By Virginia Mims, DACM, LAc, NCMP
Doctor of Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine
Do you have a bothersome women’s health issue? Would you like to treat it naturally, but you don’t know where to start? From heavy periods to hot flashes, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help relieve a wide variety of symptoms, safely and naturally.
According to the theories of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), symptoms arise when your body is out of balance. An acupuncturist assesses which systems are out of balance and develops an individualized treatment plan. Symptoms decrease as your body gently shifts back into a more harmonious state.
Many women find that they start to feel better, overall, as they continue receiving acupuncture. In addition to the symptoms they were seeking treatment for, women often report improvements in energy, sleep, concentration, mood, stress, and anxiety, as well as bloating and sugar cravings.
What are some of the most common women’s health and wellness issues managed with TCM? While the media has given a lot of attention to the effectiveness of acupuncture for the treatment of pain, particularly as an alternative to opioids, most people don’t know that acupuncture and herbs can be used for many different physical and emotional symptoms, including:
Women’s Health: Painful, heavy, or irregular periods; periods that last too long; absent periods (amemmorhea); premenstrual syndrome (PMS); breast tenderness; fertility issues; fibroids; endometriosis
Menopause: Hot flashes; night sweats and sleeping problems; vaginal pain; low libido; anxiety and mood swings; difficulty concentrating; overactive bladder Natural Health & Wellness: Migraines/headaches; gastrointestinal issues, constipation, diarrhea; respiratory issues, chronic cough; chronic pain; fatigue; stress, anxiety, depression, irritability and mood swings; symptoms that haven’t responded well to conventional treatments
Bringing the reproductive cycle into balance
Many women would prefer a safe and natural way to manage painful or irregular periods and other health issues but may not be aware of their options because Western medicine is the only approach with which they are familiar. An integrative approach that incorporates both Western medicine and TCM, with practitioners coordinating care, is often the best bet.
Typically, women are offered birth control pills or other pharmaceuticals to manage menstrual problems, all of which have potential risks and side effects. Birth control pills can sometimes mask underlying problems, rather than sustainably correcting them. Pharmaceuticals certainly have their place, and at times are the best option. But often, for benign conditions, acupuncture and herbs can effectively manage symptoms, safely and naturally.
Traditional Chinese Medicine looks at women’s health very differently. TCM holds that a woman’s period should be a rather unremarkable event, occurring on a predictable schedule with little to no discomfort. Further, there should be no symptoms, such as bloating, moodiness, acne breakouts, or headaches. Flow should start and stop succinctly, last approximately four to five days, and should be moderate in volume. When there are terrible cramps, excessively heavy bleeding, intense PMS, or other symptoms, something is out of balance and requires gentle correction.
If you have painful periods, for example, your acupuncturist will ask in-depth questions to learn about the exact nature of your pain. She’ll also do a complete “review of systems” to understand your overall health and find patterns in how you tend to fall out of balance. Our goal is to gently bring you back into balance with acupuncture and herbs, and improve or resolve symptoms, holistically. This isn’t a “one size fits all” method, but a very personalized approach using acupuncture treatments and herbal medicines.
An adjunct to cancer treatment
Acupuncture can also be extremely helpful for women with cancer, as well as cancer survivors. As a complementary and holistic therapy, acupuncture can help relieve many of the side effects of cancer treatment, improve quality of life, and support an overall sense of wellbeing. A safe and drug-free therapy, acupuncture is frequently used to help manage symptoms such as:
• Nausea and vomiting
• Pain and numbness
• Hot flashes
• Dry mouth
Acupuncture is a particularly compelling option for breast cancer survivors. Some women experience early menopause as a result of their cancer treatment and may not be eligible for standard treatment, such as hormone therapy. Other women may experience increased hot flashes or joint pain due to anti-estrogen medications. Studies support the use of acupuncture for these women, and many major cancer centers now offer acupuncture, such as Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cleveland Clinic.
“How does it work? Does it hurt?”
These are two of the most common questions I’m asked about acupuncture.
Most of the time, we humans try our best to avoid needles! On the surface, it seems completely illogical that needles placed on various parts of your body could reduce pain, regulate your menstrual cycle, decrease hot flashes, or relieve nausea and vomiting. But, for thousands of years, acupuncture has helped people feel better. Today, there is more and more high-quality research supporting its effectiveness as well as basic science research to explain exactly how it works.
The current consensus is that acupuncture impacts the nervous system. Studies conducted in the 1970s show that acupuncture stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, including endorphins. Endorphins are natural chemicals produced by the body that can reduce pain and cause relaxation. They are responsible for the “runner’s high” that runners experience and are the likely reason why people usually feel so great after acupuncture!
Other neurotransmitters impacted by acupuncture have different functions. Norepinephrine, for example, may play a role in hot flashes. Acupuncture’s effect on norepinephrine may explain why acupuncture can help reduce the frequency and intensity of hot flashes.
Recent studies using functional MRIs have demonstrated that acupuncture at specific points can activate or suppress activity in certain regions of the brain, including areas responsible for mood and emotions.
Most people find acupuncture to be quite comfortable, often barely feeling the needles go in at all. In fact, the needles used in acupuncture are so thin, they can fit inside a standard hypodermic needle. Others compare the feeling to the slight prick of a mosquito bite. Ultimately, logic dictates people wouldn’t love acupuncture so much if it didn’t feel good!
Chinese medicine is a powerful, time-tested and evidenced-based tool for women seeking holistic health and wellness. Whether you are experiencing physical or emotional symptoms – or both – acupuncture and herbal medicine offer a safe and effective way to feel better, naturally.
Dr. Virginia Mims specializes in natural women’s health and wellness. Nationally board certified in both acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine (NCCAOM), she earned her doctorate from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. She is a Certified Menopause Practitioner (NCMP) through the North American Menopause Society, the leading organization for women’s health at midlife and beyond. Dr. Mims trained in oncology acupuncture through Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Duke University.
Acupuncture for Women