September is PCOS month. Many of you may be unfamiliar with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, but it is one of the most common female endocrine disorders, affecting 1 in 10 women of reproductive age.
The Picture of PCOS
This is the woman, usually of reproductive age, who has irregular periods. In some cases, her period has disappeared completely. She has excess weight that is impossible to lose. She’s the women who “gains a pound when she so much as looks at a cookie.” Her skin is greasy and may have acne. She is struggling with infertility and/or miscarriages. She’s growing excess hair. She may know that her cholesterol is high and her liver enzymes are creeping up. The lack of blood sugar control will affect her sleep patterns, and she will develop insomnia. It’s understandable that this woman will feel anxious, depressed and chronically stressed in advanced stages of PCOS.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome can lead to many complications like metabolic syndrome, weight loss resistance, diabetes and infertility. PCOS is often recognized by changes in the menstrual cycle and male hormone signs like abnormal hair growth (on face and chin), greasy hair and acne.
Causes of PCOS involve genetics, stress, hormone imbalance in the female hormones, insulin resistance and chronic inflammation.
Diagnosis of this condition is complex and normally involves female hormone testing and an ultrasound showing the presence of ovarian cysts. Historically PCOS has been thought of as primarily an endocrine disorder, which means that it’s caused by a dysregulation female hormones. It’s usually treated with birth control pills in modern medicine. Birth control pills regulate the menstrual cycle, but do not address the root cause of the disorder.
The latest research, however, indicates that PCOS is closely associated with insulin resistance. The poor handling of glucose in the PCOS patient is the cornerstone of this diagnosis. The most compelling studies concerning this connection started being published in 1997.
The Natural Approach
The first, and most important piece is the regulation of insulin in the body. The PCOS woman has to eat a clean, whole foods diet. If it has a mother and rots, she can eat it. The PCOS body is unable to regulate insulin usage if the diet is not optimal. This leads to all the other complications down the line including nutritional deficiencies. All hydrogenated oils and processed vegetable oils cause high inflammation in the body, which is another cause of PCOS. Healthy fats like coconut and olive oil help the body deal with inflammation.
Intermittent fasting is very beneficial for insulin resistant patients. If you have excess weight that settles in the midsection, you have insulin resistance! Intermittent fasting consists of not eating after supper for 12-18 hrs. a few times a week. Generally this works to lower your fasting insulin and lowers your glucose levels. Men do well with 12-14hr fasting and women do better with 14-16 hr fasting (not fair, I know).
High inflammation in the body is best addressed with diet. Eating colourful, low glycemic foods like dark greens, red, blue, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables. These foods fight oxidation (inflammation) in the body. External toxins in the environment like xenoestrogens, chemicals like pesticides put a massive load on the detoxification system in the body. The liver, as a vital part of this system, can become overloaded resulting in inflammation and insulin resistance. Exercise, sweating, lemon water and good sleep will encourage detoxification as an adjunct to dietary intervention.
In some cases, PCOS seems to be genetic. But being genetically predisposed to something doesn’t mean that the person will get the disorder. Epigenetics explains that lifestyle and environment have the ability to turn genes on and off. For example, excess insulin may be the key that turns ON the gene for PCOS, while antioxidant rich fruits and exercise may be the lifestyle factors that turn that same gene OFF.
Stress is almost always a risk factor for PCOS, and many other disorders. In our higher stress lifestyle, food choices, sleep patterns and adrenal stress all impact glucose regulation because when we are chronically stressed, glucose is dumped into the bloodstream, raising blood glucose levels. This is the precursor to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.
Nutritional and Herbal Supplements
Supplements and nutritional therapies can help in this process. Myo-inositol, folate, chromium, gymnema are helpful in insulin resistance. White peony, vitex, omega-3 oils and fiber are beneficial for hormone dysregulation. Adaptogenic herbals are beneficial in helping the body adapt to stress. Detoxification pathways can be supported with antioxidant supplements, sweating, water and exercise.
The purely natural approach to PCOS is blood sugar regulation through diet, stress reduction through moderate exercise and deep breathing meditation, addressing inflammation, supporting detoxification and reducing environmental toxic hormonal exposure.