Chances are, you know a woman who suffers from polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. Between six and 12 percent of women in America—up to five million—experience this common cause of infertility, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Though there is no true cure for this disorder, it’s a common misconception that PCOS cannot be treated. There are multiple ways to manage PCOS symptoms, including making small lifestyle shifts.
What is PCOS?
At a basic level, PCOS involves hormonal imbalances that occur during a woman’s reproductive years and lead to a variety of symptoms.
“PCOS is an endocrine disorder that involves high insulin levels and anovulation, meaning not ovulating,” says G. Thomas Ruiz, M.D., OB/GYN at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA.
The imbalance of insulin and reproductive hormones often leads to problems in the ovaries, resulting in missed or irregular menstrual periods, according to the Office On Women’s Health (OWH).
Other common symptoms of this disorder include difficulty losing weight, male-pattern baldness, follicles on the ovaries (seen via transvaginal ultrasound), skin tags under the armpits and around the neck area, and darkening of the skin along the groin and underneath the breasts, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“In PCOS, the ovaries are in a constant state of overdrive, making a chronic level of estrogen,” states Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., OB/GYN with Yale University. They also produce higher-than-normal levels of the male sex hormone testosterone (which they typically produce small amounts of).
“So not only do you have estrogen building up in the lining of the uterus, but you also have all of this extra testosterone, which causes acne and excess body hair,” Minkin says.
What causes PCOS?
While researchers have yet to determine the exact cause of PCOS, both Ruiz and Minkin say that obesity tends to play a role in this condition.
“But does PCOS predispose you to obesity or does obesity predispose you to PCOS? We still don’t know the answer,” Ruiz says.
However, some science suggests that insulin resistance (which causes the pancreas to make more insulin and in turn encourages the ovaries to produce an abundance of testosterone) and/or a family history of type 2 diabetes can be driving factors, according to the CDC. Basically, there seems to be a link between metabolic dysfunction and PCOS.
How Is PCOS Treated?
Hormonal birth control is currently “the primary hallmark treatment” for PCOS, says Ruiz. Additionally, the Office on Women’s Health states that anti-androgen medicines and metformin (a popular medication for type 2 diabetes) may also be prescribed, even though these prescriptions have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat PCOS symptoms.
“While women cannot rely on natural therapy alone, there are certain things she can do on her own in conjunction with traditional medicine to manage PCOS,” continues Ruiz.
Natural Ways To Ease PCOS
If you’ve been diagnosed with this condition or think you may suffer from it, chat with your physician and consider making the following lifestyle shifts.
1. Balance Your Diet
Eating a well-rounded diet of nutritious foods can work wonders to easing your symptoms and supporting your overall health.
“When it comes to nutrition, look to create a balanced plate—half veggies, one quarter protein, and one quarter slow carbohydrates, like quinoa or brown rice, or starchy veggies, such as corn, peas, potatoes,” says Angela Grassi, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., founder of The PCOS Nutrition Center and co-author of The PCOS Workbook: Your Complete Guide to Complete Physical and Emotional Health.
Ruiz concurs. “While the data doesn’t show one diet is better than another, I’m an advocate for following a low-carb diet. My reasoning is this: Controlled carbohydrate intake will release less insulin into your bloodstream, ultimately creating lower insulin levels,” he says.
Ruiz also advises supplementing with a “well-rounded multivitamin” designed for women. “It should be part of your overall wellness plan because here’s the reality: We do not eat the right types of foods to get all of the essential minerals and cofactors our bodies need.” (In the market for a new multi? Try Vthrive The Vitamin Shoppe Brand Bioactive Women’s Once Daily Multi.)
2. Consume Omega-3s
Don’t forget about fish when you’re filling your plate with protein. Grassi suggests eating two servings of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines, each week due to the multiple beneficial properties of their omega-3 fatty acids.
“Omega-3s have been linked to improving triglycerides and insulin levels, lowering inflammation and blood pressure, boosting mood, and enhancing hair and skin quality,” she states.
A meta-analysis of nearly 600 patients published in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology concluded that this type of healthy fat, which the body cannot make on its own, can be recommended for women with PCOS to treat insulin resistance, as well as high total cholesterol and high triglycerides.
Plus, supplementing with omega-3s may even help obese women conceive, according to a study conducted by researchers at University of Colorado Advanced Reproductive Medicine.
3. Work Out Frequently
For women with PCOS, consuming a low-carb diet and working out regularly go hand-in-hand, Ruiz says. “I recommend 30-to-40 minutes of exercise at least five times a week,” he suggests.
Minkin is a big fan of aerobic activities, as well as strength training, since both types of exercise contribute to weight loss and weight management. “My favorite exercise for people is the one they are going to do,” she says. “If you love to run, great. If you like riding your bike, fabulous. Whatever activity you will do regularly is terrific.”
An evidence-based review published in the Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that the physiological benefits of physical activity, such as improvement in insulin sensitivity, may help reduce the risk of infertility, along with restoring fertility and quality of life among patients living with PCOS. “Exercising could be the most important thing to do,” Minkin states.
4. Supplement with Vitamin D
The ‘sunshine vitamin’ can do more for your reproductive health than you realize. “The one vitamin I feel is very important for women with PCOS is vitamin D,” Minkin says.
In fact, findings from a meta-analysis published in a 2020 edition of the journal Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine suggests that taking a vitamin D supplement can help support healthy insulin and reproductive hormone levels in females diagnosed with PCOS.
“We know this vitamin is good for our bones, so I believe vitamin D should be taken throughout our whole life cycle,” she adds.
5. Get More Magnesium
An essential mineral that also helps regulate muscle and nerve function, as well as make protein, bone, and DNA, magnesium may also be especially helpful for women with PCOS. “Magnesium has been shown to play a role in glucose, insulin, and blood pressure regulation,” Grassi says.
The results from four epidemiological analytic studies published in the journal Current Development in Nutrition point to a possible association between levels of magnesium and insulin resistance among women with PCOS.
There are plenty of foods packed with magnesium, but supplementation is also a good option. The NIH states that the upper limit for magnesium in dietary supplements and medications (not including food) is 350 milligrams for adults. Try Natural Vitality Natural Calm Magnesium Gummies for a tasty alternative to capsules.
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