PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and is a condition of the female reproductive system and endocrine system that causes the ovaries to produce an abnormal level of androgens (male sex hormones) that are usually present in women in small amounts. PCOS symptoms include pelvic pain; problems with menstrual cycle; infertility due to lack of ovulation; increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach; acne; oily skin and dandruff; weight gain; and thinning hair on the head.
Around 10% of women of reproductive age experience PCOS, so we wanted to cover this condition, with special reference to the role exercise and nutrition can play in treating it. While the exact cause of PCOS is not fully understood, there does seem to be a linkage to insulin resistance (a condition where the body does not respond well to insulin and cannot utilize glucose from the blood the way it normally would), which can also lead to other health conditions. For many women who experience PCOS, it’s likely due to a combination of increased insulin and androgens, which results in multiple hormonal abnormalities that influence metabolic and reproductive systems in negative ways.
These changes increase the risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, endometrial cancer. Some estimates have indicated that 50% of women with PCOS will develop prediabetes or type 2 diabetes by the age of 40. So, what can be done? The most important step is to always consult your physician or other qualified health provider regarding your specific condition, but we are happy to offer some information here.
Top Nutrition Tips For Those With PCOS
Because of the dysfunctions of the endocrine system, nutrition plays a very important role in management of PCOS. Here are some of the top eating tips for those dealing with PCOS.
#1 Lose the extra weight
Studies have shown that for those with PCOS who are considered medically overweight (as indicated by a Body Mass Index over 30)*, weight loss improved both metabolic and reproductive symptoms associated with PCOS. Studies have shown that if you are overweight, weight loss of as little as 5-10% can result in normalization of menstruation and decreased blood androgen levels. For those who have a healthy body weight, weight management is important.
*Important note: weight alone is not a predictor of health, of course, and should always be taken as part of a bigger, more holistic diagnostic picture. Weight management may be a particular struggle for women with PCOS given increased risk for eating and mood disorders, including Binge Eating Disorder. Treating mental health concerns alongside physical symptoms of PCOS is important.
# 2 Focus on a low glycemic diet
Low GI foods are those that the body digests more slowly, meaning that they do not cause insulin to rise as much as other foods, namely carbohydrates. A diet high in low glycemic foods can improve and help balance insulin levels. Because many women with PCOS are resistant to insulin, they have high levels of insulin in the blood that causes a rise in testosterone and results in flare ups of symptoms. Recent studies have indicated that a low glycemic diet is more effective in management of PCOS symptoms than a conventional diet alone.
Foods in a low GI diet include whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, starchy vegetables, and other unprocessed, low-carbohydrate foods. Eating foods that are high fiber or are paired with protein will keep them from spiking blood sugar. There is often concern with the amount of sugar in fruit, but because of the fiber in fruit, the sugar is bound to fiber, which results in a slower absorption of glucose. Pairing fruit and other carbohydrates with protein or fat (like nuts, seeds, cheese, etc.) will also result in slow absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
#3 Eat healthy fats
Unsaturated fats are important in managing symptoms of PCOS. Research has indicated that a low saturated fat diet is helpful in managing symptoms. Eating mostly unsaturated fatty acids, especially essential fatty acids (EFA), is vital, as they play a role in hormone balance and production. Food sources include: cold-water fish, salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, eggs, chia seeds, flaxseeds, nuts, and plant oils (avocado, flax).
# 4 Eat whole anti-inflammatory foods
Research has indicated that women who have eaten a balanced diet with high fiber foods, limited red meat, poultry, and added sugars have had lowered cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting blood glucose, C-reactive protein, in addition to normalization of a more regular period. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes that are high in antioxidants will help manage the inflammatory response of the body caused by insulin resistance. For more on anti-inflammatory foods and diet check out: Fight-or-Flight Series (Part 4): Anti-Inflammatory Diet to Decrease Chronic Pain.
#5 Focus on Magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium deficiency is linked to increased risk of insulin resistance. Magnesium also helps with muscle cramping and flow regulation. Foods rich in magnesium include: leafy dark green vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans, and fortified cereals.
#6 Get regular exercise
Women with PCOS who are physically active regularly have less severe symptoms as a result of the role of exercise in insulin sensitivity, weight management, cardiovascular health, and mood improvement. Given all of the benefits associated with movement and exercise, it is not surprising that regular, consistent exercise seems to be the most beneficial in combating some symptoms of PCOS.
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Written for Fitness Blender by Natalia Holguin, RDN LDN CPT
Certified Nutrition Coach
*The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.
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