If you live with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), then you know all about the side effects of living with the hormonal disorder. PCOS can have a wide range of symptoms, including excess facial hair, hair loss, acne, abdominal weight gain and irregular periods. But could what you eat make these side effects more manageable? And is there an ideal PCOS diet? A dietitian explains.
What is PCOS?
Typically your ovaries are tasked with producing hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and androgens. Women with PCOS may experience prolonged or irregular periods and usually have an excess of androgen (typically known as the male hormone). Although the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, doctors do know that there is an excess of androgen in the body, the ovaries develop numerous small cysts and that the body increases insulin production. All of these factors cause PCOS-related symptoms, such as hair fall, fertility problems and weight gain.
The PCOS insulin connection
Women with PCOS are often found to be insulin-resistant. When you’re insulin-resistant, your cells have a hard time absorbing the insulin hormone that your pancreas makes, the National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
(NIDDK) explains. This causes the pancreas to increase insulin production– but if it’s still not enough to help the cell properly absorb glucose, blood sugar levels will rise. According to the Mayo Clinic
, when it comes to PCOS, insulin resistance
can cause an overproduction of androgens. Insulin resistance may also affect how your pituitary gland regulates luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), both of which prepare those ovarian follicles for maturation.
Is there a perfect PCOS diet?
When it comes to PCOS and what you eat, it’s important to help reduce the risk of associated metabolic conditions such as abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and impaired glucose tolerance. And to improve hormone imbalances – a common problem associated with this condition, says registered dietitian Claire Julsing-Strydom of the Association For Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA).
Limit the carbs
“Recent literature suggests that improving PCOS symptoms lies in the adoption of a lifestyle that reduces oxidative stress and inflammation. Oxidative stress is a type of cellular damage that is caused when we consume excessive amounts of refined carbs. For example, eating an entire pizza would cause a spike in glucose, leading to high insulin secretion, resulting in oxidative stress. Then the body’s alarm system (inflammation) would kick in to alert the body that an immune response is needed,” explains Claire.
Eating something like an entire pizza in one sitting can increase insulin levels and cause deregulation in certain hormones (such as testosterone, androgens and sex hormone-binding globulin). So, it would be best to limit refined carbs such as white bread and rice, biscuits and cakes, as well as saturated fats.
Balance is key
The International evidence-based guideline for the assessment and management of PCOS published last year, stated that there was no single diet that was best for the management of the condition and that weight loss is a primary goal, which should be achieved through tailored individual approaches that are balanced and non-restrictive.
Claire advises including a variety of vegetables, fresh fruit, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, high-fibre whole grain carbohydrates and lean proteins, with an emphasis on legumes, eggs and fish, into your diet. Eating a well-balanced, healthy variety of foods can help maintain nutrients that women with PCOS could be lacking, such as vitamin D, vitamin B12 and magnesium. Claire also mentions that while diet is important, it’s equally important to get enough sleep, manage stress and exercise regularly.
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