Polycystic ovary/ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition with over 200,000 cases being reported in the United States every year. This is a chronic condition that, unfortunately, does not have a cure at this time, but there are options available to help lessen the symptoms that come along with it. PCOS “is a condition in which the ovaries produce an abnormal amount of androgens, male sex hormones that are usually present in women in small amounts. The name polycystic ovary syndrome describes the numerous small cysts (fluid-filled sacs) that form in the ovaries” . Despite the name of this condition, cysts don’t always appear for those who have it, and sometimes cysts on the ovaries can appear for conditions unrelated to PCOS. Of course, one of the options available to help control the symptoms of PCOS is medication, but symptoms can also be controlled through diet and nutrition. Before diving into what diet and health choices can be helpful to those living with PCOS, let’s go over some of the symptoms that may come with this condition and how it can be diagnosed.
The following is a list of PCOS symptoms provided by John Hopkins Medicine :
● Missed periods, irregular periods, or very light periods
● Ovaries that are large or have many cysts
● Excess body hair, including the chest, stomach, and back (hirsutism)
● Weight gain, especially around the belly (abdomen)
● Acne or oily skin
● Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair
● Small pieces of excess skin on the neck or armpits (skin tags)
● Dark or thick skin patches on the back of the neck, in the armpits, and under the breasts
It is important to note that just because you might experience some of these symptoms, it does not automatically mean you have PCOS. This is where it is important to go to the doctor if you believe you might have PCOS. It is necessary to get a medical diagnosis so you are able to make the steps you need in order to make living with PCOS as comfortable as possible until a cure is found.
When going through the diagnostic process for PCOS, you will get a physical exam, likely to include a pelvic exam, which “checks the health of your reproductive organs, both inside and outside your body” . Along with this exam, you may be referred to get an ultrasound and blood tests. An ultrasound “is used to look at the size of the ovaries and see if they have cysts. The test can determine the thickness of the lining of the uterus (endometrium),” while blood tests are necessary to “look for high levels of androgens and other hormones. Your health care provider may also check your blood glucose levels, [...] and you may have your cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked” .
Some complications that come with living with PCOS include a higher likelihood of developing “type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, problems with the heart and blood vessels, and uterine cancer” . One of the more well-known complications that may come with this condition is the issue surrounding fertility, “the ability to get pregnant” . A lot of individuals who live with PCOS struggle with fertility, and although this is one of the effects of this condition that is harder to resolve, the other symptoms that have more to do with appearances, such as excess hair growth and acne or oily skin, can be resolved through cosmetic treatments, like facials and laser hair removal, in order to help these individuals feel more confident in their own skin. Symptoms like excess hair growth and acne may not bother all individuals, but it can be comforting to know that solutions exist for those who don’t feel their best when experiencing these symptoms.
Although there is not enough research to show the definite cause of PCOS, it is clear that “many women with PCOS have insulin resistance. This means the body can't use insulin well. Insulin levels build up in the body and may cause higher androgen levels. Obesity can also increase insulin levels and make PCOS symptoms worse” . This is where adjusting your diet and lifestyle can help you live more comfortably with PCOS.
Since insulin resistance and obesity have been connected to PCOS, it may be worth noting that diets and lifestyle changes to improve these conditions may also control symptoms of PCOS or at least lessen them. Now, let’s address how diet and lifestyle changes could help make living with PCOS a bit easier.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a low carbohydrate diet may help lower your insulin levels, which is one of the biggest issues and worries with PCOS because higher insulin levels could lead to type 2 diabetes . One low-carb diet that has gained a lot of popularity in recent years is the ketogenic diet. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the sustainability of this diet for many individuals, but a low-carb diet like this would be beneficial for individuals living with PCOS since the diet’s staple rule is eating less than 50 grams of carbs per day. If this diet seems too extreme, which many consider it to be, the Atkins diet might be another option for you. The Atkins diet is similar to the ketogenic diet in the way that they are both low-carb diets, but Atkins does vary a bit more. With the Atkins diet, you essentially will build up to a sustainable amount of carbs, still low enough to help you lose weight and maintain your ideal weight. Throughout the diet, you would be eating a carb range of 20-100 grams per day. You can learn more about the ketogenic diet and Atkins diet and the differences between the two here.
The Mayo Clinic stresses that the carbs that should be eaten within these low-carb diets should be “complex carbohydrates, which raise your blood sugar levels more slowly” . Some examples of complex carbohydrates you could include in your meals are:
● Vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli, asparagus, and yams
● Fruits, such as strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries
A low-calorie diet may also help short-term with PCOS because it would help obese individuals lose weight, which could lead to lower insulin levels. This brings us to the lifestyle changes that could be made to help lessen the symptoms of PCOS.
Since obesity can cause higher insulin levels, an important part of controlling PCOS symptoms would be making efforts to lose weight if obesity or being overweight is a part of what you experience. One way to aid your weight loss journey is with a lower calorie diet, as previously mentioned. In addition to that, being more active would also be extremely helpful in getting PCOS symptoms under control. As stated by the Mayo Clinic, “exercise helps lower blood sugar levels. If you have PCOS, increasing your daily activity and participating in a regular exercise program may treat or even prevent insulin resistance and help you keep your weight under control and avoid developing diabetes” . There are many different options when it comes to finding a routine exercise schedule that you can enjoy while meeting your weight loss goals.
There is, of course, the traditional idea of going to the gym and working out. The gym offers multiple workout methods, including lifting weights, body weight exercises, and a multitude of cardio exercises. Another option might be a regularly scheduled yoga class, in which you might enjoy a group exercise program rather than having to be in your own company. If you are more comfortable exercising by yourself, though, you might even enjoy a 30-60 minute walk around town or a calm bike ride to explore more of your city. No matter what option you choose, what’s important is that you are able to be active while also being happy with the way you choose to do so.
Remember, as with any health concern, it is important that you contact your physician so they are able to better help you or refer you to a professional suited more for your health needs. If you believe you may have PCOS, it is important to contact your doctor so they are able to run the tests needed to make a more accurate diagnosis in order to allow you to move forward with the necessary diet, lifestyle, or medicinal needs that will help you keep PCOS symptoms under control.
1. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2022, February 28). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos#:~:text=Polycystic%20ovary%20syndrome%20(PCOS)%20is,that%20form%20in%20the%20ovaries.
2. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2020, October 3). Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pcos/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20353443.
Author: Lauryn Agron
Editor: Kayjah Taylor
Health scientist: Aseelah Saiyed