Integrative medicine may help manage the severity and symptoms of reproductive conditions such as fibroids, in which benign tumors grow in the uterus; endometriosis, in which uterine tissue grows outside the uterus; and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal condition that leads to fertility problems, weight gain, acne and unwanted hair growth, as well as cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, prediabetes and diabetes. These diseases affect millions of women and are primarily treated with hormonal therapies or, in the case of fibroids and endometriosis, surgery. Adding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches to the medical focus may provide greater relief.
In one study of 72 women with large uterine fibroids, researchers randomized half to receive traditional Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, weekly deep tissue massage and guided imagery and meditation, while the other half had conventional medical treatment only (control group). Fibroids shrank or stopped growing in 22 of the women in the treatment group compared to just 3 in the control group, although the treatment cost significantly more. 5
Studies also find that diets high in red meat and fats, particularly animal fats, increase the risk of fibroids and risk factors for fibroids, including high blood pressure. Aim for a diet high in flavonoids, oily fish, green vegetables, fruits and beans. 6
One of the hallmarks of PCOS is insulin resistance, in which cells doesn’t respond well to the release of insulin and so can’t use the glucose they need for energy. The pancreas keeps making more insulin to try and keep blood glucose levels at a manageable level, but eventually it fails, leading to diabetes.
Exercise can reduce insulin resistance by building muscle. Indeed, one study of 62 women with PCOS found improved inflammatory markers and glucose/insulin levels after three months of an exercise training program compared to a similar group that did not get the training. 7 In fact, exercise is the only treatment that improves all markers of metabolic syndrome.
Weight loss is also important. Many women with PCOS are overweight; losing just 5 percent of their body weight can restore regular ovulation and menstruation and improve fertility. 8
Herbal medications, particularly chasteberry, cinnamon, black cohosh, Tribulus terrestris, licorice and Chinese peony, also show some benefits. 9 In addition, a study in 72 women with PCOS who received acupuncture, participated in exercise or received no intervention found that the women in the acupuncture group had less depression and anxiety, while the exercise and acupuncture groups had improved health related quality of life scores compared to the control group. 10