Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects approximately 12-20% of females of reproductive age. If experiencing PCOS, a female does not usually ovulate, no egg is released and the follicle becomes a cyst. This in turn causes an imbalance in hormones, including excess production of the primary male hormone, testosterone. This imbalance may result in irregular or absent periods, acne, excess hair growth in unwanted areas and weight gain.
What are the causes of PCOS?
In some cases, there is a genetic link with PCOS but in most cases the cause is unknown. There are a number of identified possible factors involved in the development of PCOS. A primary feature is a condition called insulin resistance. When insulin resistance occurs, the cells no longer listen to the call of insulin to move sugar out of the blood and into the cells. When too much insulin is produced it has adverse effects on the ovaries and disrupts the menstrual cycle and causes symptoms of PCOS. When insulin levels are reduced it helps to balance hormones. Therefore, a primary goal in the treatment of PCOS is restoring a healthy insulin response to the food we eat. Inflammation is also believed to be at play.
What dietary approaches can help manage the symptoms of PCOS?
The correct dietary practices can have a very beneficial impact on the symptoms of PCOS and a management focus should always be diet. Some key changes to make include:
Limit refined sugar and carbohydrates
A high intake of refined sugar and carbohydrates can cause elevated levels of insulin, increasing the chance of insulin resistance to worsen. Conversely, swapping these foods for complex carbohydrates has been shown to benefit PCOS. Examples of such foods include sweet potato, wholegrain/sourdough, oat bran, brown rice, quinoa, freekeh, pears, apples and legumes.
Adequate daily fibre helps improve the symptoms of PCOS via two main roles. Firstly, it helps to improve insulin sensitivity, when we eat foods high in fibre, the fibre slows the rate at which our blood sugar levels rise and therefore decreases the need for insulin. A rise in insulin stimulates testosterone and can aggravate the symptoms of PCOS. Secondly, fibre helps to keep our bowels regular, which in turn supports healthy hormone balance. Specifically, we excrete excess and/or metabolised hormones via our stools and in PCOS this is an effective way to clear excess testosterone and oestrogen.
The right kind of fats
Diets high in saturated fats such as from animal products are associated with inflammation as opposed to diets high in anti-inflammatory fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. This is where a plant-based diet or adding in a few plant-based meals to your usual diet can be very beneficial. Healthy fat sources include avocado, extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, raw nuts, chia seeds and hemp seeds.
High antioxidant intake
PCOS is associated with oxidative stress so it is important to eat a diet high in anti-oxidants to give your body the necessary resources to combat oxidative stress. Foods high in antioxidants include berries, kiwi fruit, papaya, pineapple, legumes, raw nuts/seeds, broccoli, kale, red cabbage, capsicum, tomato, sweet potato, beetroot etc.
Magnesium rich foods
Magnesium is a marvellous mineral for women who have PCOS because it not only helps make us more resistant to stress but it also aids insulin sensitivity. When we are under stress we churn through magnesium so it is important to make sure to eat an adequate amount during times of stress or take a supplement. Food sources of magnesium include green leafy veg (spinach, kale), avocado, banana, chickpeas, red kidney beans, wholegrains, quinoa, almonds, cashews and sesame seeds.
Cinnamon is a great tool for PCOS sufferers as it has been clinically shown to help regulate menstruation. Specifically, around 1.5g per day of cinnamon seems to offer some benefit. Some easy ways to add cinnamon to your diet include on porridge and in smoothies, used as a marinade for meats or sprinkled on roasted veg before putting in the oven.