PCOS is entering epidemic proportions with an estimated 6-10% of all women in North America potentially having PCOS. Not only that, but the consequences can be severe and life-threatening including infertility or sub-fertility, diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression. Literally millions of women are struggling and really don’t have any information from their doctors other than “you have PCOS.” Let’s go over the basics about PCOS, which stands for polycystic ovary syndrome, and see what can be done about this frankly horrifying condition.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome sounds like it logically should be a situation where there are many cysts on women’s ovaries (that would make sense, right?) and in some cases that is correct, but actually a woman doesn’t have to have cysts to have PCOS. Go figure. We’re finding out now, that it can also affect men’s health – although there is no equivalent of a PCOS diagnosis for men – but they can still carry the genes and pass it on to their sons and daughters. Essentially this is a whole body condition that is partially caused by genetics and partially caused by environment. It typically starts with an imbalance in your levels of sex hormones, but ends up changing the way your body uses insulin, which can lead to diabetes. Because of this combination there can be cysts in the ovaries, higher than normal levels of testosterone, insulin-resistance, pre-diabetes or actual diabetes, weight gain, and fertility troubles.
Symptoms of PCOS
Not every woman has the same spectrum of symptoms, but all of these can be part of PCOS.
- Missed, skipped or no periods or super-heavy painful periods
- Easy weight gain and difficult weight loss – especially around the belly
- Extra hair growth on face or body
- Thinning hair on scalp
- Insulin resistance, pre-diabetes or diabetes
- Difficulty getting pregnant, difficult pregnancies or infertility.
- **PCOS is often mistaken for thyroid disease so if you feel like you’ve got all the symptoms of low thyroid, but your thyroid tests normal then this could be it.
What are the Conventional Medical Treatments?
Conventional medicine combines 4 drug therapies depending on your symptoms:
- Estrogen/progestin birth control pills to regulate your cycle, or progestin only if you’re at risk with estrogen use.
- Spironolactone (which is actually a diuretic) to decrease testosterone levels and help prevent some of the acne, hair growth and hair thinning.
- Metformin to help regulate blood sugars
- Clomid or other fertility inducers to help women get pregnant.
All of this is great – provided you’re the type of gal who responds well to medications and isn’t (like me) going to get every side effect ever heard of plus some new ones thrown in for fun. Also, all of these medications do have risks and some of those risks are pretty serious. This isn’t the format to talk about them but if you’re taking any of these medications do a little research on the nutrients they deplete as well as the long-term consequences please!
Natural Therapies for PCOS
This is an emerging field because so many women are unhappy with the way their situation is progressing. In the coming weeks I’ll do another full blog post on this particular topic because there are diet and lifestyle choices that can have a huge impact. These can include:
- Paleo diet
- Grain-free diet (but not fully paleo)
- Low carb diet
- Regular exercise and an active lifestyle
- Quitting smoking (smoking actually increases testosterone levels in women)
- Losing weight
- Eating small meals frequently
The biggest thing that I want you to understand is that PCOS is a serious diagnosis and if your doctor tells you that you have it and hands you birth control, please please start looking into it. Get to the point that you understand what is going on with your body and your health because the long-term consequences are huge.
Isn’t it fair to say that polycystic ovaries is really a symptom of an endocrine system imbalance?Technically even men can have the same endocrine imbalance, they will just never have the symptom of polycystic ovaries. My sister was diagnosised with PCOS in 2008, and after some research I found out that it can affect male relatives as well. That started me down the rabbit hole of find answers to medical issues I’d had since I was a teenager, I just never knew what to look for. At the time I was diagnosed with subclinical hypothyroidism, but since the I have also been diagnosed with insulin resistance, low DHEA, and hypogonadism. It would appear whatever genes cause my sister’s endocrinogical imbalance, which gives her polycystic ovaries, also causes the plethora of endocrinogical issues that I have. Have they identified the genes that cause PCOS in women?
You’re absolutely right. Hoenstly, I think “PCOS” (we don’t really have a great name for it when it happens in men) is just as common in men as it is in women. I think in the future there will be more recognition of the male form of PCOS, but for now doctors are a bit hazy on it. It certainly sounds like your spectrum of endocrine issues fits the bill. To answer your question, there are a heap of genes that are linked to PCOS and obviously, these can occur in both men or women. Here’s a link to a full-text research article (sorry – it’s a bit dense) that talks more about it. Take a look at “Table 1” from this study that shows the genes in list format. Hopefully with more men showing up with these types of spectrum endocrine issues we will also see more research into it. Thanks for reading!
There is another interesting piece of information about the link between diet and PCOS. According to research, eating a big breakfast and a small dinner can cause a drop in testosterone levels and insulin resistance by at least 50%. Of course you need to do it consistently. Just try to eat the majority of your calories early in the day.
Great tip! Do you have a reference or article for that? I’d love to read more. Thanks!