Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a very common condition affecting 1 in every 10 women in Australia and a condition that I deal with frequently in my clinic. Sufferers of PCOS will experience irregular menstrual cycles and infrequent periods as the main symptom. They can suffer from hair loss or thinning as well as hair growth (on the face and other areas of the body). Acne and skin breakouts are common and PCOS sufferers can have difficulty conceiving due to irregular and infrequent ovulation. Read on to learn more about PCOS and what natural treatment options are available to gain control of your hormone health!
What hormonal imbalances cause PCOS?
Androgens are our male hormones (such as testosterone). All women produce a small amount of male hormones. These male hormones are then converted into oestrogen. However in PCOS, high levels of androgens are present, which prevents ovulation from occurring. This often is seen alongside low oestrogen levels. The ‘cysts’ seen on the ovaries are not actually cysts, but are follicles (or eggs) that have matured but have not reached the stage of being released at ovulation. Instead they stay in the ovary, giving the appearance of multiple small cysts on the ovaries. The high androgen production and comparatively lower levels of oestrogen are the primary cause of PCOS.
What is insulin resistance and how does it contribute?
Insulin resistance is present in up to 80 per cent of women with PCOS. Insulin resistance can be measured using a fasting insulin blood test. A higher insulin reading occurs as the cells are ‘resistant’ of the message of insulin, and therefore more is produced to carry out the same response. In PCOS, high levels of insulin can increase the production of androgens in the ovary, therefore worsening the hormonal imbalance. This can also be attributed to skin breakouts and weight gain often seen with PCOS.
Weight gain and PCOS
PCOS can occur in both slender and overweight women; however up to 75 per cent of women with PCOS are carrying extra weight. This excess weight is more likely to be concentrated around the abdominal region. Being above your most healthy weight worsens insulin resistance and the existing symptoms of PCOS. Some women with PCOS report that when they are a normal weight they don’t show symptoms such as menstrual irregularity or excessive hair growth and that these symptoms only appear once they gain weight. The symptoms of PCOS can therefore be reduced if a healthy lifestyle is implemented. Research has shown that as little as a 5% reduction in body weight is enough to bring about a change in hormones and normalize ovulation.
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days long. Due to high levels of androgens and insulin, the monthly cycle of ovulation and menstruation is often disrupted in women with PCOS. Although some women with PCOS will still have regular periods, most will experience some changes to their cycle. It is not uncommon for women with PCOS to have a period only every 3-6 months. The periods may be irregular or may stop altogether. As menstrual cycles lengthen, ovulation may stop entirely or only occur occasionally. Some women with PCOS may also experience heavier or lighter bleeding during their menstrual cycle.
What we do to manage PCOS naturally?
As always, there are many well researched natural treatment options that can help you to control and manage the condition. The medical industry is limited in treating PCOS, as the oral contraceptive pill is the only treatment option. This masks the condition by providing your body with oestrogen and/or progesterone, but once you stop the pill the symptoms will return and you will be once again be left to deal with it. A natural treatment approach to PCOS involves the following:
Herbal medicines have been well proven to improve hormone balance, reducing androgen hormones, increase oestrogen production and regulate ovulation. The herbs licorice and peony have been traditionally used for thousands of years to regulate ovulation. We have herbs to increase oestrogen (such as wild yam and black cohosh) and herbs to reduce androgen levels (nettle and saw palmetto). Herbal medicines may also be used to regulate insulin levels and improve blood sugar control. Come in and visit me at Better Health for your own herbal medicine prescription based on your symptoms and hormone levels.
It is well researched that weight loss aids PCOS treatment. A low carbohydrate, high protein diet is a beneficial way of aiding weight loss and I have seen this work for my patients in the past. Aim to include a small amount of carbohydrates daily from fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. Following a moderately high protein diet can also help. It has been shown that losing 5% of body weight will not only improve PCOS, but regulate the menstrual cycle, reduce acne and excessive hair growth and reduce insulin levels.
It is impossible to treat PCOS without addressing insulin levels. As insulin is a driver for the androgen imbalance, it is essential that insulin levels are corrected and insulin sensitivity improved. Again, a high protein, low carbohydrate diet will improve insulin sensitivity. We can also use nutrients (such as chromium and magnesium) for blood sugar control as well as herbs (such as cinnamon and gymnema).
Sort out you liver:
Our liver has a huge role to play in hormone balance, and if your liver is under functioning or overworked, your hormone balance will suffer. Addressing liver function through diet and lifestyle helps you to gain long term hormone balance.
Aim to exercise a minimum of 4 times a week for 45 minutes. This can include anything from walking, running, cycling, swimming, yoga, pilates or join a gym. Do something that you enjoy and combine cardiovascular with weight baring exercises for the most benefits.
Include phyto-oesterogen in the diet
These are plant based compounds that have mild oestrogenic activity. Include 1-2 dessert spoons daily of flaxseed meal into the diet. You can add this to cereal or yoghurt. Use legumes, lentils, chickpeas and soy beans in casseroles, stews, soups. Have tofu or soy milk (make sure it is non-genetically modified) twice/week.
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