Do you suffer from an irregular (or absent) menstrual cycle?
Is your skin covered with spots or excess hair?
Do you gain weight incredibly easily and have trouble getting it to budge, no matter what you try?
You might have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is a common endocrine condition that affects between 12–21% of women. However, it’s been estimated a staggering 70% of women don’t know they have this potentially life-altering syndrome. With this in mind, let’s take a look at PCOS in greater detail.
Being diagnosed with PCOS
PCOS is diagnosed, for the most part, by a set of rules called the Rotterdam Criteria. To receive a diagnosis, two or three of the following criteria must be present:
— infrequent (or absent) menstruation
— excessive ‘male’ hormone (hyperandrogenism)
— polycystic ovaries on an ultrasound scan
Other possible causes for any signs and symptoms need also be ruled out, or “excluded”. That’s why PCOS is called a diagnosis of exclusion.
Common signs and symptoms of PCOS
There are a wide range of possible PCOS symptoms. Women will have a unique expression, so while some signs are present for some women they aren’t for others. Saying that, common symptoms include:
— a menstrual cycle that is longer than 35 days, or has fewer than nine periods per year
— excessive body and facial hair
— acne on the face or body
— loss of scalp hair
— overweight or obesity, and trouble shedding excessive weight
— infertility (PCOS is the leading cause of anovulatory infertility; that is, infertility caused by the lack of ovulation)
— mood swings
— metabolic issues
Sadly, this list is not exhaustive. But, if you’re experiencing a range of these symptoms, a chat with your health professional is worthwhile.
What causes PCOS?
This is the question!
As yet, there is no definitive answer. But, there are certainly influences that appear to act as drivers; contributing if not causing. Two key factors appear to be insulin resistance and inflammation.
You might have heard us mention insulin resistance (IR) in terms of poor metabolic function and weight gain. Especially around the midriff. IR is particularly common in this syndrome, with 95% of overweight women with PCOS affected. That’s almost a rule! Lean women with PCOS also have elevated rates of insulin resistance.
What is insulin resistance, exactly?
The body produces the hormone, insulin, to enable cells to “take in” glucose, or sugar. When we can’t respond well to insulin, we produce more; trying to force sugar from the blood and into the cells. This excess is called hyperinsulinemia. Over time, the heightened level of insulin means the cells become less and less responsive. Until they become “resistant” to insulin’s effects. Insulin resistance results.
Increased insulin triggers ovarian swelling, cysts, and the production of too much testosterone. This can halt ovulation, harm the menstrual cycle, and lead to symptoms like acne, excess hair growth, and mood disorders like depression.
But there’s good news. Healthy lifestyle changes can bump insulin sensitivity. More on this in a moment…
You’ve likely noticed acute inflammation after a sprain or a strain, a splinter or a cut. The affected area experiences redness, pain, swelling, heat, and loss of function. Each of these have a single aim: to protect and heal.
Sometimes though, inflammation becomes continual. It doesn’t stop. The body produces inflammatory cells and chemicals without seeming reason. This is called chronic inflammation, the type involved in PCOS.
In fact, a study published in the journal, Steroids, said that, “Chronic low-grade inflammation has emerged as a key contributor to the pathogenesis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).” Yes, this means it’s a major cause in its development.
But chronic inflammation is rarely considered in this condition. Even though it triggers an increase in androgens, which can cause acne, hairy skin, and menstrual irregularities.
Again, there is good news as positive lifestyle changes can soothe inflammation.
Positive lifestyle changes for relief from PCOS signs and symptoms
So, what can you do to improve insulin resistance and inflammation? These 5 steps will help you to kill two birds with one (healthy) stone.
1. Manage your stress
You probably already have a fav way to soothe your stress? If so, great! Enjoy regularly. If not, or if you’re a fan of variety, try:
— sound slumber
— talking to a trusted loved one
— staying well nourished
— spending time in nature
To learn more, read our article, Your Mental Health Matters: 6 Steps To Find Balance, Healing & A Happier Future.
2. Eat well
Insulin sensitivity and a healthy level of inflammation in part depends on ample nutrients. This makes food a crucial part of the jigsaw piece.
Choose a low glycemic diet that’s packed with fresh vegetables, leafy greens, protein, and other goodies.
To find out more, check out the article, What Are The Best Foods For PCOS?
3. Spice it up with cinnamon
Do you sprinkle spices on your food or add a pinch to your protein shakes? There's a good reason to start! (apart from the sheer deliciousness)
Cinnamon may improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation, all while adding a delish taste to your edibles.
4. Exercise regularly
The body is made to move. So it’s not surprising that exercise has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and, in the longer term, cull inflammation. Wonderfully, a short period of exercise will suffice. A 20-minute walk or a 15-minute high-intensity interval training session a few times per week is enough to make a significant difference.
Love some tips on exercising for PCOS? Read, The 6 Golden Rules Of Exercise For PCOS.
5. Sensible, science-backed supplements
Ample nutrients are required for a healthy body. This is the same for PCOS. For example, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc are necessary for metabolic function. Chromium can lower fasting insulin and free testosterone. Inositol “provides improvement in almost all pathologic conditions in PCOS such as recovery of reproductive abnormalities, decreased androgen levels, and improved insulin levels.”
Supplementing, when needed, can provide health-giving and protective effects.
The PCOS takeaway
While PCOS can be frustrating and you might feel out-of-control, there are evidence-based ways to improve your signs and symptoms and step back into the driver’s seat.
Stress management, regular exercise, a nutrient-rich diet, cinnamon-goodness, and sensible supplementation could provide the relief you’ve been looking for!