If you have PCOS, you are certainly not alone… In fact, it affects 5-10% of women of child-bearing age! It’s the most common hormonal issue in women and is one of the main causes of infertility. The exact cause of PCOS appears to be unclear however diet has been shown to be central in both development and treatment.
So what is PCOS?
Both males and females have ‘male’ and female’ hormones. However, males have more ‘male’ hormones than women and via versa. Women with PCOS have slightly higher than normal levels of the male hormones circulating in their blood. This affects the balance of female-to-male hormones, often resulting in the formation of small cysts-like sacs on the ovaries… hence the name poly (meaning many) cystic ovarian syndrome. The symptoms associated with PCOS are a result of this imbalance and therefore vary greatly from woman to woman.
Why is it associated with being overweight?
PCOS is more often found in women who are overweight as insulin may play a central role in development. Insulin is a hormone found in the body that helps bring glucose, formed from the digestion of sugars and starches, into our body’s cells to be used as energy or else stored. Many women with PCOS have too much insulin circulating in their blood due to ‘insulin resistance’. Insulin resistance is where insulin is less effective at lowering blood glucose levels therefore more insulin is secreted to accommodate this. This excess insulin has been shown to increase the production of male hormones. The main cause of insulin resistance is excess weight around your middle.
Why treat PCOS?
As PCOS effects the menstrual cycle in women, it can play a role in infertility. Additionally and importantly, the other symptoms of PCOS may also be upsetting for women. However, in the long term, PCOS has been linked to the development of chronic conditions and diseases like the metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer of the womb…. Therefore it must be treated.
The first step should always be looking at diet and exercise. Eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly can help obtain a healthy weight and manage some of the common symptoms in PCOS like insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can increase weight gain but can also be caused by weight gained…. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation…. Regardless of which came first or if they resulted at the same time, excess body fat can make insulin resistance worse thereby increasing insulin levels and aggravating symptoms.
In fact studies have shown that even moderate weight loss (5-7% of total body weight lost) may significantly improve symptoms and regulate the menstrual cycle. However a healthy diet is beneficial to all women with PCOS, even if not overweight.
So what diet changes can help?
A healthy diet for women with PCOS is slightly different to a healthy diet for the general public. Although ensuring a healthy balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats is crucial… too much or too little of any vitamin and mineral can be detrimental. For example, adequate levels of some of the essential trace minerals like chromium are needed for insulin activity. While zinc, often considered just the immune-boosting mineral, plays a role in proper hormone function and B vitamins are important in ensuring the metabolism of protein and carbohydrate-rich foods.
Do you think you have PCOS?
12 questions to ask yourself….
1. Does it run in your family?
2. Are you overweight?
3. Did you grow pubic hair at a very young age?
4. Do you have trouble conceiving?
5. Store excess weight around you middle?
6. Struggle to maintain your weight?
7. Have irregular periods?
8. Crave carbohydrate?
9. Have excessive hair growth on face, chest, stomach, back, toes and thumbs?
10. Have male-pattern baldness (alopecia)?
11. Have acne?
12. Have patches on your skin (neck/arms/breasts/thighs) that are thick and dark brown?
If in doubt, seek advice….