In this article we explore how to eat when you have PCOS to support hormone health and alleviate many of the common symptoms that accompany the disorder. Our bodies need a combination of minerals, nutrients and vitamins to function properly and keep us healthy and happy. The primary way we receive these components is through what we eat.
What we consume on a regular basis has the power to shape not only our bodies but every aspect of our lives. To learn more about developing a proper nutrition and eating habits when you have PCOS, keep on reading. We also have our Eating for Balanced Hormones Guide, a science based nutrition meal plan tailored to follow the different phases of the menstrual cycle to support reproductive health, skin health and total body wellness.
Let’s break down PCOS
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a gynecological and hormonal disorder. Its main characteristics are irregular menstrual cycles, impeded ovulation, hormonal imbalance and, in some cases, infertility. Symptoms include excessive hair growth, insulin resistance and an imbalanced metabolism, often leading to weight gain and obesity. Research indicates that 5% – 10% of women aged between 15 and 44 experience PCOS, with genetics heightening the potential risk.
How PCOS affects your hormones
The fluctuations of hormones that happen day to day during a woman’s cycle can impact on overall health, metabolism, and mood. The hormones that rise and fall in different stages of a woman’s cycle function to create the environment in which menstruation, ovulation, and pregnancy occur. The ovarian cycle, in relation to hormones, can be explained as two different stages: the follicular stage and the luteal phase. With the transformation of the phases comes a change in the hormones regulated by the body.
The follicular state is stimulated by a rise of the hormone estrogen, where the egg follicle found on an ovary becomes ready to release an egg. Usually, one singular egg is released during each monthly cycle. The endometrium begins to thicken to prepare the environment for potential pregnancy. In this phase, women are most fertile. Mid-cycle is when ovulation occurs and the body enters the luteal phase, which is characterized by large amount of progesterone, which changes the lining of the uterus in preparation for pregnancy. When implantation does not occur (in the form of a sperm impregnating the egg), then both progesterone and estrogen levels drop in order for the body to shed its lining. This is the process known as menstruation (the bleeding phase) in the cycle. Generally, each cycle is 28 days, though it can vary widely among women, lasting up to 40 or more days at a time.
PCOS causes a disruption in the hormonal changes in the body, with a production of large amounts of androgens (or testosterone), usually associated with a male reproductive system. The balance of stimulating hormones (estrogen and progesterone) is impeded here, creating an environment where the egg is not released, and ovulation may not occur. The result of this is small cyst (fluid filled sacs) form in the ovary, disrupting the functioning of the menstrual cycle.
As a lifelong condition, PCOS is treated in a number of ways, with modern medical, natural remedies and through lifestyle changes. Depending on the symptoms experienced (hair growth, obesity, hormonal difficulties) and the desired preferences (to reduce obesity or promote fertility) the treatment options are many and varied. Long-term treatment for more chronic cases will assist in preventing the risk of endometrial cancer, diabetes and serious heart conditions. PCOS can lead to more detrimental health risks, so it is vital to maintain a healthy lifestyle to ensure wellbeing.
There have been numerous studies, as well as research that is still growing, to determine the role of nutrition in supporting the hormonal balance in the body for women with PCOS. From the results, there is a general guide for macro and micronutrient intake, which may prove beneficial for women dealing with PCOS. Vitamins, minerals and energy consumption can all affect the body’s metabolism and subsequent interplay of hormones. In order to prevent the risk of more serious conditions associated with PCOS, it is imperative to support the body through an integrated healthy lifestyle, including diet and regular exercise.
Macro and Micronutrients for PCOS
According to research, PCOS strongly associated with insulin resistance and obesity. Nutrition has been a sought after lifestyle treatment for those suffering in order to aid in balancing the insulin response (blood sugar) and reduce instances of weight gain leading to cardiovascular disease.
When nutrition and exercise is addressed to treat insulin sensitivity, improvements are found in endocrine and hormonal functioning, and in reproductive and metabolic systems. More studies need to be done to confirm the in depth long term nutritional recommendations for PCOS in terms of macro and micro nutrient intake, though the research that has been done offers some valuable information for those with this condition.
Macro nutrition refers to the balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein intake in a diet and the role it plays on metabolism and health. For an average woman, the American Dietary Association (ADA) recommends between 1600-2400 calories per day for healthy weight management, though this range will be dependent on energy expenditure. Your activity levels will greatly influence your calorie intake with more activity/exercise leading to a higher daily intake, and more stagnant lifestyles mean that calorie needs will be lower.
Based on the available research, below is a recommended breakdown of macronutrients which will assist in balancing the metabolism and stabilizing blood sugar to allow for a more balanced hormonal system for those who are expiring the insulin resistance and obesity that comes with PCOS.
The general guide here is 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein and 30% fat. For your daily intake of foods, this will give you a guide as to how to best manage the food types in your diet. Calorie intake should be distributed between several smaller meals per day to keep full and less spikes and troughs of blood sugar.
It has been found that both the quality and quantity of carbs in a woman’s daily intake will affect glucose metabolism, therefore insulin sensitivity. A higher intake of high glycemic index foods (such as white bread or fried potatoes) will result in greater spikes in blood sugar, leading to further health risks for PCOS sufferers like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues. The quality of carbs here are important, so opt for high fiber carbs like legumes and grains. Basically, minimally processed, plant based sources of carbs.
One study found that the source and amount of protein in the diet can affect insulin sensitivity, and plant based sources of proteins had the most beneficial affect on the health, as opposite to red meats. Green vegetables, nuts and seeds are all high protein pant based foods. Studies have also shown that a diet with higher protein vs carbohydrate ratio helped women with PCOS with losing weight.
In another study of PCOS sufferers, it was found that those who consumed trans fats (heavily processed fats, e.g. Vegetable oils) instead of monounsaturated fats (healthier omega-3s), then the women’s risk of ovulatory infertility doubled. Fats are recommended as 30% or lower of total calorie intake, with a high emphasis on healthy sources of fats such as avocado, nuts and healthy oils like coconut and high quality olive oil.
Furthermore, omega-3 supplementation is suggested to assist in balancing certain hormones that are disrupted in PCOS. Studies in this past decade prove that there is a relationship between the intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and the androgen levels, which are seen to be out of balance in women with PCOS.
From an 8-week study of supplementation of Omega-3 in diet’s of women with PCOS, it was found that concentrations of testosterone in overweight PCOS were reduced, as well as a more regulated menstrual cycle as a result. It was noted that with little data available as to the long-term effects of omega-3s in treating all women with PCOS, this calls for more future long-term studies in the potential benefit of omega-3 in supporting PCOS.
Micronutrients refer to the vitamins and minerals that make up our foods. Certain micronutrients have been found to assist in balancing health of women with PCOS. One particular micronutrient that was found to be deficient in those who had impeded functioning of the reproductive system, such as in PCOS, was folate. Studies also found that the for vitamin D, the receptor is found in the ovary, endometrium and placenta, and deficiency of Vitamin D may play a role in creating more imbalance in the reproductive system. Iron is also another micronutrient that has been found to be deficient in women with infertility. These are just three of the micronutrients that have links to PCOS support, which you can access through your diet, or through supplementation.
Even if you do not count calories and weigh your food, these percentages of macronutrients and the advice of micro nutritional supplementation will allow you to consider your own balance of your diet, and how you could adjust for yourself. You may work with a nutritionist, or use the 40-30-30% as a general guide when considering your own meal plans.
In terms of other lifestyle tips to reduce blood sugar levels, exercise will greatly assist in balancing your metabolism. It has also been found that women who smoke will have higher levels of androgen, which impedes hormonal balance, so cutting down or quitting smoking will also be a positive change in treating PCOS.
If you suspect that you may have PCOS, or have received potential diagnoses of symptoms from your health care provider, there are a few ways to confirm a PCOS diagnosis. Pelvic exams, blood tests and ultrasounds are the most common ways to diagnose, often a combination of these tests is used to confirm or deny PCOS.
What about you? How do you eat for PCOS or to support your hormone health? Please share in the comment box below.
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Nadjarzadeh, Azadeh, et al. “The effect of omega-3 supplementation on androgen profile and menstrual status in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: A randomized clinical trial.” Iranian journal of reproductive medicine 11.8 (2013): 665.
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“Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).” National Women’s Health Network. NWHN.org, Aug. 2015. Web. 09 July 2017. <https://www.nwhn.org/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/>.