Can traditional Chinese medicine help restore fertility in women with polycystic ovary syndrome?
PCOS, as it’s called,  is a problem that plays havoc with female hormones, often disrupting ovulation. But a handful of studies has found that acupuncture can help, including recent Swedish  research that found it improved ovulation in women with PCOS and boosted their chances of pregnancy.
“We don’t know for sure how it works but one theory is that the needles act on the sympathetic nervous system which in turn affects the hormones that control ovulation.”
If acupuncture does prove effective it has the potential to help a lot of women. Around 12 to 18 per cent of Australian women of reproductive age are now thought to have PCOS. Its exact cause is a mystery but likely to involve genes and lifestyle. A family history of type 2 diabetes increases the risk.
So how can tiny needles inserted under the skin have an impact on a woman’s ovaries?
“We don’t know for sure how it works but one theory is that the needles act on the sympathetic nervous system which in turn affects the hormones that control ovulation,” says Jane Lyttleton, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner specialising in infertility. Lyttleton uses acupuncture in her Sydney clinic to help treat women with PCOS and other fertility problems.
“It’s still early days but we have evidence that acupuncture, and in particular electro acupuncture, has good success – electro acupuncture involves passing a low frequency electric pulse through fine wires attached to acupuncture needles such that the patient feels a gentle vibration.”
Underlying the symptoms of PCOS that can include excess hair and acne as well as disrupted ovulation, is a rise in levels of male hormones produced by the ovaries. The cause of this is insulin resistance which is common in women with PCOS and which often increases production of testosterone. But although acupuncture shows promise in improving ovulation there’s been little research on its effects on other symptom of PCOS – although, anecdotally,  acne often improves probably because acupuncture helps lower testosterone levels, Lyttleton says.
Although some branches of complementary medicine arouse scepticism among conventional medical practitioners, attitudes towards the use of acupuncture in female infertility are more open says Dr Caroline Smith, Associate Professor in Complementary Medicine at the University of Western Sydney.  Smith is working on a study of more than a thousand women undergoing IVF – some of them with PCOS -to see if acupuncture increases their chances of a live birth.
“There’s already some evidence that when acupuncture is used around the time of embryo transfer it improves the chances of pregnancy,” she says. “It may be that acupuncture increases the blood supply to the uterus which may improve the odds of the embryo implanting itself successfully.
“The fact that we have 12 IVF centres involved in this study shows there’s significant interest in establishing an evidence base for acupuncture and reproductive health.”