Dietary & Lifestyle changes to improve PCOS
Firstly what is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
Polycystic ovary syndrome is when your hormones are out of balance. It may cause problems with your periods and make it more difficult to get pregnant. If it isn't treated, over time it can lead to other health issues such as diabetes and heart disease.
Most women with PCOS grow many small cysts on their ovaries. That is why it is called polycystic ovary syndrome. The cysts are not harmful but lead to hormone imbalances.
Early diagnosis and treatment can help control the symptoms and prevent long-term problems.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Women who have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome have dysregulated metabolism. This means that they do not metabolise certain foods and they are more likely to create and store fat. Foods high in available sugars produce glucose immediately upon ingestion and raise circulating blood sugars, these foods cause havoc with PCOS. Glucose is the fuel of the body.
How can diet help PCOS?
Aim to achieve sugar balance
The body has in excess of 50 trillion cells which all require a steady supply of glucose to function optimally. Foods that are high in available sugars such as refined carbohydrates, fruit juices, fizzy drinks, white bread, biscuits, crisps, baked potato, cakes and sweets flood the body with excess glucose too quickly. This in turn triggers the release of a hormone called insulin. Insulin’s job is to open the cell door to receive the glucose and remove it from the blood. However insulin is an anabolic fat storage hormone and if triggered too often causes weight gain. Insulin works most efficiently when blood sugars are gently raised.
To achieve blood sugar balance, aim to eat 3 small meals per day and 1 snack. Aim to finish eating at 7.30 in the evening. Carbohydrate intake should be significantly reduced.
Fats, protein and fibre should be included in each meal. They are broken down in the stomach slowly and give a gentle rise in blood sugar levels leading to a minimum exposure to insulin.
The glycemic index is a measure given to the ability of foods that contain carbohydrate to raise blood glucose levels. Glucose has a G.I. of 100, cornflakes 93, and a plain baguette 95, raisins 64, and rice cakes 82. To manage PCOS, regulate hormonal production and prevent weight gain it is advisable to eat foods that are 50 and below on the G.I. index. This is an easy guide to follow http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods
Manage trans-fat levels
Fats play a very important role in the management of PCOS and hormonal balance. High levels of testosterone are a common feature with this syndrome. This is caused by an enzyme, (aromatase) converting excess oestrogen into testosterone. This conversion is influenced by metabolism and fatty acids. Fatty acids work on the cell membrane to trigger hormonal reactions. Fats that are eaten in the diet, dictate the composition of the outer layer of fat on the cell.
If the diet is high in trans-fats from chips, pizza, confectionery, baked goods, biscuits etc. these foods have a negative effect on hormones. By contrast if the diet is high in omega 3 fatty acids from oily fish or taking a fish oil supplement, hormonal balance is better with less oestrogen being converted to testosterone. Patients with PCOS respond well to high doses of omega 3 in conjunction with cleaning up the diet. By reducing carbohydrates, eliminating trans-fats and reducing overall consumption, metabolism is significantly improved. This in turn leads to improvement in symptoms and weight loss.
Weight gain and difficulties associated with weight loss are common with PCOS. Unfortunately, fat cells produce hormones such as oestrogen which can be converted into testosterone further exacerbating symptoms.
Exercise for at least 30 minutes each day and limit Alcohol
Exercise will help, aim to exercise at least 30 minutes per day. This will improve the cells sensitivity to insulin and improve metabolism for the day ahead. However, diet accounts for 80% of weight management and weight loss so prioritising food choices is imperative to improve this condition.
Alcohol will wreak havoc as it is converted to sugar upon ingestion and increases weight gain. Aim to avoid when treating PCOS.
Gaye Godkin, Health Nutritionist, MPH Nutrition (Hons) DipNT cNLP