. Laurie Steelsmith is a naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist in Honolulu, as well as author of the new #1 best-selling book Natural Choices for Women’s Health, published by Random House. You can reach her and read her past columns at www.drsteelsmith.com This column is for information only. Consult your health provider for medical advice.