First a few facts about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
- It affects as many as 15-20% of women, depending on the diagnostic criteria. The condition tends to run in families. Pay attention if women in your family have problems with irregular periods, acne past adolescence, excessive facial hair or diabetes. (1)
- Forty percent of women diagnosed with PCOS are thought to have infertility problems. PCOS is caused by an imbalance of hormones—especially insulin—which leads to an overproduction of male sex hormones (or androgens). This can lead to small benign cysts on the ovaries (Clin Epidemiol. 2014; 6: 1–13)
- It can cause irregular, heavy or no periods, acne and excessive hair growth on the face and body (hirsutism).
- Many women with PCOS are overweight, but you can be of normal weight and still have it.
- Issues with body image and self-esteem as well as problems with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and bipolar disorder are more common in women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
- If Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is left untreated, it can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
Other symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome may include (2):
- Unexplained fatigue
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) after meals. Symptoms include light-headedness, sweating, sudden fatigue or urge to eat
- Mood swings
- Hot flashes
- Recurrent spontaneous miscarriages
- Rough or velvety dark skin in skin folds, such as the neck, armpits, thighs (also called Acanthosis Nigrigans or AN)
- Sleep disorders including sleep apnea
Something Else To Consider: Sleep Apnea
Do you wake up tired or do you find yourself falling asleep at your desk—or worse, while driving? Have you been told you snore? You could have obstructive sleep apnea. A recent research report indicated that women with PCOS may be up to 30 times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea, which can be a significant factor in the development of metabolic problems such as weight gain and impaired glucose tolerance. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) has been shown to reverse those problems as well as improve blood pressure. Sleeping with a mask may not be the sexiest thing—but if it can improve your health and your fertility, it’s all worth it! Discuss this with your health care provider.
Treatment for PCOS includes weight loss, physical activity, a low glycemic index diet and treatment with a medication to improve insulin sensitivity (such as metformin). Because depression and low self-esteem can go hand-in-hand with it, spending time with a therapist is often helpful. If you suspect you have PCOS, speak with your health care provider about it and seek help from a registered dietitian familiar with it, who can individualize a diet that will help with weight loss and help normalize insulin levels. According to Angela Grassi MS, RD, author of The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide to Complete Physical & Emotional Health, a healthy eating plan for PCOS often includes:
- A diet with a lower intake of carbohydrates (but not a “low-carb” diet)
- Eating more lean protein and monounsaturated fats
- Eating mostly whole grains
- A minimum of 25 grams of fiber per day
- Avoiding of sweet beverages including juice, juice drinks and soda
- Daily physical activity
- Vitamin D supplementation
If you suspect you have PCOS:
Consult with your health care provider or gynecologist, who may refer you to an endocrine specialist. Also try these tips:
- Manage Your Weight—managing insulin resistance with medication is also a common approach.
- Eat a “Smart Carb” Diet with high fiber and low glycemic index foods at every meal. Check out a full discussion of the glycemic index in my post here.
- Move More—try two 15 minutes walking breaks at work. Build up to an hour or more of moderate to vigorous exercise every day.
- Lower Your Stress—too much can affect hormone and blood sugar levels and can also lead to unhealthy binges of food or alcohol.
While it’s easy to get discouraged, know that many women with PCOS do become pregnant, sometimes with medical intervention. Stay tuned for more posts on the subject!