Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition impacting as many as 5 million women (or others with ovaries) in the United States, according to the CDC.
The symptoms usually associated with PCOS are irregular periods, infertility, facial acne, and hirsutism--coarse hair growing in a way usually associated with males.
While these are the primary symptoms, it’s important to manage your PCOS in order to prevent the onset of related disorders and conditions including insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and even mental health problems including depression and anxiety.
Doctors will often recommend birth control for managing PCOS, but there are other ways to manage your PCOS in addition to medication (or instead of medication). Here are 5 ways to manage your PCOS naturally.
There is a strong relationship between PCOS and insulin resistance--particularly in the approximately 80% of PCOS patients that are obese (Sam, 2007). You may know of insulin resistance by its association with diabetes or other metabolic disorders; PCOS patients have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease (McCartney & Marshall, 2016).
Insulin resistance means that your body has a difficult time moving sugar out of your blood and into the rest of your body--and since we process carbohydrates as sugar, insulin resistance can also mean the body has trouble metabolizing carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates have an important role in giving the body energy, so it’s usually not a good idea to eliminate them completely from your diet.
However, not all carbs are created equal; the American Diabetes Association recommends replacing highly processed carbs--such as those found in white bread, white rice, and foods high in sugar (like soda and cereal)--with whole grains (wheat bread and brown rice) and vegetables (especially non-starchy vegetables like lettuce and broccoli).
If you have more questions about carbohydrates, insulin resistance, and your PCOS, talk to your doctor.
Exercise can also be an important tool in managing your PCOS naturally. A Cochrane review of nearly 500 participants over 15 studies found that lifestyle changes including diet and exercise can help a PCOS patient manage their weight, which can help prevent the onset of diabetes and heart disease.
The review also found that exercise can help to balance hormonal levels that cause some of the side effects of PCOS such as facial hair and acne (Moran et al, 2011).
That said, the hormonal nature of PCOS can make losing weight more difficult. If you want to lose weight to help with your PCOS symptoms, you may want to discuss options with your doctor.
Even if you do not intend to manage your PCOS through weight loss, light exercises performed regularly--like walking or yoga--can be good for both your physical and mental health.
Many studies have shown a strong relationship between PCOS and mental illnesses including depression and anxiety. Because the chronic stress that typically accompanies mental health conditions can wreak havoc on your entire body, including your gut and your heart (APA, 2018), it’s important for PCOS patients to manage their mental health to mitigate the risk of developing other serious health conditions.
For some PCOS patients, infertility may cause personal stress and/or stress on their relationship (Abbey, Andrews, & Halrnan, 1991). However, this is not the only stressor PCOS patients have to deal with; other studies have focused on how negative or distorted body image in PCOS patients can contribute to mental health concerns--whether or not the individual is overweight.
Many women with PCOS seem to worry about the appearance of their skin, facial hair, and general appearance compared to their peers (Himelein & Thatcher, 2006).
This is another area where exercise may help you manage your PCOS. One meta-analysis of 57 studies found that exercise helped to improve body image--even if that exercise does not result in weight loss or muscle gain (depending on the patient’s goals).
They also found that the intensity or length of the exercise was not particularly important; what mattered more was the number of times per week that exercise took place (Campbell & Hausenblas, 2009).
In other words, exercise is a great way to manage your mental and physical health not because it changes your body, but because it shows love to whatever type of body you have!
Of course, exercise isn’t right for everyone, and it may not be enough to treat all cases of mental illness. If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to your doctor and/or a therapist about your concerns.
If you are trying to manage some of the symptoms of PCOS such as facial hair, acne, insulin resistance, infertility, and mental health complications, you might consider adding a supplement to your routine.
One such supplement is a natural sugar called Inositol. Inositol is found in foods like fruits, beans, nuts, and grains. A study of overweight PCOS patients found that a supplement with a 40:1 ratio of myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol may help reduce the risk of metabolic disorders (Nordio & Proietti, 2012).
Inositol supplements may also help with the excess of androgens found in PCOS patients which contribute to facial hair, acne, and infertility (Wojciechowska et al, 2019).
While more research is needed, there might also be a relationship between Vitamin D and PCOS symptoms, particularly because of a possible link between Vitamin D and insulin resistance (Krul-Poel et al, 2013).
The best source of Vitamin D is direct sunlight (not through a window), particularly in midday. If you are able to go on a walk outdoors a few times a week, you may be getting enough Vitamin D; however, if this isn’t possible with your lifestyle, Vitamin D supplements are also widely available.
There are many other vitamins and minerals that may improve outcomes for PCOS and/or insulin resistance. The best way to make sure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need is to eat a varied diet of many different colors of fruits and vegetables.
That said, a multivitamin is often a safe and cheap way to be sure you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs.
If you are worried about vitamin or mineral deficiencies, you can always talk to your doctor about getting a blood test. However, that’s not the only reason you should get your blood tested regularly if you have PCOS.
Your doctor should be keeping an eye on your blood sugar to monitor for the development of insulin resistance or other signs of diabetes or heart disease.
In addition, thyroid disorders--both hyperactive and hypoactive thyroid glands--are somewhat common in PCOS patients.
Thyroid disorders are associated with fatigue, menstrual problems, depression or anxiety, weight gain or loss, and other health concerns (Sinha et al, 2013). You may want to talk to your doctor about testing your thyroid to see if you may have both chronic conditions.
Even if you are treating your PCOS naturally, the management of PCOS often starts with an annual visit to your doctor:
With a strong support system (including a good relationship with your doctor), a healthy lifestyle, and a routine that includes caring for yourself, you can manage your PCOS symptoms and feel great about your body.
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