Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition that affects up to 1 in 10 women of child-bearing age. In a nutshell, PCOS is characterized by hormonal imbalances, involving not just the reproductive hormones (like estrogen and testosterone) but also hormones that regulate blood sugar, fat storage, and appetite.
Symptoms of PCOS may include painful or irregular periods, acne, abnormal hair growth, increased appetite, weight gain, and difficulty losing weight. Women with PCOS often develop metabolic syndrome, which increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. And the reverse is also true: Women with metabolic syndrome are more likely to develop PCOS. PCOS is also a leading cause of infertility.
Common symptoms of PCOS include:
- irregular periods or no periods at all.
- difficulty getting pregnant (because of irregular ovulation or failure to ovulate)
- excessive hair growth (hirsutism) – usually on the face, chest, back or buttocks.
- weight gain.
- thinning hair and hair loss from the head.
- oily skin or acne.
PCOS is strongly linked with obesity—and as obesity levels have risen, PCOS has become a more common diagnosis. But there are also lean women who suffer from PCOS. Almost all women with PCOS, however, have some degree of insulin resistance, which is also known as pre-diabetes.
The first-line therapy for PCOS is a diet and lifestyle makeover with the primary goal of improving the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Here are 3 ways to start on a virtuous path.
3 WAYS TO IMPROVE INSULIN SENSITIVITY AND ALLEVIATE PCOS SYMPTOMS
Tip1: Lose weight (if you need to)
Weight loss improves insulin sensitivity and you don’t necessarily have to reach your goal weight to get this benefit. Even a modest amount of weight loss can begin to reverse symptoms of PCOS. For example, if you are 50 pounds overweight, losing 10 pounds can make a big difference in your PCOS symptoms, even though you might still be significantly overweight.
Above all, you want to lose weight at a pace you can maintain long-term. Crash diets that produce fast weight loss followed by the inevitable rebound weight gain do more harm than good.
Tip2: Be more active
Exercise is also a great way to improve insulin sensitivity. It also helps rebalance reproductive hormones. As a bonus, it can also help with weight loss. A combination of aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate up for 30 minutes a day) and strength training will work best.
Tip3: Eat regularly but not too frequently
Although some people claim that eating every 2-3 hours is ideal, spacing your meals out more can help improve insulin sensitivity. Instead of having a small meal or snack every few hours, try to get used to eating a more substantial meal and then waiting 4-5 hours before eating again. For tips on how to choose foods that will keep you full longer, review my episodes on satiation and satiety.
WHAT TO EAT
High fiber foods can help combat insulin resistance by slowing down digestion and reducing the impact of sugar on the blood. This may be beneficial to women with PCOS.
Great options for high-fiber foods include:
- cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
- greens, including red leaf lettuce and arugula
- green and red peppers
- beans and lentils
- sweet potatoes
- winter squash
Lean protein sources like tofu, chicken, and fish don’t provide fiber but are very filling and a healthy dietary option for women with PCOS. Foods that help reduce inflammation may also be beneficial. They include:
- almonds and walnuts
- olive oil
- fruits, such as blueberries and strawberries
- fatty fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines
PCOS, like many disorders, responds positively to proactive lifestyle choices. This includes exercise and daily physical movement. Both can help to reduce insulin resistance, especially when coupled with a limited intake of unhealthy carbohydrates.
Many experts agree that at least 150 minutes per week of exercise is ideal. Daily activity, low sugar intake, and a low-inflammation diet may also lead to weight loss. Women may experience improved ovulation with weight loss, so women who are obese or overweight and want to get pregnant may find physician-approved exercise especially important.
The symptoms associated with PCOS can cause stress. Stress reduction techniques, which help calm the mind and let you connect with your body, can help. These include yoga and meditation. Speaking with a therapist or other medical professional may also be beneficial.