Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS is a complex hormonal issue that affects millions of women worldwide. In fact, globally 1 in 10 women suffer from the syndrome, sometimes unknowingly (1). Many women first realise there is a problem when they struggle to fall pregnant and they are then diagnosed.
What exactly is PCOS
To put it simply, PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that affects women of childbearing age. The hormonal imbalance prevents the ovary from releasing the egg every month. The result is a build up of cysts around the ovaries of the sufferer.
The symptoms of PCOS vary from women to women, however, the exact reason for the development of PCOS is unknown. Many experts do however know that it is strongly linked to insulin resistance. High levels of insulin then cause the ovaries to make more testosterone (male hormone). This obviously causes many of the undesirable symptoms of PCOS.
When it comes to diagnosis no one test can confirm the diagnosis so a doctor will most likely perform various blood test and an ultrasound and consider these in relation to other symptoms.
Symptoms of PCOS
There is a full spectrum of different symptoms associated with PCOS. Each woman diagnosed with the syndrome will have a different set of symptoms and reactions.
- Weight gain, up to 80% of women with PCOS are obese (2)
- Insulin Resistance
- Irregular Menstrual Cycle
- Hirsutism (abnormal hair growth on the face or chin, and other parts of the body where men would normally hair) (3)
- Oily skin
- Acne – usually occurs after puberty (also in places where men would normally have breakouts)
- Infertility or difficulty falling pregnant
- Thinning or receding hair, male pattern baldness
If you suffer from PCOS or have just been diagnosed do not let the scary list of symptoms get to you, as there is still a lot you can do to help with managing the syndrome and even lessening the impact of it on your life.
There is also, unfortunately, a strong genetic factor when it comes to whether not you will develop the syndrome (4). If you do not yet have any symptoms of the disease but your mother or sister suffer from the syndrome your diet can go a long way to preventing the onset of PCOS.
PCOS and Your Diet
One of the main symptoms of PCOS is weight gain and an associated increased insulin resistance. Aside from speaking to you doctor about specific medication, there are steps you can take today to gain control over your weight gain and even reverse or lessen your insulin resistance.
Cut out Sugar
One of the first steps to take when wanting to lose weight is examining your current sugar intake. Take a long hard look at the amount of sugar in the foods you eat each and every day. Not only the sugar you physically add to your tea and coffee but also the hidden sugar you end up drinking through fizzy soda or even fruit juice. Sugar can be found in everything from tomato ketchup through to jams, ready made sauces and even fruit flavoured yoghurts.
By decreasing the amount of sugar in your diet you will naturally be decreasing the insulin levels in your blood. Over time this will lead to weight loss and increased insulin sensitivity.
Increase Fibrous Green Vegetables
Your mother was right, eat your greens! Green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, green beans and Brussel sprouts contain large amounts of fibre.
Increasing your dietary fibre benefits us in a few ways:
Firstly to keep us fuller for longer, fibre slows the digestion of the other food you have eaten which means you will stay full. This also means less mindless snacking.
Secondly, fibre helps to keep our gut healthy. By feeding your good gut bacteria you may be helping to decrease insulin resistance for the long-term (5).
The added bonus is that because these vegetables are so low in calories it is easy to fill up on them without worrying about any effect on your blood sugar levels.
Focus on Quality and Quantity of Carbohydrates
If your diet is filled with refined carbohydrates like white bread, bagels, white pasta and donuts it is essential that you start making changes. Processed carbohydrates are too easily digested by our bodies. This leads to blood sugar and subsequent blood insulin spikes.
The first step is to replace your processed carbohydrates with complex options:
- White rice can be replaced with brown or wild rice
- Refined white bread with wholegrain seeded bread
- White pasta to be replaced with brown pasta
- Whole potato or sweet potato rather than french fries
The second step is to reduce the quantity of the carbohydrate you normally eat. Try using your fist as a good measurement for the amount of carbohydrate you should be having with each meal, about a quarter of your normal plate.
Lastly, fill your plate with all those fibrous vegetables we mentioned earlier!
A contributing factor to the development of PCOS is inflammation. Research has shown that both lean and obese women with PCOS have increased inflammation (6). The takeaway from this is to focus on dietary methods that naturally reduce inflammation and therefore PCOS symptoms
Firstly, are you eating fish, specifically fatty fish at least 3-4 times per week? If not you need to concentrate on incorporating salmon, mackerel or sardines in your diet on a regular basis (7). Fatty fish contain essential fatty acids called omega 3’s. Our body cannot naturally produce them but we are able to increase these healthy fats through our diet. Omega 3’s are natural anti-inflammatories, however, they cannot work in isolation (8).
Secondly, take a look at the type of fats you consistently consume. Omega 6 fatty acids are also essential fatty acids but they are unfortunately pro-inflammatory. For this reason, they are essential in small doses but in our modern diets we are taking in large quantities daily.
The balance between your omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids is the key to lowering inflammation:
- Increase your intake of natural unprocessed good fats like avocado, extra virgin olive oil and nuts rich in Omega 3 like walnuts.
- Limit processed vegetable oils like sunflower or canola oil
- Increase your intake of fatty fish
- Supplement with omega 3 capsules if you are not getting enough fatty fish
Other Lifestyle Changes
Diet is naturally the most important factor when it comes to managing PCOS and the associated insulin resistance, however, with a multifaceted approach, you will get the best results. For the best results focus on slowly increasing your activity level in addition to making dietary changes.