PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which is a problem women have with their hormones. It means their hormones are imbalanced and creates problems with their periods and can back it difficult for them to get pregnant. The hormone imbalance can lead to diabetes and heart disease if it’s left untreated. It’s difficult to know how prevalent PCOS is in the UK, but it’s estimated that one in five women have it. However, more than half of those women don’t have any symptoms.
There is no exact known cause of PCOS, but it often affects more than one in a family and is related to abnormal hormone levels, including high insulin levels. Many women with PCOS are resistant to the action of insulin, which controls sugar levels in the body and as such their bodies produce higher levels of insulin to overcome this problem.
Common symptoms of PCOS
The signs and symptoms associated with PCOS generally develop around the time of the first menstrual period during puberty, although it can sometimes develop later, as a result of substantial weight gain. The symptoms of PCOS vary from woman to woman, but a diagnosis of PCOS is only made when you exhibit at least two of the most common symptoms.
The symptoms can include:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Weight gain that is difficult to manage
- Fatigue and poor sleep
- Unwanted hair growth (hirsutism), particularly on the face, arms, back, chest and abdomen
- Thinning of the hair on the head
- Acne due to hormonal changes
- Mood swings
- Pelvic pain
This list is not exhaustive, as there are different symptoms and signs for each woman affected by it. The combination of signs and symptoms also differ, but generally a diagnosis will only be given after exhibit signs of at least two of the symptoms listed above.
Treatment for PCOS
Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS, but the symptoms can be managed and treated, just ensure you speak to your GP. Often, women with PCOS who are not trying to get pregnant will be prescribed hormonal birth control pills to regulate their periods and reduce excess hair growth and acne.
If you have PCOS and you are overweight or obese, losing weight and eating healthily can make some of the symptoms improve. Start small, even 5-10% loss of total body weight can help to regulate menstrual cycles and blood sugar levels. It’s important to lose weight slowly and steadily - 1 to 2 lbs per week - is a safe and practical goal. Eating regular meals helps to keep insulin levels stable, while also controlling your appetite. Along with this, eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, lean meats and fish is essential. Ensure you limit the amount of processed foods in your diet, and cut down on foods with high levels of fat and sugar.
In 2013, a number of studies were summarised and suggested that a lack of Vitamin D can lead to an insulin resistance, so a Vitamin D supplement may help to prevent this happening. Starchy foods provide you with energy, fibre, vitamins and minerals and should be eaten with every meal. However, try to choose high fibre varieties such as wholegrain bread, brown rice and pasta, and potatoes with their skins intact.
Link between diet and PCOS
Because it is important to maintain a healthy body weight if you have PCOS, having a healthy diet is crucial to managing the symptoms. This can be done by ensuring the above dietary tips and tricks are followed, while also limiting added sugar. It’s important to limit sugar levels because this will in turn, lower the glucose level of the blood. By doing this, insulin levels are reduced, which reduces male hormone levels, which are responsible for excess hair growth in women with PCOS. However, women with PCOS often crave sugary foods, even after meals, so it’s important to recognise feelings of fullness.
Likewise, eating every 3 to 5 hours and having sufficient protein with meals should help with cravings and maintain a more regular blood glucose level. Similarly, cutting down on the amount of saturated fat you consume is crucial. We do need some fat in our diets, but people with PCOS should opt for lean red meat, and 2-3 servings of oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and sardines per week. Similarly, using rapeseed or olive oil are the ‘heart-healthy’ options for cooking oil.
Exercise should be regular and of a moderate intensity, for 30 minutes, most days of the week. This level of exercise is a great way of staying active and reducing stress levels. Reducing stress is important as stress hormones make your body produce more testosterone which will, in turn, increase insulin resistance. Keeping your stress levels minimal, getting adequate sleep, ensuring you exercise regularly and eating a healthy, balanced diet will all help to improve symptoms of PCOS.
Supplements for PCOS
Because PCOS can lead to other, secondary health problems, there are a number of supplements which may help to improve these health issues.
Vitamin D is hugely beneficial for people living in the UK, as we do not get a lot of sunshine. Therefore, a Vitamin D deficiency is very common in adults living in the UK. However, Vitamin D supplementation in women with PCOS has helped to regulate their menstrual cycles. In part, this is because Vitamin D has been found to play a role in the development and maturation of follicle eggs.
Omega-3 this essential fatty acid is hugely important for overall health and wellbeing but in women with PCOS it can help with fertility. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in the foods we eat, but unless we eat cold-water fish multiple times a week, chances are that we are slightly deficient.
Inositol is known as Vitamin B8 even though it’s not strictly a B Vitamin but it is helpful in the breakdown of fats in food sources. It can help with maintaining a healthy weight and reducing the risk of developing heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
There is no cure for PCOS and there can be secondary health problems that arise as a result of the condition, which can be managed with diet and exercise. The important thing is to ensure that if you have PCOS, you try to maintain as healthy a body weight as possible. By keeping your weight within a healthy range, you lower your chances of having high insulin levels, developing type 2 diabetes and other related issues.
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