By Judy Thalheimer, R.D., L.D.N., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
Up to one in five women of reproductive age suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a hormone imbalance that can lead to infertility, diabetes, depression and increased risk for heart problems. PCOS is named after cyst-like follicles that often form on the ovaries of women with this condition, but these are only a symptom of the condition, not the cause.
One hallmark of the syndrome is a decrease in the ability to use insulin efficiently to move glucose out of the bloodstream. This so-called insulin resistance can eventually lead to diabetes.
“The majority of women with PCOS are insulin resistant, and will experience weight gain in the abdominal area, difficulties losing weight, and intense cravings for carbohydrates,” says Angela Grassi, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., founder of the PCOS Nutrition Center and author of “PCOS: The Dietitian’s Guide.” Women with this condition often have trouble getting pregnant. “They also may have other symptoms, like irregular, heavy or absent periods, acne, increased growth of hair on the face and arms, and loss of hair on the head,” says Grassi.
What causes PCOS?
Some researchers talk about vicious cycles in PCOS: hormone imbalance may cause chronic low-grade inflammation, which stimulates the ovaries to produce more of the unwanted hormones. Additionally, inflammation, which increases insulin resistance, can lead to weight gain and carb cravings; the added abdominal fat and high intake of sugars and other simple carbohydrates then contributes to the inflammation, creating a “snowball effect” of worsening symptoms.
While birth control pills can help with hormone regulation, there is currently no medical therapy that fully reverses the underlying problem or helps all the symptoms of PCOS. The primary treatment for PCOS is diet and lifestyle changes. “Along with exercise, good sleep and stress management, eating well can improve menstrual function, increase your chances of getting pregnant, and improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels,” says Grassi.
PCOS and diet
Losing even 5 percent of total body weight has been shown to improve PCOS symptoms. Evidence suggests that any diet strategy that reduces caloric intake will help improve weight, increase fertility and decrease symptoms like insulin resistance — as long as that diet is safe, nutritious and sustainable long-term.
Dietary choices can help to break the vicious cycles of PCOS by helping control blood sugar and discourage inflammation. “The optimal diet for PCOS is still unknown,” says Grassi. “But we do know that women with PCOS who have high levels of insulin can improve levels and lose weight by following a low glycemic index diet. Additionally, since women with PCOS have higher blood levels of proteins indicating inflammation than women without the condition, I strongly recommend a diet that incorporates anti-inflammatory foods.”
Lifestyle changes for managing PCOS
The good news is that just making an effort may make a difference. “While losing even 5 percent of total body weight can really help, making diet and lifestyle changes can lead to improvement even if you don’t lose any weight,” says Grassi.
Here are some ideas for managing PCOS:
Commit to eating less if you have excess weight to lose. Aiming for 500 fewer calories a day than you usually eat is a healthy goal.
Eat small, frequent meals. This strategy improves blood sugar control. Aim for a similar number of grams of carbohydrate at every meal.
Enjoy anti-inflammatory foods. Since oxidative stress leads to inflammation, eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and may be found in foods like fish, walnuts and flax seeds, or omega-3 supplements.
Avoid inflammatory foods. Minimize saturated and trans fats, and cut back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods.
Cut the sugar. Sugar can trigger inflammation. Plus, eating fewer refined carbohydrates (like sugars, baked goods, soda and white bread) improves blood sugar control, which in turn can decrease PCOS symptoms. Get carbs from foods like whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables instead.
Get moving. Activity, from walking to weight lifting, helps control insulin resistance which often comes with PCOS.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)