Despite being a relatively common condition amongst women, there’s still much that we don’t know about polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. For this reason, it can often seem difficult to treat PCOS in a way that can effectively reduce the symptoms and your long-term risks, as well as make it easier to conceive.
At Dr. Tanya’s Fertility Centre, we have clients asking about PCOS frequently. When we say that there’s research to show that diet and exercise can play a major role in the management of your PCOS, some ask – doesn’t everyone say that about every health issue?
In the article below, we’ll examine PCOS and how big a role diet really plays in mitigating the consequences of your PCOS.
What is PCOS and what causes it?
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common hormonal disorder that affects roughly one in every ten women around the world. When someone has PCOS, there is insulin resistance, which results in the ovaries producing excess androgen (male hormone).
This interferes with the FSH (follicle stimulating hormone) signal from the pituitary, which causes maturation of the egg. This maturation defect then results in infrequent ovulation or no ovulation, and subsequently decreased fertility. Other typical symptoms of excess androgen production include acne, facial hair, hair loss, and weight gain. In addition, frequently, there are multiple small cysts around the periphery of the ovary that can be seen on ultrasound, hence the name, polycystic ovary syndrome.
The long-term risks associated with PCOS include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk of endometrial cancer
Sadly, the exact cause of PCOS remains unclear. Experts believe that genetic and environmental factors play a role. While there is no cure for PCOS, lifestyle changes can be made which can improve the symptoms of PCOS and a patient’s chances of pregnancy.
How does diet affect PCOS?
Research has shown that making good dietary choices can have a positive effect in reducing the symptoms of PCOS. The two primary ways healthy eating can benefit PCOS patients are through weight management and reduction in insulin resistance.
PCOS is associated with insulin resistance, although the exact nature of this relationship is not fully understood. This insulin resistance can lead to diabetes later in life. Almost 50% of people with PCOS develop diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 40.
While there is currently no standard diet for PCOS, eating foods that can help increase your insulin sensitivity can have a positive effect on lowering your androgen levels, which are responsible for PCOS symptoms.
What to eat and what not to eat when you have PCOS?
You may have heard people profess that a certain diet or swearing off a certain type of food is enough to rid yourself of your PCOS symptoms.
There’s no research to suggest that PCOS has a connection with any single food and you should not delete any food group from your diet unless you have a specific food intolerance.
However, it is important to strive to maintain a healthy body weight which will improve your quality of life. With that in mind, there are certain foods you should be aware of that can help improve the long-term risks and short term symptoms of your PCOS, such as:
Low Glycemic Index (GI) foods:
- Carbohydrate-containing foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) are processed slowly in the body, which means that your blood sugars rise at a slower rate.
- Foods that have a high glycemic index are digested and absorbed quickly, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar. If chronic, this elevation in blood sugar increases the risk of developing diabetes.
- Foods that have a high GI are white rice, white bread, potatoes, and pasta; and foods with a low GI include foods that are high in fibre like green vegetables, most fruits, raw carrots, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils. Studies have found that eating low GI foods have been linked to better management of PCOS symptoms.
- In the world of diets, there is a lot of talk about foods that can lower inflammation. In reality, inflammation is simply your body’s way of fighting off infection, but there is something called chronic inflammation, in which your immune system is overstimulated all the time.
- Those with PCOS have a greater risk of developing chronic inflammation, although just like with diabetes, the exact nature of this relationship is still unclear.
- Regardless, eating anti-inflammatory foods can greatly increase your overall health and wellbeing. These include eating fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, sources of poly- and monounsaturated fats like avocados, nuts and olive oil, and limiting red meat.
Weight loss and PCOS
PCOS can make it a lot easier to gain weight. This extra weight can worsen your PCOS symptoms. There is no single recommended diet for PCOS but it is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
A healthy lifestyle includes regular exercise and eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, good fats such as olive oil, avocados and nuts, and adequate amounts of protein. You should also avoid trans fats, saturated fats, processed sugars and excessive sodium.
Although there is no diet prescribed for PCOS, the Mediterranean diet has been proven to have good results for people with PCOS since it involves eating a lot of low GI foods and anti-inflammatory foods.
The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to improve fertility. A recent study found that women who tried the Mediterranean diet were more successful in getting pregnant than women who were not on the diet.
PCOS and Your Fertility Journey
It can be quite alarming to learn that PCOS affects your fertility. It can sometimes make you feel hopeless and anxious.
But while PCOS may pose an obstacle to your goal of starting a family, it’s not the end of the road. You can get pregnant with PCOS. In addition to lifestyle modification, there are a number of fertility options available to help you. These include ovulation induction agents, insulin sensitizers, occasionally a minor surgical procedure, and also IVF.
A combination of lifestyle changes and the right fertility treatment is often used in tandem to help you achieve a healthy pregnancy. Remember there are always options on your fertility journey.
If you are having fertility issues, Dr. Tanya’s Fertility Centre can help. Contact us today, and we can get started on discovering the best solution for you.