It’s been estimated that five to ten percent of women between 20 to 40 years of age have PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome).1
You may already have heard of it in the context of making the menstrual cycle irregular and generally disrupting our hormones, if left unchecked.
That’s because the hormonal (‘endocrine’) system is a tightly controlled, integrated system that regulates our body’s processes – this also means that one problem can set off a domino effect of changes.
Let’s take a closer look at the effects of PCOS and how nutrition can help control the metabolic issues that come with it.
What Happens During PCOS
Given that the endocrine system is probably one of the most intricate systems of our body, describing PCOS in a nutshell can’t always capture its far-reaching, comprehensive effects.
So, since its precise cause hasn’t quite been indentified yet, it’s simpler to understand this disorder via the two fundamentalchanges it typically causes in women who have it.
First and foremost, testosterone, the male hormone, rises to higher than normal levels, leading to problems like excess hair growth and acne. In fact, this alteration is the main culprit behind most problems associated with PCOS.2
Second, there is inflammation in the ovaries, which causes menstrual disturbances and fertility issues.
Because of the integrated nature of hormones, these two changes (as you will soon see) go on to create other hormonal imbalances in our body. The metabolic consequences eventually lead to obesity, reproductive problems, skin and hair problems, cholesterol issues and an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.3
The good news is that small changes can help control PCOS to a great extent.
Nutritional Tips for Women with PCOS
1] Eat Fewer Carbohydrates
One of the effects of PCOS is that the cells in our body become resistant to a hormone called ‘insulin’ that (in addition to performing many other metabolic processes) allows us to use glucose as energy.
This resistance goes on to create high blood sugar and associated complications with the eyes, kidneys, nerves etc, and is also what eventually causes diabetes.4
The body’s attempt to adjust to insulin resistance makes fat loss difficult, although exactly how this happens has not been discovered as yet. Nevertheless, this would explain the high incidence of obesity in PCOS cases.4
Lower-carb diets (with the right type of carbs like whole grains, fruits and vegetables) are recommended for PCOS because they may help reduce insulin levels, encourage fat loss, and have also been shown to promote menstrual regularity.
2] Get More Fibre in Your Diet
Fibre can slow down the absorption of sugars from our food, and in doing so, regulates insulin levels.5 Fibrous foods also increase satiety, i.e., make us feel full faster, which can also help with weight loss – something that PCOS otherwise tends to make difficult (you’ll read about it in the next point).
Also, keep in mind that refined grains (as opposed to whole grains) contain little to no fibre – it’s best to keep these foods at bay.
3] Consume Enough Healthy Fats
Most of us have been witness to the weight-goal-damaging-effects of hunger pangs. Leptin, a satiety hormone, controls these hunger pangs, making us feel full and preventing us from overeating.
Those who have PCOS, however, have excessively high levels of leptin. You’d think that’s a good thing, but in reality, when there’s too much of it, our cells become resistant to it effects – which can lead to overeating and, hence, weight gain.
Moreover, this hormone is produced by our fat cells. In obesity, where there are a higher number of fat cells, even more leptin is produced, leading to a seemingly endless cycle of leptin resistence.6
Luckily, saturated fats (butter, ghee, coconut oil) seem to be able to decrease our leptin levels, which would make cells receptive to the hormone again.7
That said, it’s important not to overdo these fats. Try aiming for 20 to 35% of daily calories to come from good fats, of which 10% can comprise saturated forms.
Other healthy fats called omega-3 fatty acids (found in sources like fatty fish and avocados) can help lower inflammation in the ovaries, something you’ll remember from earlier is a significant reason behind PCOS-related problems in the first place, and can even help with menstrual pain.8
4] Eat More Vegetarian Sources of Protein
While animal protein offers many advantages, too much of it may not be the best idea for those with PCOS because experts suspect that excess consumption of commercially produced meat could increase testosterone levels (although these observations have been made in association with infertility rather than PCOS itself).9, 10
Including some beans, nuts and seeds along with meat would offer not only additional (plant-based) protein, but some fibre too.
5] Get Enough Micronutrients
Many issues in the body occur because we unknowingly deprive ourselves of certain vitamins and minerals. Two examples:
– Vitamin D
Studies have suggested that low levels of vitamin D are linked to a larger fat mass, which is associated with resistance to leptin and insulin.11
Whether having low levels of vitamin D causes the higher fat mass or is a result of it, either way, it’s important to make sure we have enough of it. Although sunlight is the best source, small amounts of vitamin D (especially D3) are also found in cheese, egg yolks, fatty fish and beef liver, apart from mushrooms.
– B vitamins
Low levels of vitamin B12 have been associated with insulin resistance and other complications in PCOS patients. Scientists are not sure why but supplementation with some B vitamins seems to help abate the symptoms of PCOS.12
6] Load up on Antioxidants:
Free-radicals play a key role in metabolic processes, but they also have the ability to damage cells and proteins, when their numbers are in excess – which just so happens to be associated with PCOS.
Antioxidants, such as those found in green tea and other plant-based foods, can neutralise free radicals, preventing the damage they cause. Some compounds in green tea have even been shown to help the body use sugar for energy (which would reduce blood sugar levels). Also rich in antioxidants, cinnamon extract is actually believed to reverse insulin resistance to some extent.12
Again – we may not understand exactly how PCOS develops, but we do know that a healthy lifestyle, defined by eating well and exercising enough, can go a long way in reducing the metabolic and reproductive disturbances in PCOS.
1. Allahbadia GN, Merchant R. Semin Reprod Med 2008, 26(1): 22-34.
2. Diamanti-Kandarakis E, et al. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev 2006, 3 Suppl 1: 198-204.
3. Rojas J, et al. International journal of reproductive medicine 2014, 2014: 719050.
4. Chang RJ, et al. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 1983, 57(2): 356-359.
5. Venn BJ, Mann JI. Eur J Clin Nutr 2004, 58(11): 1443-1461.
6. Chakrabarti J. Annals of Medical and Health Sciences Research 2013, 3(2): 191-196.
7. Pourghassem Gargari B, et al. International Journal of Fertility & Sterility 2015, 9(3): 313-321.
8. Tokuyama S, Nakamoto K. Biol Pharm Bull 2011, 34(8): 1174-1178.
9. Chavarro JE, et al. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2008, 198(2): 210.e211-217.
10. Chavarro JE, et al. Obstet Gynecol 2007, 110(5): 1050-1058.
11. Chehade JM, et al. Diabetes Spectrum 2009, 22(4): 214-218.
12. Raja-Khan N, et al. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism 2011, 301(1): E1-E10.