Did you know one in four women experiences some form of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)? One in four! It’s one of the most common reproductive health issues, but there’s still some confusion surrounding it (what is PCOS exactly?) and, often, women diagnosed with the condition aren’t given many solutions.
The typical treatment offered is birth control, but this approach only masks PCOS symptoms, instead of addressing their root cause. And unfortunately, this can cause more issues down the road—with things like fertility, adult acne, and blood sugar management, to name a few. So what are your others options?
Let’s get you some answers. If you’ve been wondering if you might have PCOS—and are looking for effective, natural ways to manage it—read on, girlfriend. Good info, coming your way!
What is PCOS?
In a nutshell, PCOS is a collection of symptoms caused by hormone imbalance. Women with PCOS tend to have high levels of “androgens,” which are male hormones, such as testosterone and DHEA.
Now you might be wondering, do all women with the condition have cysts on their ovaries, as the name polycystic ovarian syndrome implies? The answer is no! Some women do, but hormone imbalance is the defining quality of PCOS.
How PCOS gets diagnosed
So how do practitioners determine if you have PCOS? Currently, to be diagnosed with PCOS, you have to fit 2 out of the 3 diagnostic criteria:
- Have high levels of androgynous hormones, e.g. testosterone and DHEA
- Have an irregular menstrual cycle (practitioners look for absent periods or cycles that last more than 35 days)
- Have a polycystic ovary identified via an ultrasound
Practitioners also look out for other common PCOS symptoms (see below).
How to recognize common PCOS symptoms
Like I mentioned earlier, PCOS is a collection of symptoms—which can vary from woman to woman, and sometimes be kinda vague (this PCOS thing can be hard to pin down). However, if you’re regularly experiencing a few of the following, you may have PCOS:
- Irregular periods
- High blood sugar
- Feeling lightheaded/nauseous/dizzy/irritable before eating
- Weight gain
- Excessive facial or body hair
- Hair that is thinning or falling out
- Dark patches on the skin
- Rough, dry elbows
What causes PCOS?
With PCOS, the underlying causes can be greatly impacted by lifestyle factors. Yep! Your day-to-day habits and choices can have a significant effect on PCOS, for better or for worse.
So what might be throwing your hormones out of whack? First off: stress and sleep. If you’re experiencing acute or chronic stress, or consistently not getting enough sleep, your body is probably producing excess cortisol—our primary stress hormone. If this goes on long enough, it’s virtually guaranteed to cause more hormonal problems in time.
Secondly, your diet can have a big impact on your hormones. Who knew, right? If your blood sugar is out of balance, it can lead to insulin resistance and weight gain, especially around the abdomen. Down the road, this often leads to hormone trouble: high androgens, estrogen dominance, or low progesterone. Also a factor? Gut health. When the bacteria in your gut is out of balance, your hormones could be too.
Finally, exposure to toxic chemicals is an issue too. Some of the chemicals in your environment can act like estrogen in the body, leading to hormone imbalance in the form of estrogen dominance—common symptoms include sore breasts, PMS, and fibroids.
Lifestyle strategies for healing the root causes of PCOS
So, now that we have a solid understanding of what’s going on with PCOS, let’s talk about managing it! To get to its root and actually treat PCOS—instead of sweeping symptoms under the rug—we have to address the lifestyle factors causing it. That means diet, exercise and stress. Try out the following strategies to help relieve your PCOS symptoms—and begin to restore balance to your body.
Adopt a moderate-to-low carb nutrition plan
If you have PCOS, your body often can’t process sugar and carbohydrates properly. This means a nutrition plan that’s moderate-carbohydrate or low-carbohydrate can help stabilize your blood sugar and lower inflammation in the body—and help get your hormones back on track.
Note: If you do decrease your carbohydrate intake, you might also be lowering your fiber intake, which is essential for gut health. So consider taking a daily prebiotic fiber supplement to help keep things moving and promote good gut bacteria!
Try intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting can help our bodies get better at regulating insulin and managing blood sugars. And as more and more research is showing, this strategy can be helpful for women with PCOS as well.
Keep in mind, intermittent fasting does put some stress on your body, so if you’re experiencing adrenal fatigue or other stress-hormone related issues, I wouldn’t recommend this tactic.
Get moving with resistance training + high-intensity interval training
When it comes to PCOS, exercise is really important. In particular, resistance training and high-intensity interval training have been shown to help reduce insulin resistance and reduce excess testosterone. Just be careful not to push so hard that you feel exhausted afterward—this can set your stress-hormones off kilter.
Take some supplements (strategically)
Certain nutrient deficiencies are common with PCOS: magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin D. It’s especially worth it to take a magnesium supplement, since it can be hard to get enough via diet alone. (I recommend magnesium glycinate as it has a higher efficacy and less GI-related side effects.)
Get enough sleep
Are you getting a solid 8 hours of sleep a night? How’s your sleep quality? Commit to establishing a consistent sleep schedule—and make sure it’s really restorative. Give yourself a bedtime and stick to it. Don’t go to sleep with your phone. Maybe invest in a silk eye mask to prevent light from disrupting your sleep. Getting enough rest is crucial for hormone balance, and overall health!
Support your stress response
Stress can really throw your hormones out of whack, so it’s essential that you develop strategies to manage it and keep it at a healthy level. Some stress can actually be good for you! It’s the chronic stuff you really have to watch out for. Prioritize your wellbeing. Say “no” to something you don’t have the energy for. Set boundaries around your time and commitments. Manage your expectations—at home, work, and everywhere in between. Find healthy ways to de-stress like meditation, yoga, chatting with a pal, or exploring a creative pursuit rather than opting for that glass of wine. You may consider downloading a mindfulness app like Headspace and try meditating for 5 minutes a day. There are tons of ways to de-stress, so find one that works for you.
As always, please reach out if you have any questions about PCOS or are looking for support in managing PCOS with lifestyle strategies. Or leave your comments below!