What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine condition which affects approximately 1 in 10 women. However, it’s possible this statistic could be even higher as the World Health Organisation states a staggering 70% of women go undiagnosed worldwide.
PCOS is one of the leading causes of fertility problems in women, however, not all women with PCOS will face fertility challenges. Despite the name, the ‘cysts’ in PCOS are not true cysts. In fact they are ‘stuck’ follicles which have not matured to release an egg, which is why there is some confusion about the name of the condition.
Once diagnosed, there is usually little advice on treatment or steps to alleviate the symptoms; this leaves many women feeling overwhelmed, isolated and misunderstood. We spoke to Certified Fertility Practitioner Raquel Monroy to break down the causes, symptoms and ways in which you can naturally alleviate their effects to keep you happy and healthy, even when your hormones want otherwise.
The cause of PCOS
The cause of PCOS is unknown. Genetics can play a part but, if your genes load the gun, it is the environmental factors which ‘pull the trigger’. Your genetic disposition doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop PCOS but, coupled with environmental factors, it could drive the onset of the syndrome.
Hormone imbalance, inflammation and, most importantly, insulin resistance are the main drivers of PCOS. With insulin resistance, tThe process kicks off with your body not being able to effectively use insulin and producing extra to get glucose to your cells. From here on – pesky PCOS symptoms start to appear: from excessive hair growth, to weight gain and anovulation. Think you might struggle with insulin resistance? Look out for symptoms like sudden weight gain (especially around your abdominal area), energy crashes, excess fatigue, sweet cravings and brain fog.
What happens to your body when you have PCOS
PCOS often leads to the overproduction of androgens (male hormones). Androgens include testosterone and DHEA-S (dehydroepiandrosterone sulphate). Elevated levels of androgens can lead to symptoms such as hirsutism (excessive facial and body hair), acne, and male-pattern baldness. There’s also often an imbalance in Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH), two hormones produced by the pituitary gland. Elevated LH levels relative to FSH can disrupt normal ovarian function, leading to irregular ovulation. PCOS can also involve disturbances in oestrogen levels which have a knock on effect on your menstrual cycle.
Symptoms to look out for
- Irregular periods or no periods at all
- Fertility issues
- Hirsutism (excessive hair growth)
- Weight gain
- Hair loss/thinning hair
- Oily skin or acne
If you suspect PCOS is wreaking havoc on your hormones, the diagnosis is settled if two out of the following three symptoms are present:
- Anovulation: infrequent ovulation leading to irregular or absent periods
- Hyperandrogenism: high levels of androgen hormones (male hormones such as testosterone) which can lead to symptoms like excess hair growth typically on the face, back or chest.
- Polycystic ovaries: defined as the presence of 12 or more follicles (measuring 2-9mm in diameter) in one or both ovaries and/or increased ovarian volume.
How to alleviate PCOS symptoms
As a fertility and women’s health specialist, I help women get to the root of the cause and manage this complex condition. Whilst PCOS needs in-depth investigation, these are the natural ways that will help manage your symptoms – here’s what to focus on:
Balance hormones naturally
Eat a nutrient dense diet with plenty of fibre rich foods such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. This will help to metabolise and detoxify hormones. Upping your gut health game will stabilise the circulation of oestrogen levels. The fine balance of your hormones will, helping you lower the risk of PCOS.
Increase anti-inflammatory foods into your diet such as oily fish which are rich in omega 3. A good tip to remember which oily fish to eat is the acronym SMASH (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herring). Reduce your intake of processed foods and alcohol consumption. Take steps to address stress which drives inflammation in the body. Introduce stress management tools like regular exercise, meditation, journaling. Finally, limit your exposure to toxins and hormone disruptors such as plastics.
Try keeping weight in check
Inflammation in the body directly stimulates ovarian androgen production. An increase in abdominal fat contributes to the inflammatory load so it’s important to manage weight. However, bear in mind not all women with PCOS are overweight. Chronic low-grade inflammation may not even show on blood or stool tests but could be showing in clinical signs such as eczema, joint pain or fatigue.
Blood sugar regulation
Eat regular meals with a good balance of protein, fibre and complex carbohydrates to ensure your blood sugar remains stable which promotes a healthy hormonal balance. A good tip is to fill half of your plate with a variety of vegetables and the other half should consist of about a fistful of good quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates.
Drink Spearmint Tea
One of the key benefits is its potential to reduce androgen (male hormone) levels, particularly testosterone. Elevated androgens can contribute to symptoms like hirsutism and acne in individuals with PCOS. Drinking spearmint tea may help lower androgen levels and alleviate these symptoms. I recommend drinking two cups of pure spearmint tea a day.
Getting enough sleep is crucial for blood sugar control, not to mention healing and repairing the body. The sleep hormone (melatonin) also plays an important role in ovarian function so it’s important not to disrupt melatonin production by avoiding screen time at least 2 hours before bed and reducing blue light exposure (tough one, we know!).
Raquel Monroy is a certified fertility practitioner and women’s health nutritionist. In honour of PCOS Awareness Month, Raquel has launched The PCOS Reset programme to support individuals with PCOS. Download her free guide 10 steps to getting pregnant in your 30s and beyond from her website www.raquelmonroy.com or join her private Facebook Group: TTC in your 30s and beyond. For anything else go stalk her on instagram @raquelmonroynutrition.