When it comes to PCOS, the abundance of information on nutrition and lifestyle can be confusing and conflicting. Often, the typical approach involves simply being told to lose weight and take a pill to manage periods, with a follow-up recommendation to seek help when struggling to conceive. Let’s start from the basics and talk about what PCOS really is.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a common complex hormonal condition that affects how the ovaries function. Your lifestyle choices, including the type and quantity of food you consume, as well as your physical activity, can significantly improve your PCOS symptoms.PCOS is a syndrome—a collection of symptoms—that affects millions of people, with up to one in ten individuals with ovaries experiencing it. Being diagnosed with PCOS usually requires having two or more of the following signs and symptoms:
- Multiple fluid-filled sacs (follicles) surrounding the eggs in the ovaries. Although they are called “polycystic ovaries,” they are not cysts. Ultrasound is typically used to detect them.
- Irregular or absent periods due to infrequent release of eggs from the ovaries.
- Higher levels or increased activity of androgens, a group of hormones often associated with male characteristics such as testosterone. These can be detected through blood tests or by discussing symptoms with your doctor.
Other symptoms of PCOS include :
- Irregular or absent periods
- Excessive hair growth, particularly on the face, chest, or stomach
- Thinning scalp hair or male-pattern baldness
- Food cravings, especially for carbohydrates or sugary foods
- Difficulty losing weight and/or easy weight gain
- Fertility problems (difficulty getting pregnant)
- Depression and anxiety
- Binge eating
- Body image concerns
- Sleep disturbances or sleep apnea
While there is no one-size-fits-all eating plan recommended for PCOS, there is evidence supporting the following diet and lifestyle strategies:
- Eat regular, balanced meals: Skipping meals can lead to increased cravings, while overeating due to excessive hunger can result in poor food choices or even binge eating.
- Include low glycemic index (GI) carbohydrates: These help manage blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance. Examples include whole grain bread, oats, muesli, and other whole grains.
- Create balanced meals: Combine protein and healthy fats with high-fiber carbohydrates, as this helps reduce the glycemic load of the meal. Protein has also shown to lower androgen and insulin levels. Lean meat, poultry, eggs, tofu, and nut butters are excellent examples.
- Consume plenty of fruits and vegetables: They are rich in fiber and essential micronutrients that act as antioxidants, reducing stress and inflammation often associated with PCOS.
- Include omega-3 rich foods: Oily fish, seaweed, and algae are abundant in DHA, which helps combat chronic inflammation linked to PCOS.
- Engage in regular physical activity: Moderate exercise, 3-5 times a week, can improve reproductive outcomes, such as ovulation and menstrual cycles, as well as aid in weight management and insulin resistance. Most importantly, choose an activity you enjoy!
- Reduce stress: Stress plays a significant role in managing and developing PCOS. Implement stress management techniques like yoga, meditation, and journaling to help regulate stress levels.
- Prioritize adequate sleep: Getting enough quality sleep is often a struggle, but it is crucial for PCOS management. Poor sleep impacts blood sugar control, increases cortisol production (the body’s stress hormone), and disrupts appetite signaling, leading to more cravings and overeating.
By incorporating these strategies into a healthy and varied diet, along with regular physical activity, rest, and stress reduction, you can effectively manage PCOS and its symptoms. Women with PCOS often face a range of hormone-related challenges, such as cravings, fatigue, menstrual pain, anxiety, depression, and difficulties conceiving.
Research suggests that diet and lifestyle changes can have a significant impact on PCOS symptoms, ultimately improving overall quality of life. Just as PCOS symptoms manifest differently in each woman, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for managing PCOS. The best approach is the one that works for you and fits your unique way of life.
Remember, you have the power to take control of your PCOS journey and make positive changes. Stay tuned for more valuable insights and practical tips on how to navigate women’s health with confidence and self-care. Together, we can create a happier, healthier future. Stay well!” – Joelle Farha, Licensed Clinical Dietitian