PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) is a condition that affects up to 10% of women. What you need to know about PCOS is that until you get down to the driver of your PCOS, you won’t reach a real cure. Rather than being a single defined condition, it is a cluster of symptoms that are related to a lack of ovulation (anovulation) and high male hormones (androgens).
Typical symptoms of PCOS include –
- Irregular periods
- Excessive facial hair
- Weight gain
- Hair loss on the scalp.
Something to be aware of is that pain is NOT associated with PCOS. If you suffer pain throughout your menstrual cycle, then further investigation is warranted as there may be something else going on.
The diagnosis criteria for PCOS can vary between medical establishments, and there is a lot of thought in the medical community that PCOS is often OVER diagnosed. A diagnosis of PCOS can be very frightening for women as it is associated with infertility. This may make women take radical steps to enhance or preserve their fertility in the fear that having a baby may never happen.
To diagnose PCOS you need to present with all THREE of the following issues –
- Irregular periods OR polycystic ovaries on an ultrasound
- High androgens on a blood test, OR symptoms of high androgens such as facial hair growth
- Other reasons for high androgens having being ruled out.
Something to be aware of is that you can not be diagnosed with PCOS on the basis of an ultrasound only. Most women, and especially younger women will display multiple cysts (actually they are ovarian follicles) on their ovaries at certain stages of their cycle. This is the natural process of your body releasing 12-25 follicles every month. One of these follicles will become dominant and releasing an egg at ovulation. The remaining follicles will burst and be reabsorbed by the body.
In the case of a woman with PCOS, a dominant follicle will not occur, and no egg will be released at ovulation (this is called an anovulatory cycle). Because of the lack of a dominant follicle, the smaller follicles do not dissolve, and these undeveloped follicles will remain on the ovaries. This is what gives the image of polycystic ovaries.
So what stops the development of the dominant follicle? The answer is high androgens.
So what causes high androgens then? Many things can cause high androgens, and the cause can vary from woman to women. Because of this, the drivers of PCOS can be four types of PCOS*.
- Insulin-resistant PCOS (the most common type with 70% of PCOS suffers showing signs of insulin resistance)
- Post-pill PCOS
- Inflammatory PCOS
- Adrenal PCOS
Finding YOUR driver is the key to managing your PCOS.
Determining the driver of your PCOS will require some investigation and pathology tests. However, your symptom picture can give some really great clues as to what is driving your PCOS. Discussing your symptoms with your naturopath can help to get to the bottom of what may be the cause.
Once your driver is identified, then you need to work out what is driving your driver..if you know what i mean. For example if you have insulin resistant PCOS, then you need to work out why you have insulin resistance. It may be just a genetic predisposition, or it could potentially be caused by smoking, stress, hormonal birth control, poor sleep, unhealthy diet, poor gut bacteria or environmental toxins.
This might all sound overwhelming, but it really demonstrates how vital it is to keep digging to really see what is causing your symptoms. It is not until the causing factors are identified that you will truly restore your health.
With the right support and tailored supplementation and herbal medicine prescriptions, you can treat the causes and reverse your PCOS.
A word of pharmaceutical medication and PCOS. Going on birth control is a band-aid effect. It is not treating the cause of the problem. Once you come off the birth control, your symptoms will come back.
Quick Tips to Support PCOS
Regardless of the type of PCOS that you have, the following diet and lifestyle tips will help to reduce your symptoms and to restore balance to your hormone levels.
Eat a whole food diet – avoid processed foods by focussing on a diet rich in vegetables, pasture-raised meat, wild caught seafood, organic eggs, nuts, seeds, gluten-free grains and healthy fats such as ghee, coconut, avocado and extra virgin olive oil.
Eat an anti-inflammatory diet – avoiding inflammation promoting foods such as vegetable seed oils (canola, sunflower, rice bran, safflower etc), cow’s dairy and wheat will reduce your intake of inflammation-promoting foods through your diet. Eating lots of herbs and spices such as turmeric and healthy fats from wild caught fish will help to dampen any inflammation within the body. Excess inflammation can disrupt hormone receptors, suppress ovulation and stimulate your body to produce more androgens.
Avoid Sugar – with insulin resistant PCOS being the most common, cutting sugar out of your diet is essential. This includes ‘unrefined sugars’ such as dates, honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and rice malt syrup. Quitting sugar will eventually reduce your cravings for sugar. If you do need something a little sweet you can have small amounts of sugar alcohols such as xylitol or natural sweeteners such as stevia or monk fruit.
Get plenty of sleep – adequate sleep is essential for the regeneration of cells. Poor sleep is commonly reported in PCOS patients and can exacerbate inflammation, adrenal and insulin resistant PCOS. Aiming for 8-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep is the goal. You can help to achieve this by relaxing in the evening, avoiding electronic screen 2 hours before bed, no caffeine after 2 pm and not eating 2 hours before going to bed.
Exercise – exercise is vital for everyone’s health. Excess body fat can worsen insulin resistance, just as insulin resistance encourages weight gain. It can be a vicious cycle, and without exercise being consistent it is likely that insulin resistant PCOS patients will continue to gain weight. Exercise will also help to balance hormones, reduce stress and will improve your cells respond to insulin.
Reduce your stress – stress is a major driver of adrenal PCOS. When you are in a chronic state of stress you are more likely to produce excess androgens from your adrenal glands. High stress will also impact your sleep quality and you are more likely to make poor lifestyle and diet choices. High levels of stress in the years before puberty or during puberty is often seen to result in adrenal PCOS your stress response system out of balance.
Get your sunshine vitamin – vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin and it is essential for ovarian health. Up to 85% of patients with PCOS are vitamin D deficient. Whilst this deficiency is not thought to be a cause of PCOS, it can worsen symptoms. Vitamin D can help with insulin sensitivity, weight loss, inflammation and stress management.
Avoid environmental toxins – exposure to things such as plastics can cause disruption to your hormonal balance. Pesticides, preservatives and additives in our food chain can build up in our bodies and can potentially cause disruption and inflammation within the body.
Take magnesium and zinc – these are the two power players when it comes to hormonal health. So many women, especially women with PCOS are low or deficient in zinc and magnesium. Both these nutrients help to balance hormones and zinc is especially beneficial to ovarian health.
As you can see, PCOS is a condition that appears to be complex, but when broken down by it’s driving forces, it can be simplified and a treatment plan can be created for you. If you are ready to get to the root of what is contributing to your PCOS send me an email or book in your free 15-minute discovery call and we can your case in further detail.
* Lara Briden, The Period Revolution, Every woman’s guide to better periods. 2nd Edition MacMillan Press Australia