From diet to exercise, there’s hope if you’re dealing with polycystic ovarian syndrome
By ERICA COSENTINO
When I was twenty years old, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS for short. At first, I was relieved to have a diagnosis that might finally explain the debilitating cramps and extreme irregularity of my periods.
For eight years, my cramps had been so painful I routinely had to take a day or two off from school or work. My periods were coming every two weeks, and more than one occasion saw me fainting from the pain. I had no idea how I could live like this for the rest of my life.
Now that my doctor had answered the question of why I was feeling like this, she would surely be able to answer the next question: how will we fix this?
As it turned out, she didn’t have the answers I was hoping for. She put me on the birth control pill to manage my symptoms and gently tried to prepare me for what this diagnosis meant I’d likely have to live with for the rest of my life: A higher risk for type 2 diabetes and overweight, and a probable inability to ever have children, were just some of the things I was told to look forward to.
I left the doctor’s office that day feeling equal parts fear for the future and skeptical there was no way to reverse this condition.
A Primer on PCOS
PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder in women of childbearing age, affecting one in ten women in North America. Surprisingly for such a commonplace disorder, researchers have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause, although it’s thought that insulin resistance and high levels of inflammation might be contributing factors.
Because of the insulin resistance (which prevents cells from absorbing all the blood sugar they need), women with PCOS are nearly four to ten times more likely to become diabetic, and as many as 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight.
Symptoms of PCOS include ovarian cysts, irregular and/or extremely painful menstrual periods, weight gain, anxiety, depression, struggles with acne, and the growth of facial hair, medically known as hirsutism. In order to be diagnosed, a woman must exhibit at least two of the three main symptoms: ovarian cysts, irregular periods and high levels of male hormones.
Unsurprisingly, given that there is no known cause of PCOS, there is no known cure either. Doctors practising mainstream Western medicine will instead treat each symptom with drugs.
The birth control pill is commonly prescribed to PCOS patients to manage the menstrual symptoms and any excessive hair growth by adding synthetic female hormones to the body. Metformin is commonly prescribed to help reduce high insulin levels, especially in women who are trying to become pregnant. Other common prescription medications include clomiphene for infertility and eflornithine for hirsutism.
Healing PCOS Holistically
Holistic medicine, which is practised mainly by complementary health professionals including naturopathic doctors and some MDs and nutritionists, attempts to treat the person as a whole – mind, body, spirit and environment. Since there is no one certain cause of PCOS, holistic practitioners apply a range of natural treatments to treat the suspected culprits: inflammation and insulin resistance.
Beginning by reassessing a patient’s diet seems almost too simple, but it can be incredibly effective. Eating mainly foods that are low on the glycemic index (GI) scale – foods, like beans, greens and whole grains, that don’t cause spikes in blood sugar levels – and cutting out added sugars, wherever possible, is a great way to fight insulin resistance.
In early 2018, I switched to a low-GI vegan diet and found that it completely alleviated my PCOS symptoms. I taught myself to love healthy plant foods and was shocked to find that cramping and irregular periods immediately became a nonissue. I also noticed that my skin became much clearer and I lost a few extra pounds I hadn’t been aware I was carrying.
Exercise is another important factor that has been credited for positive changes in patients with PCOS, and its effects are two-pronged. Weight loss is, of course, the most common benefit. The muscle growth that comes from working out helps the body burn more calories at rest, which can, when coupled with a healthy diet, result in weight loss.
Exercise can also help insulin-resistant patients get off their metformin. Back in the mid-90s, researchers established that regular exercise can increase both insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance in people with diabetes. This is great news for anyone with PCOS: it means that exercising can help the body utilize insulin more effectively, which may eventually alleviate the PCOS symptoms.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym and spending hours on the treadmill or lifting weights. Finding an exercise regimen that you love is the key to sticking to it. Nowadays, more fitness options are available than ever before. Boutique and specialized fitness studios are popping up all over Canada, offering classes like barre, pole dance and circus fitness, making exercise so much fun you won’t even realize you’re doing it.
For some women with PCOS, diet and exercise may not be enough to see an improvement. In many cases, the body may require additional support in the form of natural supplements.
Vitamin D plays an important role in the female reproductive system and in glucose and insulin metabolism. It is one of many supplements that may improve blood sugar control, an action that is imperative for addressing the symptoms of PCOS.
Another supplement that may help with blood sugar control is the trace mineral chromium. While more research is needed on chromium’s potential to improve PCOS overall, WebMD notes that “chromium might help keep blood sugar levels normal by improving the way our bodies use insulin.”
To regulate the menstrual cycle and improve fertility, a naturopathic doctor may prescribe a chaste berry supplement – clinically known as Vitex agnus-castus. Chaste berry has been used to treat women’s hormonal issues for centuries, and clinical trials suggest it may be beneficial for regulating menstrual cycles, alleviating PMS symptoms and treating infertility.
Everybody and every body is different. If you’ve been diagnosed with or suspect you might have PCOS, a visit to a naturopathic doctor could be your ticket to a holistic treatment plan that’s right for you. With the right support, your body just may be able to heal itself.
Mississauga-based freelance writer Erica Cosentino (cosentinocopywriting.com) has a passion for helping small businesses in the health, wellness and fitness space. A self-described wellness junkie, Erica follows a whole food, plant-based diet and is a firm believer in the power of holistic medicine.