What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of male hormones (androgens), which are usually present in women in small amounts.
Due to the high levels of androgens, the reproductive hormones become imbalanced and consequences are missed periods or irregular periods, weight gain, acne, excess body hair and infertility. Infertility is one of the most common causes affecting 7-15% of women in reproductive age, due to a lack of ovulation.
It is still not clear what causes PCOS. However, we do know that there is a genetic link. For example, if someone in our family has the condition, it is more likely that you may also develop it. Moreover, there are three main factors that have been identified as causes of the disorder:
- High levels of male hormones (androgens): high androgen levels prevent the ovaries from releasing the eggs (ovulation), which cause irregular menstrual cycle and infertility.
- Insulin resistance: about 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, the hormone that regulates our blood sugar. The body makes more insulin to try and compensate, which causes the body to produce more testosterone, which in turn suppresses ovulation and contributes to the PCOS symptoms.
- Low-grade inflammation: people with PCOS tend to have chronic inflammation, due to hormonal imbalance that causes elevated levels of a protein called C-reactive protein (CRP) which can be detected with a blood test.
How does PCOS affect the body?
PCOS affects the body by inducing irregular menstrual cycles, infertility and weight gain. All of these factors can lead to life-threatening conditions and we will explain why.
Irregular periods cause the lining of the uterus (endometrium) to continually grow and thicken, increasing the risk for endometrial hyperplasia, a condition where cells come together and take abnormal shapes, risk factors for endometrial cancer.
Another common consequence of PCOS is weight gain. Due to insulin resistance which causes the body to struggle in converting glucose into energy, blood glucose levels continue to rise leading to type-2 diabetes and obesity. It is helpful to know that, by losing just 2-10% of your excess body fat, you can improve PCOS symptoms. Moreover, weight loss can reduce insulin resistance.
On the other hand, overweight women with PCOS have a higher risk of developing health conditions such as Type-2 Diabetes and gestational diabetes, high LDL cholesterol, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Finally, PCOS can affect the body by inducing excessive hair growth on the chin, neck, abdomen, upper arms, due to high androgen levels that stimulate hair follicles. Other common conditions are acne and skin changes, due to insulin resistance and high insulin levels.
6 lifestyle changes to embrace:
Some lifestyle changes that you should consider to manage and prevent the disorder are:
- Maintain a healthy weight: 50% of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. The relationship between PCOS and obesity is complex and it involves genetic and environmental factors. It is recommended to lose some weight to improve insulin resistance and to prevent long term health problems such as cardiovascular disease or type-2 diabetes.
- Reduce sugars and carbohydrates: due to insulin resistance, women with PCOS have high levels of blood glucose levels.They are therefore recommended to reduce sugar (glucose) and carbohydrates in their diet or follow a lower carb diet. They should adhere to a low GI (glycaemic index) diet characterised by foods that release insulin slowly and steadily. For example, a diet based on the consumption of fruit, vegetables, pulses and complex carbohydrates (millet, buckwheat, quinoa) instead of refined carbohydrates (pasta, rice, bread) is encouraged.
Eat regular meals and snacks: skipping meals can crash your blood sugar levels, leading to food cravings and overindulgence. On the other hand, eating small and more frequent meals throughout the day, will help you to stabilise insulin levels. Check out our Low Carb diet plan
- Choose nutrient-rich foods: some specific vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B, Iodine, Selenium and Magnesium, have shown to improve insulin resistance and the PCOS symptoms. Sources of vitamin D include salmon, eggs, mushrooms and fortified milk. Sources of vitamin B include almonds, tuna and strawberries. Sources of iodine include crustaceans, iodised salt and seaweed. Sources of selenium are Brazil nuts, tuna, turkey and eggs. Sources of magnesium are avocado, dark chocolate, banana and nuts.
- Exercise: this is very important to build lean muscle and reduce insulin resistance. Exercise can also increase levels of sex-hormone binding globulin levels (SHBG) which binds testosterone making it less potent. There isn’t a specific exercise with PCOS, but just being active for 20 min a day helps combat obesity, insulin resistance and lower cholesterol levels.
- Yoga: this is a great way of combining exercise and meditation. Some studies have shown that practising yoga for 1 h a day for 12 weeks not only improves menstrual cycle regularity, but also blood hormone profiles.
Benefits of a low-carb diet plan for PCOS:
A reduction of dietary carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates such as white pasta, white rice and bread, is a successful nutritional approach that allows to decrease glucose stimulus and improves insulin utilisation.
Studies have observed that after 2 weeks of a low carbohydrate diet (43% of energy comes from carbohydrates), fasting insulin concentration and testosterone levels were lower compared with a standard carbohydrate diet. Other studies have investigated the effect of low-carbohydrate diets on fertility hormones, finding out that these diets not only reduce insulin levels, but also resume ovulation to improve pregnancy rates.
If you suffer from PCOS, you should consider the consumption of green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach, which are high in vitamin B, iron and low in carbohydrates. Other vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower are also encouraged, as they are rich in fibre and low in carbs.
On the other hand, you should avoid unhealthy fats found in butter, cream, goose fat, and processed foods like white bread or white pasta. You should also reduce soy products and gluten. This is because women with PCOS have high oestrogen levels (oestrogen dominance). Soy products have been shown to increase oestrogen levels, which is good for anyone with low oestrogen (e.g., women in menopause), but can be detrimental for those with PCOS or other oestrogen dominant conditions. Although women having this condition are not gluten intolerant, they are advised to cut it from the diet, as gluten induces inflammation, which can lead to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.
Living with PCOS
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common hormonal conditions affecting about 1 in 10 women in the UK, which leads to menstrual irregularity, weight gain, acne, skin problems and infertility. The best strategy to prevent or treat the condition is to make simple lifestyle and dietary changes that give your body the best of the correct nutrients it needs.
Love Yourself offers a variety of meal plans including our low-carb plan that can benefit women who suffer from this disorder.
Don’t hesitate to contact us or book your Free Nutrition Consultation with our in-house nutritionist Benedetta.