I recently gave a presentation on PCOS as part of my schooling for holistic nutrition, so I thought I’d share the results of my research with you. Just as a side note…even though I’ve been out of college and in the “professional” world for years now, I still get nervous when presenting in front of others…like mega nervous! I can’t even eat anything the day of a presentation because I almost feel nauseous. I get butterflies in my stomach and my hands get all clammy. But the moment I stand up in front of the crowd and start talking, I feel perfectly fine and usually do a pretty good job. Crazy, right? Hopefully it’s something I grow out of eventually!
Anyway, back to PCOS. As a reminder, this information is not to be taken as medical advice and you should always discuss your condition with a physician before proceeding with any treatment. This is only meant to be shared as a culmination of research and reading I’ve done on my own, and my own opinions.
PCOS is a tricky syndrome, and as I did my research I found myself going in circles at times, concluding that women diagnosed with PCOS often have to do their own homework to get to the bottom of their condition. Even the name polycystic ovary syndrome is misleading, as the “cysts” seen on an ultrasound as part of a PCOS diagnosis are not really cysts at all, but semi-mature follicles that never released their egg due to improper hormone levels. In fact, you don’t even have to have these “cysts” on your ovaries in order to be diagnosed with PCOS. Ovarian cysts are a completely disease process from PCOS. Following the Rotterdam criteria (which is the standard for diagnosing PCOS), a woman must have a least two of the following traits in order to be diagnosed with PCOS:
1. Irregular or lack of ovulation
2. High androgen (testosterone) levels, either by observation or by testing
3. Enlarged ovaries containing at least 12 immature follicles each
In addition to the above criteria, other hormone disorders like Cushing’s syndrome, thyroid dysfunction, or adrenal fatigue must be ruled out. Doctors and researchers don’t know precisely what causes PCOS, but there are several theories involving genetics, insulin resistance, endocrine gland dysfunction, and environmental factors. It’s likely a combination of factors, and the root cause may be different from woman to woman. But we do know that PCOS involves an imbalance in hormones [typically high estrogen, high testosterone, high luteinizing hormone (LH), low follicle stimulating hormones (FSH), low sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), and high insulin] and the symptoms are widespread and vary in severity. Acne, abnormal body hair growth, weight gain around the belly, skin tags, menstrual pain, and thinning scalp hair are common symptoms. Many women with PCOS are insulin resistant, which puts them at risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. And because of the high estrogen levels, PCOS is also associated with higher rates of certain cancers. So it’s not a diagnosis that should be ignored. Luckily, there is a lot you can do with diet and lifestyle changes that can address the underlying cause of the hormone imbalance. It’s important to note that when you implement these changes, it may take your body awhile to heal and adjust before you start to feel significant improvement, although some women may start to notice changes sooner.
A woman can be diagnosed with PCOS as young as 11 years old, but most women discover they have the syndrome in their 20s or 30s, often after coming off of birth control, trying to get pregnant, or while struggling with infertility or miscarriage. The conventional treatment usually involves pharmaceuticals…oral contraceptives to “normalize” the menstrual cycle, ovulation-inducing drugs for women trying to conceive, anti-androgens, insulin-sensitizing drugs, and so on. The problem is that these drugs do nothing to address the underlying hormone imbalance…they only put a Band-Aid on the problem. Because of this, many women are seeking natural ways to take control of their menstrual cycles, ovulation, fertility.
All of your hormones work together in a very delicate balance. If one is too high or too low, a cascade of other changes will follow. For example, high levels of insulin cause increases in testosterone and high levels of estrogen can reduce thyroid hormone. In other words, stress, metabolism, blood sugar balance, and reproductive health all go hand-in-hand. PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder in women and 6-10% of reproductive age women struggle with it. If you’re one of them, here’s what you can do to help yourself by balancing hormones naturally:
1. Nutrition therapy. Food can either hurt or help a woman with PCOS. I know changing your diet can be challenging and frustrating, but I promise you, it’s one of the best things you can do to overcome hormone imbalances. The key here is focusing on an anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of organic vegetables, quality protein sources such as grass-fed beef and wild-caught salmon, fruits, and herbs/spices. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables are your friend. Turmeric should be your go-to spice. Fish oil supplements come in very handy since eating wild-caught salmon several times a week can get boring, not to mention expensive! This website is a great resource for information on anti-inflammatory foods. The other component is low-glycemic load foods, which means that sugar, soda, white flour, and starchy vegetables should be cut down or removed from your diet completely. This will help normalize your blood sugar, help with metabolism and weight loss, and reduce inflammation. When you do eat carbohydrates, eat them with a little bit of fat or protein to help slow the digestion and absorption of glucose that will spike your blood sugar and insulin. If you have any food sensitivities or allergies, make sure that you’re being strict about avoiding these foods. And as I recommend to everyone: stay away from partially hydrogenated oils (aka trans fats), high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and artificial colors.
2. Manage stress. Nobody can avoid stress completely, but do whatever you can to minimize highly stressful situations and find ways to calm yourself down when you find that stress is grabbing a hold of you. This is different for everyone, but many women find it helpful to take Epsom salt baths, take walks in nature, cuddle their pets, meditate, sing, pray, or practice yoga. Find what works for you and incorporate it into your routine. Stress contributes to inflammation and high cortisol levels, which can exacerbate your PCOS symptoms. I also recommend getting at least 15 minutes of sunshine each day if at all possible, as vitamin D deficiency is very common in women with PCOS and you need sunshine to produce vitamin D. Getting your 8 hours of sleep each night will also make it easier to manage stress and balance hormones, so turn off the T.V. and tuck into bed at a decent hour. And lastly, it goes without saying that exercise will help with your metabolism, stress management, and hormone balance. Move that body, girl!
3. Cut out the toxins. Hormone imbalances can be improved by giving your body what it needs to naturally detoxify and by avoiding exposure to environmental toxins. One of your liver’s many jobs is to break down and remove excess hormones, so support it with liver-loving herbs like milk thistle and dandelion root (there are many teas that contain these ingredients, or you can look for a supplement), eat plenty of cruciferous vegetables and fiber, and eat quality protein. Avoid exposure to the toxic nasties that are everywhere these days like BPA in plastic bottles, chemicals in beauty and skin care products, cigarette smoke, paint, and cleaning products, as they put a heavy burden on your liver and have been shown to disrupt hormones. Supplements like calcium-D-glucarate and DIM can also help, so work with your doctor, naturopath, or nutritionist to create a protocol that will work for you.
4. Address nutrient deficiencies. Your healthcare practitioner can test your blood for adequate levels of vital nutrients, so this is worth looking into, especially if you know your diet isn’t as well-rounded as it could be. B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, chromium, and vitamin D should all be optimized to help with blood sugar control, metabolism, and healthy hormone balance. Even slight deficiencies can contribute to hormone imbalance, inflammation, or free-radical damage. Do your best to “eat the rainbow” by filling your plate with colorful vegetables and snacking on antioxidant-rich fruits.
The bottom line is this: being given a diagnosis of PCOS can be bewildering and confusing, and you may find that getting the help you need is not as easy as it should be. PCOS doesn’t only affect the female reproductive system…it can have lasting and devastating effects on your overall health, so it should be treated with care and diligence. It can be especially challenging for women who are trying to conceive or maintain a pregnancy. If you’re a young woman who has been diagnosed with PCOS and pregnancy is the last thing on your mind, it is still beneficial to work on getting your hormones balanced naturally now and potentially avoid trouble down the road. But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and the GOOD NEWS is that you can take charge of your health and implement changes that will heal your body and get you back to your old self again.
Reader feedback: If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with PCOS and have implemented a natural approach to getting better, please share your story! And as always, please be respectful in your comments and feel free to ask me any questions.
P.S. One last thing I wanted to mention: while I was doing my research on this topic, the most comprehensive and helpful book I came across was The Ulimate PCOS Handbook by Colette Harris and Theresa Cheung.