Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition of hormonal imbalance in women. It effects approximately 5-10% of women and is one of the main causes of infertility. Many women won’t know they even have PCOS until they try to become pregnant and have difficulties.
What is PCOS?
Specifically, the syndrome causes an increase in the production of male sex hormones (androgens) in the ovaries. When testosterone levels are high, it can interfere with the normal menstrual cycle in a woman.
In a normal cycle, women produce follicles in the first half of the ‘month’, which contain eggs. Once an egg fully matures, it bursts out of a follicle and is ready to be fertilized by sperm. This is known as ovulation. However, in PCOS, testosterone interferes with this process of egg maturation, which often leads to no ovulation (or very irregular ovulation).
Without ovulation, progesterone production is low (the hormone that is highest after ovulation and responsible for promoting conception and a healthy pregnancy). Progesterone is also responsible for triggering the thickening of the uterine wall in preparation for pregnancy. This does not happen with low levels of progesterone, which is why many women with PCOS frequently have irregular or missed periods.
The follicles that develop each cycle but fail to produce mature eggs can turn into cysts on the ovaries (hence the name polycystic ovary syndrome).
Since there is erratic or no ovulation, infertility rates are very high with polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Causes of PCOS:
The exact cause of PCOS is not known, however genetic influences appear to play a role as PCOS sometimes runs in families. Excessive insulin and insulin resistance is known to be a contributing factor and may be the biggest trigger in the development of the condition.
Chronic inflammation may influence the development of PCOS by promoting insulin resistance.
Aside from infertility and irregular periods, PCOS can cause weight gain (especially around the abdomen), acne, hair growth in unwanted places (also known as hirsutism), thinning of hair on the head (male pattern baldness), as well as depression. Periods may be especially painful.
Side Effects of PCOS:
If left untreated, PCOS can lead to a host of chronic degenerative conditions such as type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, endometrial cancer, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
Most of these conditions are related to the insulin resistance that accompanies PCOS, whereas other conditions such as endometrial cancer, are attributed to the hormone imbalances.
What Can You Do?
While it may seem like it’s all doom and gloom – there are ways to control PCOS and help correct hormone imbalances. Many women are able to get pregnant with PCOS and remain healthy throughout their pregnancies. The suggestions below are intended as a starting point, they are critical steps to take but are not a replacement for the advice of a qualified medical practitioner. In some cases, PCOS will require medical treatment.
1. Because insulin resistance plays such a huge role in PCOS (and can lead to many other illnesses as illustrated above), the main focus of a holistic approach to the treatment of PCOS involves lowering insulin levels.
The best way to rebalance insulin and blood sugar levels is to limit sugar in the diet and eat foods that are low on the glycemic index. Along with avoiding processed foods and desserts, this means choosing carbohydrates that are fibrous and low in starch, such as leafy green vegetables, and eating fewer or no carbs high in sugar such as grains, potatoes and other root vegetables.
Ensuring you eat protein and healthy fats every time you eat (even snacks), will go a long way in helping to keep blood sugar stabilized. Healthy fats are anything traditional and unprocessed such as animal fats (butter and lard), coconut oil, nuts and seeds and small amounts of extra virgin olive oil.
This type of diet will also help women lose weight, which consequently will help with hormone balance and insulin sensitivity on its own.
2. Along with insulin control, hormone balancing is one of the best approaches to take when dealing with PCOS. There are many aspects to hormone balance, which we will touch briefly on here (if you want a more detailed guide have a look at my e-book on balancing hormones naturally).
3. Aside from diet, relaxation and lowering stress play a big part in hormone balancing. Learn how to slow down and take care of yourself (after all, you deserve it!). Go for a massage, have an epsom salt bath, read a good book, get lots of sleep, and avoid situations and substances that contribute unnecessary stress to your life.
4. Exercise will simultaneously help lower stress, improve insulin sensitivity and help with weight loss. But be sure to exercise wisely. Long drawn out moderate or low intensity cardio can put more stress on the body. Try short bursts of more intense exercise, and include lots of weight lifting, as long as these types of activities are appropriate for you.
5. Avoiding external sources of endocrine disruptors is always a good idea for everyone, but especially for those women suffering from PCOS. Endocrine disruptors are substances that enter the body and interfere with hormones. They are extremely common in personal care products such as shampoos, lotions, makeup, sunscreen, soap, laundry detergent and even plastics (BPA is a well-known endocrine disruptor). Choose products that are free of endocrine disruptors and other unnecessary and harmful chemicals, or better yet – make your own! It is cheaper, better for you, and really easy!
6. Finally, ensure your body is metabolizing and excreting hormones properly. The liver is the main site of hormone processing (excess and used-up hormones are metabolized in the liver and then sent on their way out of the body via the digestive tract). For this reason, it is very important to support the liver through detoxification and be sure it can function properly and efficiently. A stagnant and overburdened liver will not be able to process excess hormones, and they will build up in the body, causing problems. For more info on liver cleansing, click here.
Once the liver is cleaned out and working optimally, then it is time to work on the elimination pathways that will carry toxins and used-up hormones out of the body. Make sure bowel movements are regular (1-2 times per day), and kidney function is adequate.
7. One more tidbit for you! Spearmint tea has anti-androgen qualities. This means it will counteract the androgen-stimulating qualities of PCOS, and has been shown to reduce testosterone and the accompanying symptoms of this hormone imbalance such as hirsutism. Drink 2 cups per day to see results.
Canadian Women’s Health Network – http://www.cwhn.ca/en/node/44804
Advanced Fertility Center of Chicago - http://www.advancedfertility.com/pcos.htm