With superhuman schedules and a tendency toward burnout , women can often suffer the consequences that a chronically stressful existence has on our hormones. Hormonal imbalances can cause a range of symptoms and health issues from infertility and PCOS to PMS. Treating these issues at the root involves a multi-pronged approach that often includes comprehensive nutrition, supplement, and lifestyle changes as well as complementary treatments. Acupuncture for fertility , hormonal balance, PMS symptoms, and menopausal symptoms is one promising complementary treatment.
Although not a fancy new intervention, acupuncture and other modalities of Chinese and East Asian medicine have been used to treat women’s health for centuries and studies confirm that these practices can help alleviate many of the health concerns that women face today. Parsley Health providers often recommend specialized treatments such as acupuncture as part of an overall health plan for hormonal issues. Read along to learn about the benefits of acupuncture for women, and how this ancient practice can help to improve hormonal balance and heal both the body and the mind.
Acupuncture is a complementary medical treatment that aims to stimulate certain physical points—called acupoints—on the body, most often with fine, sterile needles that penetrate the skin’s surface. Acupuncture can also include electroacupuncture therapy, moxibustion or heat-based therapy, and auricular or ear-based therapy, amongst others. Despite numerous studies undertaken to define the significance of acupuncture points, no clear evidence of their existence has been found.
Acupuncturists believe that many medical ailments stem from an internal imbalance that stifles the natural flow of blood, hormones, and chemical messengers throughout the body. The mechanism by which acupuncture is thought to work is by releasing these blockages and stimulating the body’s natural flow by tapping into particular pressure points that help to release this tension. By doing this, the body is thought to be able to return to a state of homeostasis, therefore allowing for a restoration of balance. It’s important to note that while many people see benefits from acupuncture, some scientific research has pointed to the placebo effect being at play given just the attention and time of being with a practitioner on a regular basis may account for perceived health benefits.
Upon meeting with an acupuncturist, they take time to learn about your current symptoms and health history and then stimulate acupoints that correlate to your chief health concerns. In traditional acupuncture, the needles help to stimulate the body’s nervous system thereby supporting the release of endorphins and other chemicals in the muscles, spinal cord, and brain. As a result, these chemicals and hormones serve as natural painkillers that may also boost blood flow and change brain activity—helping to correct underlying ailments and imbalances within the body.
Acupuncture can be a helpful complementary healing modality for many types of health concerns, but interestingly, there is overwhelming scientific and anecdotal evidence to support its specific use for issues pertaining to women’s hormonal health.
About 8 to 12 percent of couples worldwide face problems with infertility, and in recent years that percentage has continued to rise. Acupuncture for fertility has made its way to the forefront as a treatment that has shown promising results in both women and men.
In women, acupuncture has been found to produce positive effects in supporting both ovarian and follicular function while also increasing blood flow to the endometrium—the mucous membrane that surrounds the uterus—helping to facilitate a thick, rich lining. Endometrial thickness is essential in pregnancy as it supports successful implantation of the embryo in the uterus. Because of this, acupuncture has also become a frequently used treatment prior to and during in-vitro fertilization (IVF) in hopes that it will increase the chances of successful pregnancy while also providing support with reducing stress while undergoing fertility treatment. In men, acupuncture for fertility is also beneficial, helping to improve sperm quality and motility and boosting blood flow to the male reproductive organs.
Additionally, the effect of stress reduction associated with acupuncture treatment is also thought to independently impact fertility outcomes by helping to decrease cortisol levels in the brain that when elevated, can disrupt the functioning of the pituitary gland—a pea-sized structure at the base of the brain that regulates a number of hormones, including those involved in reproduction.
Outside of infertility, acupuncture is one of the few medical interventions that is approved for use during pregnancy and helps to manage common prenatal symptoms such as morning sickness, nausea, aches, pains, low back pain, anxiety , and insomnia with positively researched outcomes .
A report from the journal Human Reproduction Update found that up to 95 percent of menstruating women report having some form of period pain, also known as dysmenorrhea. Commonly, dysmenorrhea can involve intense uterine cramping or blood clotting that occurs during menstruation.
Outside of popping an aspirin and cuddling up with a heating pad, women often feel defenseless against the woes of monthly period pain. However, recent studies show that acupuncture might ease period pain. A study from 2017 found that acupuncture helped to regulate women’s menstrual cycles thereby lessening menstrual pain and normalizing blood flow. The study found that women who received three acupuncture treatments one week prior to their menstrual period over three consecutive cycles experienced significant improvements in both period pain intensity and overall quality of life.
Similar results were found in a meta-analysis of 60 randomized controlled trials which investigated the efficacy of acupuncture to help with dysmenorrhea—citing that compared to no treatment or the use of NSAIDs (such as aspirin and ibuprofen), acupuncture helped to reduce menstrual pain and associated symptoms more effectively.
Migraines right before, during, or right after your period, called menstrual migraines, affect many people who menstruate. Menstrual migraines are tied to changes in hormone levels that occur during your monthly cycle and are commonly driven by drops in estrogen or progesterone. While migraines are not an exclusively female problem, women do suffer from migraines three times more frequently than men, with menstrual migraines affecting roughly 60 percent of these women.
Acupuncture is one way to reduce, and potentially prevent, the frequency, duration, and intensity of migraines. A systematic review of 22 clinical trials about acupuncture for migraines found that of the 4,985 participants studied, frequency of headaches decreased by 50 percent or more in up to 59 percent of those who were receiving acupuncture.
While the biological mechanism behind how acupuncture eases and decreases migraine pain remains unclear, researchers project that the needles placed on specific pressure points on the back, head, or neck may help to activate pathways in the body that play an essential role in turning pain off. For menstrual migraines, there is also likely an effect similar to acupuncture for fertility that helps to improve blood flow to the reproductive organs, reduce stress, and balance sex hormones, leading to reduced hormonal fluctuations throughout the month.
Polycystic ovary syndrome —commonly referred to as PCOS—is a condition that affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age, making it one of the most common endocrine issues seen in women. Women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance and corresponding metabolic problems that can commonly cause issues such as irregular periods, difficulty getting pregnant, and weight gain.
Several recent clinical studies have found that acupuncture can help with treating the ovulatory dysfunction and insulin sensitivity often associated with PCOS. Acupuncture has also been reported to decrease testosterone and the release of other male hormones in patients with PCOS—a common part of the hormonal imbalance related to high levels of androgens seen in those with the condition.
Acupuncture may also work by acting on the system in the brain that releases hormones—leading to a decrease in the release of luteinizing hormone from the pituitary gland which can also suppress the release of male hormones from the ovaries. Because women with PCOS often have a harder time getting pregnant, this is another reason why acupuncture for fertility can be so impactful.
The natural process of menopause is about a 4-5 year experience marked by a decline in reproductive hormones when a woman reaches her 40s or 50s and is often accompanied by hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, mood changes, and vaginal dryness.
A recent study from 2019 that looked at 70 women experiencing menopause, found that when women received just a 15-minute session of standard acupuncture once a week, they noted a decrease in hot flashes after 3 weeks, and 80 percent reported improvements in the severity or frequency of sweating (including night sweats), sleep disturbances, emotional symptoms, and skin, and hair changes at the 6-week mark. Acupuncture for menopause may also be a more natural alternative for women who cannot or do not wish to use hormone therapy to alleviate symptoms.
Similar to physical therapy, acupuncture is a process-oriented medical intervention. This means that for the best results, it often requires consecutive sessions to reap the many benefits it’s proven to support. For hormonal issues that pertain to fertility, period pain, and menstrual migraines, it’s commonly recommended to attend acupuncture on a weekly basis for at least three to four months before determining whether it’s having the intended effect. These issues often take monthly observations for at least a few cycles to assess improvements. The consistent pacing of acupuncture treatment is what seems to be key to producing a therapeutic effect over time.
Kelly Johnston is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist with six years of experience in the health and wellness field, four of which have been spent right here at Parsley Health supporting members with everything from gut issues and autoimmune disease to cardiometabolic health concerns and fertility. She holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition from one of the leading science-based natural medicine schools in the country, Bastyr University, and completed her dietetic internship at Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, WA.