Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is one of the most common hormonal endocrine disorders for women of child-bearing age. Women with PCOS don’t ovulate regularly and have ovaries that develop small cyst-like structures. Symptoms include: irregular periods, infertility, weight gain, acne, excessive hair growth in unwanted places (face and stomach), thinning hair, fatigue, mood swings, and low sex drive.
There are a few different criteria taken into account when making an official PCOS diagnosis. Not all women will have all three criteria, but they often go hand-in-hand.
Treatment options for PCOS depend on the person and prescribing doctor. Conventional treatment might include the following:
Though the diagnosis and conventional treatment plan for PCOS can seem daunting, there are many natural ways you can take charge of your health and balance your hormones naturally.
Though I presented my doctors with evidence of serious abnormalities, my concerns were downplayed as normal for a woman my age who had not yet stabilized her cycle. These symptoms included intense abdominal cramping, cystic acne, prolonged periods (2+ weeks) and irregular cycles (absence of periods for up to 6-8 months). I accepted these painful and confusing symptoms as normal, dismissing the signals my own body was attempting to convey for over 2 years until, at the age of 18, I was rushed to the hospital for having a sharp shooting abdominal pain. Upon arrival and after many tests, I was immediately taken into the operating room to have a cyst removed from one of my ovaries. My doctor at the time described this cyst to be the size of a grapefruit, which had turned into a torsion, which was blocking blood supply. The formation of many cysts on my ovaries didn’t allow for a normal menstrual cycle every 28 days. I then understood why I would get my menstrual period every 6-8 months. This all made sense when I got the diagnosis of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome).
I left the hospital with repeated reassurance that my condition was normal and it would only impact my life if I was trying to get pregnant. I was given the birth control pill to help regulate my cycle and metformin, a diabetes medication to help stabilize my insulin levels. While these medications helped to bring a monthly cadence to my cycle, I started to experience unpleasant symptoms such as worsening of digestive problems, mental fog, thyroid dysfunction and chronic exhaustion. In reality, the birth control pill does nothing to cure, prevent, or fix PCOS or any other hormone disorder. It can be helpful as a management tool for symptoms, but ultimately it just masked my problem and potentially made it worse long term.
I sensed I would be caught in a vicious cycle of prescription drugs and symptom management, both ineffective at getting to the root cause of PCOS. Lack of resources on the role of diet, supplementation and alternative modalities inspired me to focus my energy on the origins of my condition to take back control of my health. Employing food as medicine with alternative therapies like acupuncture, targeted supplementation, and herbs, I gave my body the tools it needed to heal and achieve balance. This journey has made me passionate about sharing the healing power of food, Functional Medicine and the body’s ability to heal itself when given the opportunity.
Hormones are very complicated and so is PCOS. PCOS is not a one-size fit all diagnosis, so there is no one-size-fits all treatment plan. My approach is to treat it holistically, addressing mind, body, and spirit. Our bodies should be treated as a whole because all of our body systems are interconnected. There are many ways to approach healing. Listed below are 6 steps that can make a big difference in your healing journey.
There is no doubt of the powerful role that emotions can have on health. Stress can manifest in headaches, digestive issues, back pain, insomnia, and more. Stress is not hard to find today- long work weeks, parenting, relationships, poor sleep, and other life stressors can build up and lead to chronic stress. Add this on top of a poor diet, lack of physical activity, and traumatic life events (car accidents, divorce, family conflict, losses, etc.), no wonder why people are stressed!
When you experience stress, your pituitary gland, stimulated by the brain via the hypothalamus, releases adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH signals to your
adrenal glands (small organs right above your kidneys) to pump out cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This is fine if a bear was chasing you or if you have an important deadline to reach at work, but it becomes detrimental when stress is left unchecked. Elevated androgens like DHEA, DHEA-S, and androstenedione are also produced by the adrenal glands in PCOS.
Knowing all of this, you can see why it is important to give special care and attention to your adrenal health to treat PCOS. Getting your stress under control is essential to your health. Below are some ways you can start to address stress in your life:
Hippocrates once said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” What food you put in your body either fights or feeds the disease. A whole food diet full of natural, unprocessed foods nourishes your body, even down to the cellular level.
To optimize your hormones and blood sugar, try an anti-inflammatory diet and skip the sugar, gluten, dairy, inflammatory oils (e.g. sunflower, canola, soy), and processed food. Instead, fill your plate with a wide range of colorful vegetables and fruit, clean protein sources (think wild-caught salmon and grass-fed, organic meat), and healthy fats. Healthy fats can include avocadoes, coconut milk, olive oil, and nuts and seeds. A diet high in simple carbohydrates exacerbates PCOS symptoms, so stick to sources of vegetables as your main source of carbohydrates.
Eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits provides your gut with necessary prebiotic fibers it needs. Other gut-healing foods include fermented foods, such as Kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles and roughage, such as artichoke, flaxseed, and chia seeds. The health of your body and brain depend on your gut. Nourishing your good gut bugs is essential for a healthy immune system, digesting and absorbing nutrients, brain health, and hormone balance.
In today’s world, we are exposed to many environmental toxins on a daily basis from our food supply, air, water, and products we use. The good news is, there are easy steps you can take to avoid and minimize your exposure. Most beauty care products and household cleaning products contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals like xenoestrogens, which mimic estrogen in the body. This further exacerbates estrogen dominance and hormonal imbalances as seen in PCOS. Start with getting rid of toxic skincare, make-up, personal hygiene, and cleaning products and replace them with natural alternatives. The Environmental Working Group has some great consumer guides on their website to get you started. Another option is to make your own skincare and cleaning products (which can be more budget-friendly too!)
Acupuncture is commonly used for hormone imbalance, including PCOS. There are multiple research studies showing the effectiveness of acupuncture in improving menstrual frequency and decreasing testosterone levels in women with PCOS. In one such research study, the acupuncture group, compared to the control group, had higher ovulation frequency, as well as a decrease in circulating levels of estrone, estrone sulfate, estradiol, DHEA, DHEA-S, and most androgens over the course of 10-13 weeks of acupuncture, 2 times weekly. When PCOS is treated in acupuncture, the meridians related to the reproductive system are stimulated, improving blood flow and normalizing hormone levels.
We all know that exercise is good for us, so why don’t we do it as often?! It is important to find an exercise that you enjoy doing, so you will be more likely to make it a regular part of your routine. However, there can be too much of a good thing. Over-exercising or partaking in a strenuous exercise like running can put a lot of stress on your adrenals. With PCOS, it is important to nourish your adrenals and body with light-moderate physical activity. Yoga, walking, pilates, and barre are less harsh on your body than say High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or running, but it still gets the job done.
In addition to eating a whole food diet, using supplementation for hormone-balance can help tremendously with PCOS. Every person is different, but the list below gives a general and foundational guide to start with.