September is PCOS Awareness Month. You might not have been aware of that, which is exactly why such a month is needed. PCOS — Polycystic Ovary Syndrome — is a disease that’s known to affect roughly five million women in the U.S. alone–nearly 10% of the population, including yours truly. But not a lot was understood about this disease until fairly recently, and unfortunately the diagnostic criteria relied on by most medical professionals is seriously outdated, which means that countless more women who suffer from PCOS aren’t being properly diagnosed.
It might astonish you to learn that a disease affecting so many women is so underdiagnosed, but it’s really not surprising. Despite the fact that I presented with classic symptoms from the time I started puberty, it took two miscarriages in my mid-thirties before a doctor finally suggested that I might have it, and then it took another year for me to be officially diagnosed. And then each time I spoke to a different doctor they each told me something different. One believed it could have played a part in my miscarriages. Another said that PCOS absolutely does not cause miscarriages and that the only way to treat it was with the birth control pill. Yet another said that it causes infertility and that I needed to watch my weight and keep my blood sugar down. She, at least, was right (Doctor #2, by the way, was completely wrong), but that was only part of the story. Honestly, apart from the infertility and what it does to your health, the most frustrating thing about having PCOS is simply finding a doctor who is actually knowledgeable about it.
The good news is that a lot of strides have been made in PCOS research in recent years, and today a lot more is known about it than back when I was first diagnosed. Where it was once thought to be a reproductive disorder, we now know that it’s actually an endocrine disorder affecting almost every system in the body, not just the reproductive system. PCOS also affects the digestive system, the immune system and, of course, the endocrine system, among others. When it comes to the havoc it can wreak on overall health, PCOS can politely be called a cluster mess. Here is just a partial list of the things that PCOS either causes or places you at a higher risk for:
• Infertility and pregnancy loss
• Gestational diabetes and preterm delivery
• Irregular and painful periods
• Elevated insulin and insulin resistance
• Diabetes and metabolic syndrome (aka pre-diabetes)
• Thyroid disease
• Autoimmune diseases
• Chronic inflammation
• Inflammatory illnesses, including chronic pain disorders
• Heart disease
• Losing hair in places where you want it and growing it in places where you don’t
• IBS and leaky gut
• Gluten intolerance
• Anxiety and depression
• Sleep apnea
• Brain fog
• Difficulty losing weight
Often, women will seek treatment for one or more of the above issues, having no idea that PCOS is the underlying cause, and leaving with their health professional making them none the wiser. This is sad and frustrating because PCOS is a manageable condition, and proper management is the key to treating all of the symptoms and resulting conditions. I’ll get to more of that in a minute, but first let’s talk about what PCOS is, exactly.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, at its core, is a hormonal imbalance in which the body produces too many male hormones and not enough female hormones. Additionally, the liver doesn’t clean the excess male hormones out of the body like it should. This imbalance wreaks havoc on the female body. The disease gets its name from one symptom in which the ovaries produce small cysts in place of eggs, but in spite of that, this particular symptom is not always present. As I said earlier, research into understanding this disease is only just getting off the ground, but here, so far, is what is actually known about PCOS:
• It’s linked to both high blood sugar and chronic inflammation, but it’s not known whether either of these cause PCOS or whether they result from it.
• Either way, managing blood sugar and inflammation through nutrition and exercise is the best way to treat PCOS and most of the conditions that stem from it.
How do you know if you have PCOS?
The diagnostic criteria for PCOS is that you have at least two of the following:
• Irregular or absent periods
• A blood test showing excessive male hormones in the blood, or physical signs such as hirsutism (i.e., whisker-like hair grown on the face and neck), hair loss and/or acne
• Polycystic ovaries
However, diagnosing PCOS this way fails to take into account insulin resistance, which is a far more common occurrence in women with PCOS than polycystic ovaries.
If you suspect you might have PCOS, you should bring it up with your doctor, but if possible it’s also a good idea to seek out an endocrinologist who specializes in, or is at least knowledgeable about, treating PCOS. You should also be prepared to do a lot of research, be your own health advocate, and possibly even design your own treatment plan with the help of a knowledgeable nutrition expert.
What to do if you have PCOS
PCOS is not a one-size-fits-all disease. It affects everyone differently, and there is no cure or no one-size-fits-all treatment. While for decades the common wisdom has been to prescribe the pill in order to regulate periods and help control acne, that only treats two out of many symptoms and does absolutely nothing to treat the underlying cause or help the additional health issues linked to PCOS.
The best treatment is a diet that’s designed to control both blood sugar and inflammation, and that incorporates foods known to reduce androgens and improve liver function. There are a number of good low glycemic index, anti-inflammatory diets that can be adapted to effectively treat PCOS, including the Zone diet, Paleo and Whole 30. There are also diets geared specifically toward PCOS, which I’ll link to below.
You should also get used to the idea of avoiding gluten and dairy, both of which contribute to inflammation. There are a number of reasons to give up dairy, or at least cut way back on it. Besides the inflammation factor, cow’s milk also contains natural hormones designed to help growing baby cows, which are not conducive to helping a hormonal imbalance. Women with PCOS are also more susceptible to leaky gut and IBS, neither of which are helped by dairy.
Regular exercise is also an important part of an effective treatment plan. That doesn’t mean you have to become a gym bunny, but regular movement and strength training help to control your body’s insulin response, as well as helping to keep depression at bay.
If you want to know more about the link between nutrition and PCOS and how to manage this disease, check out the following links:
Also, be sure to check out the PCOS Awareness Association for even more info.
Do you have any experience with this disorder? Have you got any questions I might be able to answer? I’d love to discuss it with you in the comments! ♥
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