What is PCOS?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. It’s an endocrine (hormonal) disorder characterized by infrequent or absent periods, multiple cysts on the ovaries, obesity and high levels of androgens (such as testosterone and DHEA-S), which leads to excess facial and body hair, hair thinning or male pattern baldness and acne. Many PCOS patients have insulin resistance, which means that your body isn’t able to properly absorb and process sugars and other carbohydrates. Other complications include type 2 Diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression and difficulty becoming pregnant.
It’s important to know that there is a wide range of severity of the condition- some patients with PCOS have only slightly irregular periods as the only obvious symptom, while others may have never before gotten a period on their own and have every other symptom such as obesity, excess hair and acne.
PCOS can’t be diagnosed by just one symptom or test alone, but instead doctors look for the presence of several signs and symptoms together. Not all PCOS patients have acne, excess body hair or obesity, but all will have high levels of androgens (testosterone and DHEA-S) and chronic anovulation (irregular or absent periods). Many times a woman is first diagnosed with PCOS because she is unable to become pregnant due to lack of consistent ovulation.
Western Treatment for PCOS includes hormonal birth control pills to artificially “regulate” cycles and reduce androgens, a drug called Metformin for insulin resistance and statins for high cholesterol. Many women are also given Spironolactone to lower testosterone. For women trying to become pregnant, treatment includes drugs to induce ovulation such as Clomid or injectible gonadotropins.
How Can I Manage PCOS Naturally?
There’s a lot you can do to manage symptoms of PCOS naturally- including acupuncture, herbs and dietary adjustments.
- For overweight patients, just a 5-10% reduction in weight can dramatically help regulate cycles.
- My patients typically receive acupuncture every other week, and most take herbal medicine as well to help with regulating cycles, weight loss and acne. Each patient is given a different treatment protocol to correspond with their unique symptoms and history.
- Because so many PCOS patients have some degree of insulin resistance, one of the most important things you can do is to adopt a low glycemic index diet. This means focusing on foods which don’t raise your blood sugar very much- such as plenty of vegetables, protein and healthy fats. Patients absolutely must reduce their intake of refined carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, juices and soda, and completely eliminate sweets. This can really help regulate your blood sugar and improve insulin resistance.
By making these changes, it’s very possible that your periods will become more regular, your acne will decrease and you’ll be able to lose weight more easily. Keep in mind that a diet of unprocessed foods is best- just because you see an energy bar labelled “low carb” or “gluten free” doesn’t mean it’s a good option for you. Keep reading for more tips on eating healthfully when you have PCOS!
How Can I Transition To A Low Carb Diet?
I asked Nancy Campbell, culinary nutritionist and owner of Radiant Health NYC to give some tips on how to transition to a low sugar/low carbohydrate diet. You can get more information at her website, www.radianthealthnyc.com.
This work is as much about embracing change with empathy as it is about creating structure in your life. My approach to curbing carb intake approaches both equally and can be summarized as “Slow. Know. Grow.”
SLOW – Sugar is a serious culprit for hormonal dis-regulation, but the approach you take depends on your sugar “habit”. Regardless of how much sugar you consume through the day, start smart and start slow. Commit to removing sugar from one category of your diet over a designated and finite time frame. Categories can be broken down into drinks (non-alcohol), alcohol, meals – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, fruit, and “treats.” Withdrawal can happen even to those of you already limiting your sugar intake. Sugar hits the same areas of the brain as heroin and cocaine. In other words, it’s a drug! Keep aware of the mind games you can play when you are craving something sweet. By having healthy snacks and herbal teas at the ready or doing something “sweet” for yourself that has nothing to do with food you can mitigate the withdrawals. Massage anyone?!
Keep in mind that fruit can be a tricky food for some PCOS sufferers. Fruit juice, while no sugar has been added, is loaded with natural sugars and it lacks the fiber that slows sugar absorption in our blood stream. This equates of a glass of orange juice’s to drinking a soda. Strategies for shifting your intake of fruit can start with removing high-sugar, tropical fruit from your diet, and focusing instead on berries, pears, and apples.
KNOW – When making any dietary shift, you need to know how you are bringing good food choices to your plate. Removing carbs can be tricky in our carb laden American diet especially when eating out. This necessitates meal planning strategies that support you in having food at the ready. Three of my favorite tricks are:
- Never cook for one meal! You are spending the time, the energy, and the resources to put something together. The effort it takes to cut a few more veggies, roast a little more chicken and assemble a few more servings is so much smaller than the effort it takes to do it all over again the next day.
- Pack and carry. I can’t encourage this enough. You’ve got to think like a Girl Scout. Packing meals and carrying snacks for your day is crucial to ensuring you a) don’t make bad choices; b) have healthy choices at the ready when you are hungry; c) can eat steadily through your day to ensure you keep your energy crashes (and carb cravings) to a minimum.
- Have 2-3 one-pot meals you love! Firstly, a one-pot meal is a complete meal balanced with protein, veggies and fat that is assembled in “one-pot,” essentially. You also eat it all together. This could be a noodle free lasagna, beef or chicken stew, or stuffed winter squash. Click here for some ideas.
GROW – The idea that you will be completely deprived without the sweetness of sugar or never satisfied without starchy carbs is simply not true. It will take your body some time to shift. By your body, I mean your palate, your brain and the balance of your gut bacteria. So, do the work, stay the course and GROW out of the idea that you are somehow being punished. By embracing the potential of health and vitality of your body you will see the reduction of symptoms that you so deeply want for yourself! So, run! Leap! Build a dedicated practice of taking care of yourself and your body will undoubtedly return the favor.