So first of all, for those of you that might not know what PCOS is, it stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
PCOS has become very common in women nowadays and is thought to be affecting anything between 1 in every 5-10 women, in the UK/Ireland anyway.
So what is it?
PCOS can have a few symptoms and it basically affects how a woman’s ovaries work.
Some of the features that lead to a diagnosis of PCOS include some/all of the following:
- Irregular release of eggs from the ovaries (ovulation).
- A number of fluid filled sacs or follicles surrounding the eggs in the ovaries. They are not actually cysts as the name suggests.
- Hormone Imbalances/Increased testosterone levels.
-Thinning of scalp hair
-Excessive hair especially on face, chest, stomach).
-Irregular or absent period
-Acne or Oily skin
-Difficulty maintaining a healthy weight
-Difficulty conceiving/fertility issues
So what is insulin first of all? Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas in order to control the amount of sugar in the blood.
It also helps move glucose (sugar) from the blood and into the cells where it can be broken down and used to produce energy.
Lots of PCOS sufferers are resistant to the effects of insulin in the body. What this means is that the body’s tissues are resistant to insulin leading to excessive insulin being produced to compensate.
These high levels of insulin lead to increased testosterone, produced by the ovaries. In turn, this prevents the regular ovulation process as it interferes with the development of the follicles/sacs.
It’s common that resistance to insulin can result in weight gain which has been found to make PCOS symptoms worse. This is down to the body having more fat stores which actually causes the body to release more insulin. It’s a vicious cycle!
This can eventually lead to a diagnosis of Type II Diabetes if the individual does not make some lifestyle/diet changes to lose weight.
Certain hormones have been found to be affected in PCOS sufferers.
–Testosterone – a hormone often thought of as only a male hormone, even though females do produce it in small amounts. Often shown to be slightly higher in women with PCOS. Leads to associated symptoms mentioned above including excessive hair in certain places. If the individual also has excess fat, the extra testosterone produced can be converted into a kind of oestrogen. This means increased testosterone AND oestrogen – neither of which are necessary and can be difficult to control.
–Luteinising Hormone (LH) – This hormone stimulates menstruation & ovulation. In PCOS sufferers it may be slightly higher (due to increased FSH-RH production firstly), which can have abnormal effects on the ovaries.
–Sex Hormone-Binding Globulin (SHBG) – This is a protein in the blood which binds to testosterone and reduces its effect. In those with PCOS this hormone can sometimes be lower than normal, meaning the effects of testosterone are more apparent, as mentioned above with excessive hair etc.
–Prolactin – This is a hormone that stimulates the breast glands to produce milk during pregnancy. This can be higher than usual but has only been found to affect very few PCOS sufferers.
It’s not quite known why these hormonal changes occur in some people. It may start in the ovary itself, in the part of the brain that controls their production, or possibly in other glands that produce these hormones. It may even be down to the resistance of insulin. Studies are ongoing in women who suffer with PCOS as it is such a complex condition.
Long Term Health Concerns:
-High blood pressure
-Being overweight or having lots of fat around the abdomen area especially
-High levels of fat in the blood
All of the above can further lead to more serious conditions such as heart disease and/or diabetes.
What You Can Do:
The most common remedy to reduce PCOS symptoms is of course diet.
Diet can play a huge role in the symptoms of PCOS in that it can help reduce the resistance to insulin, which will in turn make fat loss easier. This will mean less fat in the body, less risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes etc. Couple this with exercise and you are onto a winner in combatting your insulin resistance!
However, it’s not quite as simple as saying ‘eat better’. There are specific foods that should be limited in the diet of PCOS sufferers to prevent symptoms worsening. These include high GI foods such as sugar, short grain rice, white potatoes, white bread, some fruit such as bananas, many breakfast cereals and overall processed food in general.
A lower GI diet seems to benefit PCOS sufferers which means getting the bulk of carbohydrates from foods such as vegetables (especially cruciferous such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, cabbage etc), a small amount of whole grains, pulses and some fruit. Focus your diet more on proteins and fats with some of the carbohydrates above to begin with and you should see an improvement.
As I mentioned above, exercise can help with insulin sensitivity and when coupled with better dietary habits, you will speed things up.
There is no one form of exercise that suits all when it comes to PCOS sufferers, what is important is that exercise is part of the lifestyle. Whether that is making sure you hit 10,000 steps per day using an activity tracker or hitting the gym 4-5 days – everyone is different.
The idea is to get exercise increased so find what you enjoy and stick to that. Some women will take advantage of the increased androgens which can mean you can build some muscle faster than usual, while others will prefer to go for a walk every day.
Find what works.
Some medication/supplements have been found to help with some symptoms of PCOS including metformin, birth control and/or a DIM supplement (promotes beneficial oestrogen metabolism and helps restore a healthy hormonal balance in SOME cases). Of course, before taking any of the above you should consult with your GP.
I would start by making small changes to your diet as mentioned above as well as finding a suitable form of exercise to get your activity levels up. Balancing and improving insulin sensitivity in this manner should lead to positive results.