Living with PCOS: Do you really have to live with it?
Haven’t changed your diet, but gaining lots of weight? Irregular periods (or none at all?) Skin breaking out? These are just a few signs that you may be experiencing symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary (ovarian) syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder where there is an imbalance of insulin and androgens. These hormones have a role in many functions in your body (growth, energy, sexual function, reproduction, digestion and temperature).
Are you the 1 in 7 Australian women diagnosed with PCOS?
Regardless of age, the prevalence of gestational diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes are significantly increased in women living with PCOS. There is also a two to six-fold increased risk of endometrial cancer, which often presents before menopause.
Other changes in the body that may be experienced for women living with PCOS include:
- Excess testosterone which can prevent ovulation and change your menstrual cycle
- A decline in mental health - this is likely with the physical changes resulting in low self-esteem, body image concerns, depression and anxiety
- Insulin resistance: where your body has to produce more insulin than normal to keep blood sugar levels stable
Did you know that around 85% of all women with PCOS have ‘insulin resistance’ ?
First of all, what is insulin resistance?
- Your body’s cells stop responding normally to insulin
- This results in more glucose (blood sugar) levels flowing in the bloodstream instead of being stored away
- The body now thinks there is no insulin so it creates more
- More insulin leads to more production of androgens such as testosterone in the ovaries
Increases in testosterone production can lead to:
- Excessive body hair growth
- Changes in your skin such as acne or darkened skin patches
- Irregular or absent periods
- Increase in weight
- Reduced fertility
Changes to daily habits in nutrition and physical activity has proven to be effective strategies to manage the above PCOS symptoms, which will be the cherry on top of an array of other mental and physical health benefits!
The following modes of exercise have proven to benefit in symptom management for PCOS:
- Good for reducing insulin resistance, boosting fertility, stabilising mood
- Increases your body’s sensitivity to insulin, which reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
- E.g. moderate exercise intensity such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming
Doing 30 minutes or more a day can also help with weight management, symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as improving frequency of menstrual cycles and ovulation. And if you’re about to start IVF, regular light exercise can boost your reproductive success.
- Good for reducing insulin resistance, increasing metabolic rate, improving body composition (more muscle and less fat tissue)
- Improves the function of insulin in your body, boosts your metabolism by building more muscle mass (more muscle means burning more calories while exercising + even at rest!)
- E.g. bodyweight exercises such squats + push-ups, using free-weights or resistance machines
Worried about ‘bulking up’ too much with weights training? Well, not to worry - you won’t bulk up unless you’re taking steroids! It will, however, help improve your muscle tone. Combining this with cardio is going to be the best way to ensure you’re achieving a healthy BMI and reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes.
Interval training involves alternating between short bouts of high intensity work and lower intensity recovery. Compared to doing a 30 minute walk, it's a more time- and energy-efficient way of boosting your cardiovascular fitness and reducing that abdominal fat!
- Good for increasing cardiovascular fitness, decreasing waist circumference, and achieving a healthy BMI
- This can help you achieve a 5-10% weight loss - studies show this can decrease PCOS symptoms by reducing excess testosterone and improving insulin resistance.
Remember, making small changes is a good start. If you don’t already exercise, I am here to help you construct an exercise program tailored to your own health needs. Connect with me today if you have any more questions about exercise and PCOS health.
What about nutrition?
I got you girl!
You’ll find that a lot of general recommendations for a healthy diet apply to nutrition for PCOS (eat a wide variety of nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean protein sources etc. etc. - heard it all before right?!)
Reduce, not get rid of! Who doesn’t love carbs? Going cold turkey on this is probably not the best strategy long term, which will often be the case if you are managing PCOS. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the blood, which requires insulin to be utilised to take the excess glucose out of the blood. This is a more difficult job with insulin resistance (as mentioned above).
- Avoid consuming an excessive amount of your sugary-type/high GI carbohydrates
- Lower GI and fibrous carbs should be your main source of carbohydrate
- This not only directly helps to manage insulin resistance, but has also been shown to reduce the risk of complications down the line such as endometrial cancer.
- Eat foods that are high in monounsaturated fats, omega 3’s, fibre and antioxidants
- This looks like a Mediterranean diet: wholegrains, fish, high in vegetables, legumes, poultry and healthy fats such as avocado, extra virgin olive oil, salmon and nuts
- This dietary pattern has been strongly linked with reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression!
- Reduce that dairy intake to help manage acne
A well-balanced, healthy eating habit should give your body everything it needs, however in most cases, a vast majority of people do not meet the recommended daily intake through foods. You may want to consider supplementing with the following:
- helps improve insulin sensitivity
- reduces fasting blood glucose levels if taken at night
- the recommended dosage is 300mg taken 1hr before bedtime
- helps reduce inflammation and improve metabolic markers (cholesterol and blood pressure)
- it may help decrease testosterone
- helps with the regularity of the menstrual cycle
- eating fish 2-3 times per week is optimal or consuming plant-based options such as seeds or walnuts, but if you need to supplement, then the recommended dosage is 1000-3000mg daily.
- effective for reducing hair growth or reducing hair loss
- helps reduce insulin resistance
- the recommended dosage presented in research is 50mg/per day
- may help with menstrual cycle irregularities
- aids blood glucose control by improving the use of glucose in cells and also slowing the rate at which glucose enters the blood
- the recommended dosage is 1-2g per day
- helps with improving insulin resistance
- improves ovulation and menstrual irregularities
- improves fertility health
- reduces hyperandrogenism, obesity and reduces risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Now that you know a little (or a lot more) about how manageable PCOS symptoms is, don’t let PCOS be the reason for declining health - take control by further educating yourself, seeking help from health professionals, staying connected to your girlfriends and most importantly, to your body.
Share this with someone you know who is living with PCOS!
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