September is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) awareness month. With almost 7 million women in the US affected by PCOS and more than 50% of cases left undiagnosed, it’s crucial that women learn how to prevent and manage this condition.
Why is PCOS Important?
PCOS is the largest hormone abnormality in women under the age of 50, and the most common cause of infertility. Traditionally, diagnosis of PCOS is done by sighting ovarian cysts; however, it is also possible to have PCOS without ovarian cysts, as well as to have ovarian cysts without PCOS.
What Causes Ovarian Cysts?
In a normal ovary, a follicle releases a single egg each cycle. However, with PCOS, the ovary may not be functioning properly, preventing the egg from being released, causing that follicle to become a cyst. Although many women experience cysts with PCOS, others will not. The name polycystic ovarian syndrome is therefore misleading as current research now associates PCOS with a hormonal imbalance. This imbalance can be characterized by an overabundance of androgens and insulin resistance as the root issues.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Women with PCOS are likely to experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Acne outbreaks (especially along the jawline and forehead)
- Menstrual abnormalities
- Hirsutism (unwanted facial hair)
- Weight gain (can be insulin resistant)
- High testosterone/androgen levels
If the affected individual does not seek care or treatment, PCOS can lead to further health problems such as diabetes, heart disease and even endometrial cancer.
What Causes PCOS?
The root cause of PCOS is unknown to the medical community; however, specific lifestyle and health concerns are known that can put women at greater risk. Stress, poor diet, lack of exercise leading to weight gain, and insulin resistance can all greatly affect the development and severity of PCOS. Insulin resistance typically occurs in individuals who are overweight, but can be experienced by women at any weight. Additionally, research has shown that when insulin levels are high, the ovaries produce more testosterone. In the case of PCOS, regardless if one is overweight, high levels of insulin in the blood lead to insulin resistance and potentially type 2 diabetes.
PCOS and Diet
The largest contributing factor to high insulin levels in the blood is diet. Therefore controlling blood sugar levels is essential for the prevention, treatment and management of PCOS. Insulin is only released when carbohydrates are consumed to control the spike in blood sugar. When sugars and starches are in excess, the body produces more insulin as a way of helping the body deal with the flood of blood sugar. If the body becomes resistant to insulin, weight gain, metabolic issues, and hormone and reproductive problems arise. Watching carbohydrate choices and intake, as well as ensuring enough fiber, healthy fat and protein are consumed at meal times will help to keep blood sugar in check.
PCOS and Genetics
Current research shows that genetics plays a significant role in the development of PCOS among family members. Researchers at The University of Chicago Medicine Center for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome found that approximately 30% of women with PCOS have or will have an abnormal glucose tolerance test, and 10% of women with PCOS are or will be diabetic by the time they reach 40 years of age. Researchers also found 50% of sisters with PCOS had similar symptoms, suggesting a strong genetic link for this condition in immediate family members.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
When diagnosing PCOS, women typically have at least one of the following symptoms:
- Androgen excess (testosterone)
- Ovulation disorders
- Polycystic ovaries
PCOS and Supplements
While there are medications to help manage PCOS, research shows that taking an integrative and proactive approach to support PCOS can be just as effective, if not more.
Two forms of inositol have been studied in association with PCOS. Both Myo- and D- chiro inositol have been shown to be effective in addressing hormone and metabolic issues in women with PCOS. Inositol is a simple carbohydrate found in a variety of fruits, beans, grains and nuts, though the highest concentration of Inositol is found in fresh vegetables. Studies have shown that concentrated, isolated forms of D-chiro inositol are more effective than Myo inositol.
Low magnesium levels have been associated with diabetes. Some research shows that supplementing with magnesium may improve insulin sensitivity. A study found 300 mg of magnesium given to overweight, insulin-resistant subjects at bedtime resulted in significant improvement in fasting blood glucose and insulin levels.
Chromium is another mineral that has been shown to help the body regulate insulin and blood sugar levels.Studies have shown that 200 mcg daily of chromium picolinate significantly reduces blood sugar and insulin levels for those with PCOS. Improvement of insulin sensitivity with chromium supplementation has been shown to be comparable with the results of the drug metformin.
Found in different herbs and plants, berberine has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and immune-enhancing properties. Berberine has also been shown to reduce fasting blood glucose levels in type 2 diabetics, resulting in similar outcomes as with the use of the drug Metformin for diabetes and pre-diabetes. Other benefits include improved regulation of metabolism, fat burning, triglycerides, blood cholesterol, insulin, and blood glucose.
Omega 3 PCOS
- Omega 3’s
It is commonly known that omega 3’s (such as fish oil) provide essential support for our heart and brain. However, there is also research that supports the role of omega 3 supplementation in decreasing androgen levels in women with PCOS, leading to faster regulation of menses. Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations for Preventing and Managing PCOS A diet focused on blood sugar and insulin management, coupled with stress-reducing activities, can greatly reduce symptoms of PCOS. Research has shown that overweight patients with PCOS can significantly benefit from a 15% reduction in body weight. The following suggestions can help improve insulin sensitivity, restore ovulation, and reduce excess testosterone:
- Eat low-glycemic and high-fiber unprocessed foods. Skip packaged foods and go for what nature produces.
- Omit excess and added sugar from the diet. Don’t be fooled by sugar-free, low-fat products as these foods can actually contain more sugar than their original counterparts.
- Get enough healthy fats. Think coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish. Research shows diets higher in healthy fats are highly effective for the treatment and management of PCOS.
- Decrease stress. Practice mindfulness through activities such as yoga, walking in nature, taking a bath, and meditating. Find your happy place and take deep breaths.
- Reduce exposure of xenobiotics. Xenobiotics are chemicals in the environment, including pollution, drugs, carcinogens, certain chemicals, and hormone mimickers in hygiene, skincare, and beauty products. When heated, certain plastics (think containers for your food) are also culprits. These chemicals can disrupt hormone function and alter development of ovarian follicles.
- Decrease AGE’s
Women with PCOS have been shown to have more AGEs (Advanced Glycation End Products) in their blood. AGEs are compounds formed when glucose combines with proteins. Foods highest in AGE’s come from processed and animal foods. Processed and animal-based food products should be decreased and replaced with plant-based whole foods. Heating foods at a high heat via grilling, searing, or roasting also increases levels of AGE.
As common as PCOS has become for women, effective management can be achieved using an integrative approach of diet, exercise, and supplementation. By making informed lifestyle decisions, you can not only reduce the severity of PCOS symptoms, but can also improve your overall health and wellbeing.
Interested in learning how to manage pcos symptoms & risk naturally? Take the Vitagene Health + Ancestry Test today to learn the best diet, exercise, and supplementation for your DNA and lifestyle.