If you or someone you know has been diagnosed with PCOS, you’re not the only ones. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome affects more than five million American women, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health.
Unfortunately, about 50 percent of women who have PCOS remain undiagnosed. But learning to recognize when something is amiss is the best way to advocate for our own health.
With little information to guide me on navigating the symptoms of PCOS—irregular menstrual cycles, permanent lethargy, and propensity to gain weight—it’s easy to feel lost and powerless. Prescription medications, while helpful for some, didn’t work for me; the side effects overshadowed any benefits I received while on them.
There’s currently no cure for PCOS, but studies on women with PCOS using natural methods to combat symptoms reveal a promising incentive. Here are five natural ways to keep PCOS symptoms under control.
01. Get Moving
Exercise plays a significant role in minimizing unpleasant side effects associated with PCOS, one of which is insulin resistance, a condition that makes it difficult for the body to process glucose (blood sugar).
“Insulin resistance occurs in up to 50 percent to 70 percent of women [with PCOS],” shares Dr. Janet Choi, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist and the medical director of the Colorado Center for Reproductive Medicine in New York. PCOS often leads to the production of excess androgen (a male sex hormone such as testosterone), disrupting a woman’s hormonal balance and leading to higher insulin levels.
What’s the best defense against it? Exercise.
A 2006 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism revealed that twelve women with PCOS who spent three months regularly exercising and eating a balanced diet lost weight, had reduced hormone levels, and had a significant improvement in their insulin levels. "... Losing five to ten percent of [a woman's] starting weight can lead to decreased androgen levels," says Dr. Choi. Exercise and weight loss can "lead to improved blood pressure, heart health and glucose control—all of which are beneficial to women with PCOS."
02. Choose Low Glycemic Index Foods
While exercise might be the best defense against insulin resistance, it isn’t the only way to lower insulin levels. The Low Glycemic Index (low GI) measures how much a particular food will raise blood glucose levels.
"[Eat] foods that are low in GI, provide fiber, and don't spike up insulin, like processed or high-GI foods," says Angela Grassi, RD, a registered dietitian, and coauthor of The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide to Complete Physical and Emotional Health. Research shows that women with PCOS who eat a low GI diet may benefit from improved menstrual cycles and glucose tolerance.
There’s no shortage of delicious low GI foods: Whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, corn, yams, most fruits, and non-starchy veggies are just a few of many options. Check out this helpful list of low GI foods.
03. Take Vitamin D and Multivitamins
In The PCOS Workbook, Grassi writes that “a majority of individuals in the United States are vitamin D deficient.” Women with PCOS are especially prone to this deficiency, though the exact cause is currently unknown. Women with PCOS may experience improvement in symptoms with the daily consumption of vitamin D, and it may also aid in conception for women who struggle with infertility by increasing ovulation. Grassi recommends taking 1,000 mg of vitamin D a day, and have a doctor regularly check your vitamin D levels via blood tests.
Multivitamins are also an excellent supplement for women (with or without PCOS) who don't get all the necessary nutrients from eating. "Although a healthy diet including fresh vegetables, fruit, and unprocessed foods is the best method to ensure adequate nutrient ingestion, a daily multivitamin may be beneficial for most women," Dr. Choi says. She sites folic acid as "essential to a healthy pregnancy" and may reduce the risk of spinal cord defects in unborn babies.
04. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Disruptive sleep patterns and PCOS typically go hand in hand. I've struggled with it for more than a decade, and since I deal with low energy levels even on a full night's sleep, it has the potential to throw me off in a major way. The good news? There are many natural remedies available. Grassi suggests using valerian root, melatonin and lavender oil to aid in restful sleep.
Sleep apnea is another common and potentially severe sleep disorder, described by the PCOS Awareness Association as "brief episodes of stopped breathing during sleep." Dr. Choi offers "avoiding alcohol and changing sleeping positions" as a solution to mild sleep apnea. Otherwise, "people who have more severe forms of sleep apnea should consult with a physician specializing in sleep disorders."
I've saved the hardest for last (and with good reason). We all have responsibilities in life: careers, partners, children, friends, family and so on. Wouldn't it be awesome if life paused for us to take a break and face it the next day with a full battery? Unfortunately, this isn't possible, though plotting out personal time to relax is. Besides being stressed, you’re more likely to struggle in other ways.
“Women with PCOS may be at higher risk of mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Choi. Among her suggestions to reduce stress are regular therapy sessions, meditation training and a practice called mindful awareness (or mindfulness), described by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center as an opportunity to "stop, breathe, observe and connect with one's inner experience."
I've implemented these five methods into my lifestyle with great success. PCOS is certainly a challenging and sometimes draining disorder. But with a little effort, patience and consistency, it can be managed using these natural methods.
Photo Credit: Brittni Willie