After years of irregular periods and recent 80-day menstrual cycle in which my ovaries apparently forgot their job, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS is a condition caused by an imbalance of sex hormones, particularly estrogen and progesterone, which makes it more difficult for a woman’s ovaries to release mature eggs during ovulation. Instead, the follicles form cysts along the ovary. These cysts form a “pearl-strand” ring around the ovary that is often the main diagnosing factor for the condition. Symptoms can vary depending on the precise imbalance of hormones, but can include the development of biologically male characteristics, anxiety, depression, acne, and difficultly getting pregnant. It also causes those with the condition to be at a higher risk for breast and endometrial cancer. The condition often, but not always, comes with a diabetic or insulin resistant component at which point drugs that treat diabetes and lifestyle changes to reduce obesity can be helpful treatments.
For those who do not exhibit the insulin resistant side of the condition, like me, the most commonly prescribed treatment is birth control in pill form, which basically takes over your body’s natural menstrual cycle to produce an artificial one. In order to moderate the condition and have regular periods, you have to be on the pill for the rest of your menstruating life.
For a variety of personal reasons, I did not want to go on birth control. I was nervous about taking additional hormones, even though my body wasn’t making the right amounts anyway, and I didn’t want to be reliant on them for the rest of my life. My gynecologist prescribed me a very low dose pill and sent me on my way. My mother, who is a licensed acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist and has spent years working with alternative medicine, remembered reading research on alternative treatments for PCOS that targeted the body’s ability to produce hormones. She suggested that I consider trying these treatments for a period of time if I was reluctant to go on the pill. So I did. I started to get weekly treatments from an acupuncturist and was prescribed Chinese herbs.
Let me caveat for a minute. I am not a doctor. I do not know what is best for you or your body and I certainly am not suggesting that you ignore the advice of your conventional medicine doctor. Modern medicine has done incredible things and there are plenty of conditions that require Western medicine and pharmaceuticals as treatment. This “conventional” medicine is good at seeing problems and throwing drugs or procedures at them, but is often less focused on the lifestyle and system that causes conditions. But alternative medicine options such as acupuncture, Chinese medicine, and functional medicine practitioners tend to view the body as a whole and focus on what is systemically wrong rather than simply treating symptoms. These medical practices are not pseudoscience and do have scientific backing for their success, as well as evidence that comes from thousands of years of experience.
After only a few weeks of treatment, I had my first period on a 29-day cycle since I first got my period back in sixth grade. Let me repeat that for you: my first period on a normal cycle in over six years. It was magical. Like many people with a uterus, I have a love/hate relationship with my menstrual cycle, but having a normal cycle made me realize how good I felt when my body cycle was working as it should: powerful and healthy. The acupuncture and Chinese medicine treatments I’m on focus on shifting how my body produces hormones so that the right amounts and forms are being made. The process addresses the fundamental building blocks of these hormones rather than just inserting quantities of them into my body like a pill would do.
I have been exposed to complimentary and alternative medical treatments for my most of my life, simply because it is what my mother has done for over thirty years. Even though I was surrounded by its effects pretty much any time I got sick, I was still amazed at what it could do for my body.
Don’t be afraid to pursue alternative medical treatments by reputable practitioners. There is more research and acceptance of these treatments emerging in Western and conventional medicine circles, and it won’t be long before insurance companies are adding it to their coverage. For those of you with uteruses, don’t underestimate the power of having a regular menstrual cycle. Irregular cycles can cause more symptoms than just not getting your period because our bodies were made to release uterine lining every month. The important thing is your health, and you have the right to make the decisions you want about it.
Written by Ariela Schnyer