Excess facial hair, acne and weight gain are possible symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), a condition that is thought to affect at least one in five women in the United Kingdom. However, over half of PCOS sufferers do not show any symptoms and consequently struggle to diagnose and treat their invisible condition.
Invisible illnesses do not always affect physical appearance and may not be immediately apparent, but they almost certainly impact the body’s ability to perform normal functions. In the case of PCOS, the function of the ovaries becomes irregular and normal menstrual patterns become disrupted, resulting in fewer or missed periods.
Polycystic ovaries contain multiple follicles or undeveloped sacs, which can grow to 8mm in size. The sacs are unable to release the eggs that develop within them, which usually prevents ovulation.
PCOS is related to unusual levels of insulin in the blood, a hormone that regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates to promote the absorption of glucose into the blood. Women with PCOS are commonly unresponsive to the action of insulin, and in turn, their bodies produce even more insulin to combat blood sugar level. Since the body is unable to convert sugars and starches into energy, insulin and glucose accumulate in the bloodstream. PCOS sufferers are consequently at higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Medicinal treatments for PCOS often target these high insulin and blood sugar levels. The antidiabetic drug Metformin improves the way the body handles insulin, by lowering blood sugar levels to prevent the risk of developing diabetes. Metformin may improve menstrual patterns and mitigate symptoms such as acne and excess body hair. However, it does not provide PCOS sufferers with a long-term or permanent solution for their condition.
it is important for PCOS sufferers to also consider alternative natural treatments to prevent the return of their symptoms once they stop taking the medication that keeps them at bay. Indeed, no attempt to simply treat the symptoms will ever overcome the root cause of the problem.
It has been demonstrated that changes in diet and a regular exercise regime are most effective in treating PCOS. Every sufferer has a different experience of the condition and should tailor their health regime to suit their unique symptoms, feelings and needs.
As a general suggestion, exercising a couple of times every week and altering the balance of certain food groups are crucial in managing weight loss and regulation of hormone levels.
Gentle and regular exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling, pilates and swimming, not only helps to maintain a steady body weight, but also to keep stress levels down. This is especially important for a PCOS sufferer, whose body is prone to fluctuating hormone levels.
- Increase intake of low GI foods
High Gastrointestinal (GI) foods, such as white bread, pasta, cakes and muffins provide a quick hit of energy, since they are full of refined sugars and high in calories. However, they are low in nutrients.
Low GI foods, such as spelt or rye bread, brown rice, whole wheat pasta and grains are high in fibre and a great source of slow-releasing energy. Replacing white potatoes with sweet potatoes or using quinoa instead of white rice will help in regulating blood sugar levels. Low GI sources of carbohydrates should be eaten in moderation and equally balanced with food sources that are rich in protein. These may include white meat poultry, eggs, seafood, fish, beans and pulses.
Despite the widely held belief that all fruit is high in sugar, fruits with low GI levels, such as cherries, grapefruit and prunes, should always be included as part of a balanced diet. They contain important nutrients and antioxidants that protect the body and help it to combat PCOS.
- Reduce dairy intake
It has been proven that sources of dairy, such as milk, cream and yoghurt raise testosterone levels, as they contain a protein that prevents this hormone from being processed. PCOS sufferers should avoid eating dairy, since they already have high levels of testosterone in their blood. However, dairy should not be cut out of the diet entirely, without first reviewing the level of calcium that the body receives from other food groups. Calcium is crucial for women with PCOS, since the deficiency of oestrogen in PCOS can lead to reduced bone mineral density and ultimately Osteoporosis. Calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, including kale, spinach and swiss chard, help to build and protect bones.
- Eat the good fats
Not all fats are bad fats. Healthy, unsaturated fats are essential for a PCOS diet, since they allow the absorption of nutrients, balance hormone levels and help to stabilise weight. Nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil are all rich in healthy fats.
Foods containing trans and saturated fats, such as cake, biscuits, butter and cheese, increase the levels of unhealthy lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) cholesterol in the bloodstream. A high intake of trans fats is associated with inflammation and insulin resistance, which is considered to be an underlying cause of Type 2 Diabetes. Since PCOS sufferers are prone to insulin sensitivity, it is important to reduce the intake of trans and saturated fats.
There are multiple steps to be taken when managing PCOS through a healthy diet and exercise regime. It is important to understand that there is no simple cure for this invisible condition. However, by making the necessary lifestyle adjustments, the body may become less reliant on conventional sources of medicine and more receptive to its own natural ability to self-heal.
Flora Loughridge graduated from Durham University with a BA Honours in German and English Literature. With a strong interest in global health, education and the improvement of lives, Flora’s Arts background and analytical skills influence her approach to tasks, enabling her to develop innovative ideas and creative solutions to problems. Flora has previously volunteered as an online mentor for the mental health organisations, BeatBullying and FutureYou and continues to support young people through programmes such as the National Citizen Service.