Addressing Hormone Imbalances with Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine
A few weeks ago a patient who is seeing me for hip pain said, “I just realized that since starting treatment with you, I can’t remember the last time I had a hot flash!”. She’s not alone in finding that acupuncture and herbal medicine can help with hormonal imbalances. A study recently published in the journal Menopause found that approximately half of study participants had a significant reduction in hot flashes over an 8-week course of treatment with acupuncture alone. My own experience in practice indicates that if they had included herbal medicine in that study their success rate might have been even higher.
Acupuncture and herbal medicine can be great tools to address hormone imbalances affecting the reproductive system, but also for those involving digestion, sleep quality, immune system function, and chronic pain. One of the reasons that acupuncture and herbal medicine can be so helpful for these conditions is that they stimulate the body’s own healing mechanisms. Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine are a part of a medical system called Traditional East Asian Medicine (TEAM) that also includes nutritional therapy, cupping, and tuina massage. A foundational concept in TEAM is that of bringing the body into balance so the body can heal itself. When we holistically treat patients for one symptom, like my hip pain patient, they often find that other symptoms start to resolve as well.
Treating The Whole Body
TEAM practitioners don’t just treat a symptom. We try to get to the root cause of the symptom by looking at all the functions of the body to understand where the normal physiology is blocked. When we address these underlying imbalances, symptoms often start to change and improve. The connections between symptoms and root causes can be surprising to those of us who grew up with a more Western approach, which tends to compartmentalize the body. Would you think that anxiety could have anything to do with constipation? Or that urinary problems could be related to an inability to sweat? TEAM’s holistic view of the body explains how these symptoms can be linked.
In treating infertility, for example, we look at all of the body functions, such as how well the body is eliminating waste, how much moisture or heat are present, and how well the person is sleeping. Seemingly unrelated symptoms like thirst or constipation may be clues that lead us to address imbalances that ultimately help to even out hormone levels. A study published in 2015 in Reproductive Biomedicine Online reviewed 1231 IVF patient records and found that patients who had received 3 months of “whole-systems” TEAM before their IVF procedure had a significantly higher live birth rate than those who received IVF only or day-of-transfer acupuncture only.
When treating infertility, acupuncture can improve blood flow to the ovaries and uterus, which helps to create more regular ovulation, better follicular development, a better endometrial lining, and less painful periods. A study on women with PCOS, published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism, found that ovulation frequency was higher in the acupuncture group than in the control group. After 10–13 weeks of intervention, circulating levels of many excess hormones decreased within the acupuncture group and were significantly lower than in the control group3. Acupuncture and herbs can also improve sperm quality and quantity, which is a factor for many couples experiencing infertility.
Acupuncture Helps To Alleviate The Effects of Stress
Stress is a big factor in hormone dysregulation. Many people are aware that long-term overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can disrupt many of the body’s processes. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) is a big part of hormone regulation in the body. Studies have shown that acupuncture helps to relieve the over-excitation of the HPAA from
Stress and, partially through the release of beta-endorphins, acupuncture can affect a whole cascade of hormone production. In other words, acupuncture helps you get out of ‘fight or flight’ mode and into ‘rest, digest, & reproduce’ mode. With less cortisol in the bloodstream, the body has a chance to even out other hormones levels. When we say that acupuncture prompts the body to heal itself, this effect is part of what we’re talking about.
Improving Blood Quality and Circulation
Acupuncture works partially by improving the flow of oxygen, nutrients, and blood through the vessels to nourish the cells in our body. When you relax into your parasympathetic nervous system (rest & digest), your blood vessels dilate and blood flow to specific areas of the body increases to relieve pain and improve organ function. When proper blood flow to an area is restored, or when the quality of the blood is improved, then the body can start to heal itself. Herbal medicine improves the quality of the blood to address hormonal imbalances. In 2015, Complementary Therapies In Medicine published a systematic review of trials including 4247 women with either PCOS, endometriosis, anovulation, fallopian tube blockage, or unexplained infertility. Mean pregnancy rates for women receiving Chinese herbal medicine were 60% compared with 33% in the western pharmaceutical group. Another systematic review published in 2012 found that for 1659 anovulatory (not ovulating) women, Chinese herbal medicine significantly increased the ovulation and pregnancy rates, improved the cervical mucus score, and reduced the miscarriage rate when compared to Clomiphene. We can use herbal therapy to improve the quality of the blood, while acupuncture helps to dilate the blood vessels to improve blood flow to the ovaries.
As a part of a holistic approach, acupuncturists also offer nutritional and lifestyle advice that are specific to the patient’s body type. Most people need to eat less sugar for instance, but we may suggest that some people eat more meat, while for others we may suggest less animal products. For some people we suggest more exercise, for others we suggest more moderation.
It all depends on what seems to be throwing things out of balance. We look at a patient’s life the way we look that the body and encourage moderation in most things.
In my practice, I’ve worked with many people dealing with hormone imbalances, including PMS, PCOS, migraines, infertility, postpartum issues and symptoms of menopause. I’ve seen women get their period who hadn’t had one since stopping birth control, and women who didn’t respond well to Clomiphene develop more eggs. TEAM is not a miracle cure or a quick-fix solution. Most of the studies cited in this article were carried out over a three-month period. So don’t expect instantaneous results, especially without any corresponding change in life habits. But for anyone suffering from conditions caused by hormonal imbalances, TEAM is definitely worth a try.
Naomi Skoglund, L.Ac., MSTCM, MS. Ed. is a nationally-certified acupuncturist and herbalist and the owner of Six Branches Family Acupuncture in Portland and West Falmouth, ME. The training in her 4-year Master’s degree included 3,600 hours in herbal therapy, cupping, nutritional counseling, Tui Na massage, and Qi Gong meditation, as well as Western clinical exam. She has additional specialized training in the areas of infertility, gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics. For more information and a list of references, visit: sixbranchesacupuncture.com.