Dietary Approach to PCOS
Posted on by Paula Gallagher
A friend came to me recently with a diagnosis of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). It is one of the most common conditions in women of childbearing age, with almost 1 in 10 women developing this condition at one time or another. And although it is one of the most common hormonal disorders in women, she was having difficulty finding information on how to handle it naturally.
Although the cause of PCOS is uncertain, symptoms include high testosterone levels, which can lead to menstrual problems and infertility, along with high insulin levels, which can contribute to obesity. Some of the characteristics of PCOS include elevated levels of testosterone and/or related hormones called androgens (hyperandrogenism), infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods (anovulation), and/or the presence of multiple ovarian cysts, which are usually painless and only discovered by ultrasound.
PCOS can cause problems ranging from cosmetic to fertility issues. It is associated with acne, as well as hair growth in hormone sensitive areas such as the lip, chin, and abdomen, and thinning of the hair on the head. And although cosmetic, these things can lead to self-esteem and anxiety issues. PCOS may also result in subfertility due to poor or irregular ovulation. It is actually the number one cause of infertility in women. And PCOS has been associated with increased risk of several chronic diseases in the long term, including diabetes, heart disease, and endometrial cancer.
In the next couple of weeks, we will look at a holistic approach to dealing with PCOS, including herbal and supplement support. But first we will look at diet and how it can affect PCOS.
Diet and PCOS
PCOS is characterized by poor insulin function, with elevated insulin secretion reinforcing the cycle of hormone imbalance and anovulation (prolonged menstrual periods). Women who are overweight or obese are at increased risk of insulin resistance and prediabetes, but even thin women with PCOS have been shown to suffer from reactive hypoglycemia, where initial insulin oversecretion leads to rebound low blood sugar levels.
Dietary strategies that reduce insulin secretion, such as a high-protein, low-glycemic diet, have been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, promote weight loss, and reduce testosterone levels in women with PCOS. A low-glycemic diet limits intake of foods that break down into sugars quickly, such as bread, white rice, potatoes, and other starchy foods, as well as foods high in refined sugar.
Finding the right diet to help with PCOS is a highly individual and complex process, as the underlying cause of PCOS and different hormone levels will vary from woman to woman. Here are general guidelines to help balance insulin and reduce testosterone levels.
Foods to avoid
These foods can interfere with testosterone levels, ovulation and insulin levels.
- Bad fats (deep fried foods, hydrogenated oils)
- Processed foods
Foods to include and eat more of
Many of these are high in B Vitamins. B vitamins are responsible for numerous functions in the body, including sugar and fat metabolism, thyroid function and hormone balance. They also play a vital role in the management of PCOS.
- Leafy greens
- Fruits and vegetables
- Good fats (olive oil, avocados, salmon)
Tips to manage insulin resistance
- Choose a low glycemic index (GI) diet: A low GI diet may help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance. Low GI foods include whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. Avoid high GI foods like processed and refined carbohydrates, sugary drinks and snacks.
- Eat enough protein: Protein can help stabilize blood sugar levels and keep you feeling full for longer. Aim to include protein in every meal and snack. Good sources of protein include lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds.
- Choose healthy fats: Fats are an important part of a healthy diet, but it's important to choose the right kinds of fats. Include healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds in your diet.
- Avoid processed foods: Processed foods are often high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats. They can also contain additives and preservatives that may worsen PCOS symptoms. Stick to whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.
- Limit dairy and gluten: Some women with PCOS may be sensitive to dairy and gluten. Try eliminating these foods from your diet for a few weeks to see if it makes a difference in your symptoms.
- Stay hydrated: Drinking enough water can help flush out toxins and keep you feeling full. Aim for at least 8 glasses of water a day.
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