Natural Solutions to Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a relatively common condition that can destroy a woman’s physical and emotional health. It is a hormonal disorder, but the hormonal imbalances are not limited to reproductive hormones. Current estimates are that five million women in the US have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). However, PCOS is not fully understood and is rarely tested for using the correct methods, so the numbers are potentially much higher. Another issue is that the symptoms of PCOS closely mimic several other conditions, so proper testing and diagnosis is essential to correctly addressing the correct condition.
The symptoms of PCOS vary from woman to woman, but are caused by an overproduction of male hormones. Symptoms of PCOS may include but are not limited to:
- Weight gain
- Facial hair or excess hair on the chest, back, stomach, fingers or toes
- Deepening of the voice
- Menstrual irregularity
- Insulin resistance
- Frequent ovarian cysts
- Acne and oily skin
- Sleep apnea (periods where breathing stops for short periods while sleeping)
- Pelvic pain
- Skin tags (small “tags” of skin that are painless but can be embarrassing when they occur on the face or in large quantities)
- Dark patches of dry, tough skin
- Anxiety, depression, or wildly changing moods
Many of the symptoms of PCOS are the result of the fact the woman’s eggs never mature and she therefore does not ovulate. The lack of ovulation creates a deficiency in the hormone progesterone. That, combined with the fact that woman’s ovaries are producing excess male hormones and the woman has excess insulin in her blood stream create a waterfall of different negative symptoms.
Although no one is sure what causes PCOS, recent research suggests that insulin resistance is the cause of PCOS. Genetic predisposition, lack of exercise and exposure to excess androgens in the womb may also play a role, and two recent studies found a link between PCOS and exposure to the plastic Bisphenol A (BPA). The original belief was that PCOS caused insulin resistance, but research has confirmed that insulin resistance typically precedes PCOS and may ultimately cause it. Other symptoms of PCOS, such as weight gain, sleep apnea, acne, anxiety and depression, and skin tags are also associated with insulin resistance. (For more information on insulin resistance, please read Modern Epidemic: Metabolic Syndrome.) The simple fact is that excess insulin in the blood stream leads to lower levels of female hormones and higher levels of androgens, both of which are present in PCOS.
Unfortunately, many doctors are unfamiliar with PCOS and are unsure how to legitimately diagnose it. To correctly diagnose PCOS, the following tests should be run.
- Fasting insulin level: This test is essential, as it will reveal the degree of insulin resistance that exists. Unfortunately, very few doctors order it.
- Hormone levels: Both male and female.
- Full thyroid panel: TSH, FT3, FT4 and TPO at a minimum. Thyroid disorders can mimic the symptoms of PCOS, so it is essential to ensure thyroid function is normal. If your doctor only ordered a TSH, find someone else, as it is impossible to gauge thyroid health solely using that test. (Please read How to be Your Own Thyroid Advocate for more information on correct thyroid testing.)
- Ultrasound and/or pelvic exam to check ovaries for cysts and/or inflammation: Please note that having ovarian cysts does NOT automatically mean you have PCOS. Many women have cystic ovaries at some point in their life.
Perhaps equally important, the following question should be asked:
- When did you stop taking birth control? Many women have false PCOS as a result of stopping birth control. It can take over two years for hormones to regulate after taking birth control, and menstruation may be irregular during that entire phase.
Most doctors use the “Rotterdam criteria” to diagnose PCOS. That criteria stipulates that a diagnosis of PCOS must include high androgen levels, cystic ovaries and a lack of ovulation. Unfortunately, this diagnostic criteria ignores insulin resistance, which is an essential factor in addressing PCOS successfully.
Successfully addressing PCOS requires major changes in eating habits and lifestyle habits. Let me say right now that Metformin is NOT an acceptable “treatment” for PCOS. Metformin improves insulin resistance short term but does nothing to address the cause of insulin resistance, nor does it reverse the issue. To truly address PCOS, the body’s natural sensitivity to insulin must be restored via significant lifestyle and dietary changes. Metformin may be useful very short term while lifestyle changes are being implemented, but is neither effective nor advisable to use as the sole option for rebalancing insulin sensitivity.
After making the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes, hormonal balance may be further restored using a wide variety of techniques and/or supplements. Each of these must be carefully selected based on the woman’s individual needs.
The top three things to do to start the process of reversing PCOS include:
- Following a low-glycemic eating plan and greatly reducing consumption of glycemic carbohydrates
- Exercising daily
- Eliminating all processed foods, chemical cleaners, plastic exposure, etc.
PCOS can be addressed and reversed, but the condition has so many varying factors that it is impossible to use a prescriptive approach. Each person’s case must be considered on an individual basis, with very careful choices made to best address the person’s symptoms and causative factors. I work with many women with PCOS and have helped many restore balance in body, mind and spirit. There is always hope.
Mid-Missouri Reproductive Health and Surgery, PCOS and Insulin Resistance
Janssen OE. High prevalence of autoimmune thyroiditis in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. Eur J Endocrin 150(3): 363-369
Fernandez, M, N Bourguignon, V Lux-Lantos and C Libertun. 2010. Neonatal exposure to Bisphenol A and reproductive and endocrine alterations resembling the polycystic ovarian syndrome in adult rats. Environmental Health Perspectives http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.0901257.
Diamanti-Kandarakis E. P2-395. Presented at: The Endocrine Society 92nd Annual Meeting and Expo; June 19-22, 2010; San Diego.
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