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Beyond conventional medicine

Using holistic therapies to manage PCOS

holistic therapies for PCOS promoMany women with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) are all too familiar with the wide variety of symptoms that accompany this hormonal disorder. These can include irregular periods, acne, excess hair on the face and body, and elevated insulin levels. PCOS is also the most common cause of infertility in women.

Our goals when treating PCOS are to manage these symptoms, and there are a number of medical therapies that we use to do this effectively.

Treatment options for many women can also include a number of holistic therapies that can be used alongside conventional therapies for optimal healing and illness prevention.

Here’s a quick overview of some of the more common alternatives that women with PCOS might consider:

Irregular menstrual cycles: Birth control pills or Chaste tree
Birth control pills offer one of the best solutions for regulating menstrual cycles. For women who would like to avoid the possible side effects of taking birth control pills, there are also natural choices like Chaste tree capsules that can be used for menstrual irregularities and premenstrual syndrome. Chaste tree, however, is slow acting, and can take two to three months before it has an effect on menstrual symptoms. Also, keep in mind that every woman is unique, and therefore not everyone responds to herbal remedies in the same way. Chaste tree should only be used in consultation with a health professional that is knowledgeable about herbs.

Acne: Antibiotics, retinoids or tea tree oil
Antibiotics and both prescription or over-the-counter retinol creams and serums are widely used to treat acne. Antibiotic creams work by decreasing acne-causing bacteria as well as decreasing inflammation.  Retinoids, derived from Vitamin C, can help unclog pores by reducing oil production. However, both of these methods involve side effects such as skin irritation, dryness, and sensitivity to sun. Acne can also be treated naturally by applying diluted tea tree oil solution (5%) to the affected area. Tea tree oil also has similar anti-bacterial effects and helps to dry acne while reducing inflammation. While differing skin types will respond to treatments differently, there are a wide variety of possible topical and oral treatments for acne prevention.

Excess facial and body hair: Hormone treatment (anti-androgens), stinging nettle or saw palmetto
High levels of androgens, or male hormones, can cause women to grow excess body hair. Anti-androgen medicines may reduce new hair growth after three to six months of use. Extra hair growth in women can also be treated with natural supplements such as stinging nettle and saw palmetto. These plants have anti-androgenic effects that may help reduce unwanted body and facial hair. Again, these natural products should be used only in consultation with an experienced practitioner.

Infertility: Meditation and support groups
Reducing stress can be helpful for couples struggling with infertility. Meditation, progressive relaxation, and acupuncture can all help with that goal.

Another suggestion I make to women dealing with fertility issues is to consider participating in support groups with other women facing the same issues. It helps to know that you’re not alone. U-M’s Center for Reproductive Medicine offers free support sessions for women and their partners who are experiencing infertility.

Diabetes and cardiovascular disease: Exercise and a healthy diet
Women with PCOS may not realize it, but they have a heightened risk for diabetes and cardiovascular problems, so exercise and a healthy diet are especially important.

The Healing Foods Pyramid represents healing foods known to contribute to your health, including plant-based choices, along with healthy variety and balance.

As far as incorporating exercise into your lifestyle goes, you are more likely to be successful in establishing an exercise routine if you find something that is fun for you, whether it is a treadmill, dance classes or yoga classes.

With all decisions – healthcare and otherwise – each woman needs to make a decision that is right for her own personal situation. Part of the philosophy of Integrative Medicine involves weighing benefits and risks. Even natural substances have risks and drawbacks. Like prescription medications, you should only use natural supplements to treat medical conditions under the supervision of a knowledgeable health care professional, as many involve hormone-manipulating effects that should not be combined with other medications.

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Sara L Warber, MD, is an Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Director of the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine program.

University of Michigan Integrative Family Medicine Clinic combines the best of complementary and alternative medicine and practices with conventional medicine to provide guidance in healthy living, illness prevention, and optimal healing.