PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is the most common endocrine disorder – affecting 12-18% of Australian women of child bearing age – but it’s estimated that almost 70% of women don’t even know they have it.
Common PCOS symptoms
PCOS disrupts women’s hormones, and it can present a myriad of symptoms including:
- Missing periods, period irregularities, spotting or heavy bleeding
- Abdominal pain/cramps
- Excess and unwanted facial hair
- Hair loss
- Acne or skin issues
- Weight gain
- Insulin resistance
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleep issues
- Multiple cysts on the ovaries
- Low libido
No two women have the same set of symptoms – some have mild symptoms, while others experience more extreme symptoms. Sometimes testosterone levels are normal in women with PCOS (see below), sometimes they’re not. Sometimes cysts present in someone with PCOS, sometimes they don’t.
Medications have traditionally been used to deal with symptoms of PCOS, but these fail to address the underlying cause of PCOS.
What Causes PCOS?
Although there has always been some debate on what causes PCOS, two factors that are witnessed in most women are chronic inflammation and insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance plays a central role in the development of PCOS. In fact, insulin resistance affects 50–70% of all women with PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that’s produced in your pancreas. It helps the cells in your body turn sugar into energy. If you don’t produce enough insulin, your blood sugar levels can rise. This can also happen if you’re insulin resistant, meaning you aren’t able to effectively use the insulin you produce so your body may try to pump out high levels of insulin in an effort to keep your blood sugar levels normal. Too-high levels of insulin can cause your ovaries to produce more testosterone, which leads to hormonal imbalance. A diet high in refined carbohydrates can also make insulin resistance more difficult to control.
Another underlying factor of PCOS, and a driver of PCOS symptoms is the existence of chronic inflammation in the body. Find out exactly what inflammation is here.
PCOS & Gut Health
Studies have shown that women with PCOS also commonly have gut dysbiosis, where the bacteria in the gut is out of balance, and bad bacteria begin to dominate the good bacteria. Poor gut health and too many bad bacteria causes inflammation and insulin resistance and, as noted above, inflammation and insulin resistance contribute to PCOS. Also, the excess androgens (testosterone) in PCOS cause the microbiome (bacteria) to be out of balance, which can make for a vicious circle. Additionally, a very common treatment for PCOS is the contraceptive pill, which only disrupts the gut microbiome further.
When it comes to PCOS and gut health, re-balancing your gut microbiome is an essential step in managing and reducing your PCOS symptoms. This is especially the case if you have insulin resistance and want to lose weight. Repairing your microbiome can be complex for some. However, there are three things that you can try to see if it helps your symptoms:
- Eliminate gluten
The proteins that are present in the modern wheat grain are inflammatory, especially in the large quantities that we eat today. Chronic inflammation can affect your skin, digestion, sleep, mood, and hormones. It can also set you on the path to autoimmunity. The gluten in bread, pasta, muffins, biscuits, etc, can cause inflammation. So, if you are eating these daily, your immune system can become overburdened and over stressed and begin to malfunction, eventually attacking your body’s own tissues as it tries desperately to combat the sources of inflammation.
Additionally, when you eat gluten, it travels to your small intestine where it triggers the release of zonulin. Zonulin is a chemical that signals the tight junctions of your intestinal wall to open up, creating ‘leaky gut’. Once your gut becomes leaky, larger proteins like gluten, toxins, microbes, and partially digested food particles begin to escape through your leaky intestinal wall. Your immune system reacts to fight off these invaders, which creates a chronic inflammatory state as your gut remains leaky and the invaders keep on coming in. Eliminating gluten is essential for stopping the assault on your gut, however you may want to look at avoiding other inflammatory foods too.
If you would like more information, you can read the following blogs:
- Is Gluten Causing Your Infertility?
- Are You Addicted to Gluten?
- How to Stock a Naturally Gluten Free Pantry
- Eliminate other inflammatory foods
If you have PCOS, I recommend eliminating the following to see if your symptoms improve:
- Packaged food containing preservatives, colours, flavours, additives, emulsifiers and other harmful dubious ingredients
- GMO foods such as corn
- Conventionally raised meat or eggs
- Farmed fish
- Processed, pasteurised and homogenised dairy
- Refined vegetable oils (read my blog on ‘Why I Never Consume Vegetable Oils’)
- Refined sugars
- Cheap supplements containing fillers such as wheat
- Soy – this disrupts hormones by looking like estrogen to the body and it may cause inflammation and leaky gut by inhibiting trypsin, a protein-digesting enzyme
While processed foods may seem like easy, convenient foods, they deplete your health over the long haul. Developing a healthy eating plan can sometimes seem difficult, but like anything that is new, it becomes second nature over time. The payoff is well worth it—with a proper diet, you can take a proactive stance against inflammation, aging and disease by incorporating these REAL, whole foods into your life.
- Go on an anti-inflammatory diet (like the Hunter Gatherer Protocol)
It’s common to be overwhelmed and discouraged by all the foods you shouldn’t be eating with PCOS.
Chances are, if you’re eating a certain way and eliminating your trigger foods that cause your PCOS symptoms to spike, you will feel so good that you will learn to love the way you eat.
And, if you want to eat for long-term health, then lowering inflammation is key.
It’s also a good idea to consume inflammation-fighting foods and balance blood sugar levels. Foods you could try include:
- Healthy carbohydrates (sweet potato, pumpkin and carrots)
- Leafy greens
- Fresh herbs
- Cruciferous veggies (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, etc)
- Healthy fats (animal fats, coconut oil, grass-fed butter and ghee, cold pressed nut oils)
- Grass-fed and/or organic meats
- Non-farmed seafood/fish
- Herbal teas
- Bone broth and gelatin – they contain a unique profile of healthful amino acids that help balance hormones by complementing the amino acids we obtain from meat
- Liver – great for aiding hormonal balance due to its unique nutritional profile
- Adaptogenic herbs
- Homemade fermented foods.
PCOS, like many disorders, also responds positively to proactive lifestyle choices, such as daily physical movement. This can help to reduce insulin resistance, especially when paired with an anti-inflammatory diet. The symptoms associated with PCOS can cause both physical and emotional stress so implementing stress reduction techniques can also be incredibly beneficial. Speaking with a therapist or other medical professional may also be highly beneficial.
If you have PCOS and would like individualised dietary advice, please contact us to arrange a one-on-one consultation so you can get the support and guidance you need.
Do you have PCOS? What steps do you take to try and manage your symptoms?