Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – What is it and what can you do about it?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is known to affect approximately 10% of premenopausal women globally – although that percentage is likely to be considerably higher, given that many women are not diagnosed until they discover they have fertility issues.

PCOS is a condition affecting how the ovaries work, and is associated with varying symptoms without a single identifiable cause, hence being referred to as a syndrome.

Women with PCOS may experience a range of symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, anovulation, excessive / irregular menstrual bleeding, subfertility, recurrent miscarriages, male pattern hair loss or growth, mood swings, increased weight gain, acne, depression, food cravings, fatigue, irregular eating patterns and binge eating disorder.

In my experience no two women have identical symptoms, hence an individualised approach is essential. 

Women with PCOS who are considered to be above the ‘weight normative’ range (over normal BMI) are often incorrectly told that they must lose weight to improve their symptoms. Unfortunately for many women this judgement and stigma is rather unhelpful. Being told to lose weight can increase guilt, shame, frustration, and add to food fears and body image anxiety. This can exacerbate an eating disorder or trigger unhealthy, restrictive eating behaviours.

Women need compassion and support, not judgement or shaming.

True health is not found on a restrictive diet. Counting carbohydrates, calories, points, macros, measuring ketones etc. are all external measures used to control eating habits. Should someone else tell you when to stop eating? Do they know you have eaten adequately to fuel and nourish YOUR body? Dieting, portion controlling and rigid meal plans are often used to control eating behavior. 

Why are we so accepting of diets and external voices when seeking health? Diet culture has brought us further away from our innate ability to listen to our bodily cues and signals that tell us when we are hungry or satisfied. Undoubtedly dieting reduces self-control and awareness, discourages self-compassion and increases the risk of deprivation-overeating-guilt-shame cycle.

The human body will naturally strive for self-healing and preservation. Feeding yourself properly, at regular intervals, sleeping well, enjoying mostly wholesome, unprocessed foods, practicing self-care, being socially active, limiting toxic exposure and doing gentle body movement, all go a long way toward healing PCOS symptoms.

Modern life means we are using our Sympathetic Nervous System (fight-or-flight), much more often than our Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest). The SNS prepares the body for intense physical activity and the PNS relaxes the body and slows many high energy functions, allowing time for restoration and repair. When the SNS is switched ‘on’ the body will prioritise survival, and important functions like digestion and reproduction will be cast aside. Promoting a PNS response and enjoying some downtime is essential to any healing process. Meditation, yoga, exposure to daylight, deep breathing, reading, walking and being in nature are some great ways to induce relaxation.

With the right foods and lifestyle, nourishing the body from within will gently support the diverse and highly complex ecosystem in the gastrointestinal tract (gut). Home to 95% of serotonin and 70% of our immune system, the gut is essential for overall health and well-being. By looking after the gut you may improve common symptoms such as, low mood, PMS, anxiety, insulin resistance, hormonal balancing, reduce cravings, improve nutrient absorption and improve one’s overall sense of well-being.

There are many nutritional supplements and herbal remedies that may help reduce PCOS symptoms such as, chromium, alpha lipoic acid, probiotics, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, B complex, cinnamon, turmeric and vitex.

Remember, we are all biochemically different and what works for someone else may not work for you. It is invaluable to work with a Registered Nutritional Therapist, who can support you and your personal set of circumstances and symptoms.

Food choices to consider:

Add some probiotic foods to your meals daily: sauerkraut, kimchi, natural yoghurt, kefir, kombucha, miso and tempeh.

Eat plenty of colourful vegetables, salads, lentils, beans and fruits. Think eat the rainbow!

Get adequate amounts of protein with each meal: lean meats (organic where possible), nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, tofu, tempeh and organic dairy.

Wholegrains and unrefined carbohydrates: oats, quinoa, brown rice, beans, lentils, chickpeas, millet, buckwheat.

Increase your healthy fats: olive oil, avocado, eggs, walnuts, linseeds (ground), chia seeds (soaked), almonds and oily fish. 

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