What do Victoria Beckham, Star Wars actor Daisy Ridley, and our very own Sonam Kapoor have in common? Hint: It hasn’t got anything to do with their stardom and everything to do with their fertility. The answer is Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS. So if you are a woman reading this and you thought you were alone, you’re not! All these actors and countless more celebrities have spoken about their personal struggles to raise awareness about a condition that affects an estimated every 1 in 5 women in India.
Read along to understand what PCOS really is and how correct dietary and lifestyle changes can take the sting out of it.
WHAT IS IT?
PCOS is the most common hormonal disturbance among women and a common cause of female infertility but is often misdiagnosed or overlooked. Hormones are chemical messages in the blood. In PCOS, two hormones (androgens and insulin) are responsible for the symptoms related to PCOS. And while there is no cure, evidence-based information is available and most doctors say it’s best if the treatment is individualized, depending on the goals of each patient.
Let’s do a bit of a deep dive, shall we?
According to The Guardian’s health expert Sarah Hall, PCOS prevents women from ovulating or from ovulating regularly because the follicles containing the egg don’t develop fully. Instead of passing into the fallopian tubes to be fertilised – as they would do normally – the immature follicles, or cysts, which measure 2-8mm compared to the 20mm developed follicles, remain in the ovary and eventually wither away to be replaced by others.
Sarah Hall explains that an ovary is deemed “polycystic” if it has at least 10 benign cysts on it. A woman with the syndrome will have a larger ovary and may have abnormal hormone levels – including raised levels of testosterone (the hormone that influences hair growth), oestrogen (which stimulates the growth of the womb lining), and insulin which is normally involved in extracting energy from food.
SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES
According to the PCOS Society India, the symptoms of PCOS can vary between women and at different life stages. The range of symptoms include:
- Irregular menses
- Ten or more follicular cysts on the ovaries, as seen on an ultrasound
- Excess hair growth on the face, stomach, back
- Loss of hair on the top of the scalp
- Acne (pimples) that may be very severe
- Weight gain
- Difficulties in getting pregnant
- Emotional challenges (depression and/or anxiety)
- Increased risk of diabetes with earlier onset
- Low self-esteem
- Poor body image
- Impact on quality of life
It’s important to know, however, that not all of these symptoms are experienced by all women.
As far as causes go, while the exact cause (or causes) are unknown, researchers believe that genetics play a role and that environmental factors and lifestyle can contribute to the condition. Diagnosis is made by an ultrasound scan, which shows the cysts, and by blood tests to detect hormone levels.
REMEDIES AND TREATMENT
As you probably know by now, PCOS is an issue that can’t be solved by medication alone. What you eat (and don’t eat) goes a long way in treating the condition and therefore it’s important to eat the right types of food at the right times to rebalance your reproductive hormones. Here are a few pointers-
High-Quality Proteins – According to Alisa Vitti, a functional nutrition, women’s hormone expert, and founder of Flo Living, the first step is to address blood sugar imbalances by emphasizing high-quality proteins, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates in one’s diet. What’s more, is that protein also aids weight loss by reducing cravings and hastening to burn off calories. In fact, In one study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 57 women with PCOS were given either a high-protein diet – more than 40% of calories from protein and 30% from fat — or a standard diet consisting of less than 15% protein and 30% fat. Women in the high-protein group lost an average of 4.4 kg after 6 months — significantly more than those in the control group.
Plant-based protein – Alisa Vitti also adds that according to a Harvard study, women improved their chances of fertility when they got more of their protein from vegetable sources than animal sources. However, eggs were found to be an exception to the rule. Check out Oatopia’s range of protein bars that contain no added sugar and are completely natural and plant-based!
Managing stress – It’s critical to address cortisol dysregulation (stress hormone) with strategies such as prioritizing sleep, engaging in restorative movement, and doing restful activities.
Gut health – One can boost estrogen elimination by focusing on two key elements: improving the health of your gut and supporting your liver in its detox efforts. (Both the gut and the liver helps break down and eliminate excess hormones from the body.) To support your gut, it’s important to incorporate fermented and high-fiber foods and taking a high-quality probiotic. To help the liver flush estrogen from the body, one should incorporate cruciferous vegetables — like broccoli, broccoli sprouts, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts into their diet.
Regulating Blood Sugar – It’s also important to eat a good breakfast within 90 minutes of waking up every day. It’s an excellent way to safeguard your blood sugar for the day.
Regulate Carbohydrate Intake – Without being extreme, women with PCOS should reduce their carbohydrate intake overall and in particular avoid sugars and refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice, and anything stripped of its natural fiber or made with refined white flour). They are also advised to avoid eating carbohydrate-rich foods by themselves and space them out during the day to keep insulin levels from spiking. Consuming four or more small meals instead of a few large ones each day is also helpful.
Bottom line is, in addition to these above steps, regular moderate or vigorous exercise done five or more times a week is an important part of the regimen.
Allow us to leave you with an interesting fact about PCOS by science and nutrition author Jane E. Brody that you possibly didn’t know. First described in 1935, PCOS was initially called Stein-Leventhal syndrome, for the two American gynecologists who identified it, Dr. Irving F. Stein Sr. and Dr. Michael L. Leventhal. They recognized that ovarian cysts can interrupt ovulation and cause infertility in significant numbers of women