Ask The Doctor: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome & Hormonal Issues

Question: I am a 30 year old female with a history of facial hair, acne, slight male pattern baldness (bi-temporal), moderate weight problem, menstrual cramps and low libido. I have recently discovered how hormones influence these problems, and I am wondering what to do to get my hormones back in balance? I was a vegetarian for 10 years, but I’ve recently switched to a traditional diet over the last few months. I’ve lost weight and feel great, but I’ve still got the facial hair and slight acne. How long does it take to get everything back to normal? Thank you very much for any help you can provide!

Answer:  Congratulations on the changes in your diet and lifestyle! Hopefully, you are well on your way to regaining your health. It sounds as though your problem is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), and that you have many of the common symptoms of this condition.

This usual syndrome of PCOS consists of a young female who is often overweight (though not always), and has signs of excessive androgens (testosterone). These signs include male pattern baldness, facial hair, acne, abnormal menses (either irregular and painful or irregular bleeding patterns), changes in libido, and sometimes abdominal distress or bloating. Laporoscopic examination of the ovaries usually reveals ovaries that are too large and full of cysts, hence the name of this condition. The source of the excessive testosterone is not clear. It is thought that the damage to the ovaries from the cysts results in their abnormal secretion of hormones, and therefore the myriad symptoms of hormonal imbalance that are seen.

The conventional treatment for PCOS is either to do a wedge biopsy of the ovaries, which simply means cutting a wedge out of one or both ovaries. For some mysterious reason this procedure often results in an at least partial resolution of the symptoms and a return to normal hormonal balance. Again, it is not understood at all why this surgical procedure would affect future function. If this is unsuccessful, then usually the woman is placed on some variation of birth control pills and her hormonal balance is controlled in this manner.

As I have often related in this column, “normalizing” hormones by simply giving the person synthetic hormone pills violates the basic principle of healing. Instead, whenever possible, the doctor or healer should strive to teach the patient a way to normalize the hormones on their own. In your case, by changing your diet you have started on this road to healing. The reason why changing to a diet based on the principles of Nourishing Traditions is the first step in the therapy of PCOS is that your ovaries need the animal fats, and yes, even the cholesterol found in food in order to make estrogen and progesterone, the correct female hormones. Swollen ovaries is a condition analogous to goiter, when the thyroid swells in response to iodine deficiency. Goiters often also result in a hormonal imbalance leading to hypothyroidism. In the case of PCOS, the starvation of the ovaries causes them to become cystic, swollen and eventually unable to regulate the synthesis of their hormones.

The other main dietary trigger for this imbalance is that when the proper dietary fats are missing, they are inevitably replaced by excessive carbohydrate consumption. This results in excessive insulin production, weight gain, abdominal bloating, and eventually will itself cause hormonal shifts. The biochemistry of this process is well described in the book The Schwarzbein Principle which also suggests a diet based on the principles in Nourishing Traditions, along with a restriction to about 75 grams of carbohydrates per day. More good fats and fewer carbohydrate foods should help in restoring your hormones to their proper balance.

In addition to the dietary program I have outlined, there are many natural medicines which I have seen, and which have been shown in the medical literature to help PCOS. The first is the protomorphogen extract from Standard Process called Symplex F. This medicine is a mixture of specially processed glandular extracts from the four organs that make up the so-called pituitary axis–the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal glands and the ovaries. It was the insight of Dr. Royal Lee to suggest that it is far more productive to work on the entire system rather than trying to normalize one gland. For we now know that these glands compensate for each other, and that they all get ill as a group. I usually give a dose of 1-2 tablets per day for one whole year to help normalize the function of these important organs.

The final therapy that I use for PCOS is a 50/50 mixture of the herbal extracts of Peony lactiflora and Glycyrrhiza uralensis (commonly known as licorice). There have been three studies in the literature showing that this combination of herbs can result in a complete remission in PCOS, and that it does so by normalizing adrenal function and reducing testosterone levels. It is important to use the correct dosages, which were also indicated in these studies.* I use the Mediherb extracts and give them at a dose of 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the mixture, 2-3 times per day. I usually use this mixture for six months with breaks of a week or two every 4-6 weeks.

It is instructive to see our plant medicines not only as plant “drugs,” but also as metaphors for the condition we are trying to treat. If what has been said about the dietary causes of PCOS are correct, then one could say that PCOS and many other hormonal diseases, as well as disease of the adrenal gland, could rightly be called the “sweet” diseases. That is, they are all ultimately linked to excessive consumption of carbohydrates, especially the refined carbohydrates that have become the staple foods of the Western diet. This, as I have shown, results in excess insulin production, weight gain, stress on the ovary and eventual hormonal imbalances.

What we need as therapy for this constellation is sweetness–but without the sugar–sweetness that is more like true love or compassion than the superficial sweetness of eating a sugary dessert. If we combine this with a tonic for the adrenal gland we would have our true medicine for PCOS. Licorice is just such a medicine. It is virtually the sweetest substance known to humankind, but it has the sweet effect without providing any sugar–it is a carbohydrate-free sweetener. In addition, it contains chemicals called saponins which the adrenal gland can easily turn into the cortisone-like chemicals that do so much to regulate our physiology.

Licorice is the exact picture or metaphor in nature for what we need to do to heal this illness: substitute sugar for a kind of sweetness that is healing, not destructive. I would suggest that this is why in many traditional systems of medicine, such as Chinese medicine, licorice was called the “universal healer,” or the “medicine that brings about harmony.” It is the medicine of deep sweetness and compassion, not the superficial sweetness of a high-sugar diet.

*Yaginuma T, Izumi R, Yaui H et al. Nippon Sanka Fujinka Gakkai Zasshi 1982;34 (7): 939-944. Takahashi K, Kitao M. Int J Fertil Menopausal Stud 1994; 39 (2): 69-76. Basso A, Dalla Paola L, Erle G et al. Diabetes Care 1994; 17 (11): 1356 (1109)

This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation.