Living with PCOS
PCOS or polycystic ovary syndrome is an extremely common health problem amongst women of childbearing age. In fact, it is so common that in an effort to raise awareness about this condition, the month of September has been declared “PCOS awareness month”. Awareness is the first step in the fight against the spread of this condition. Let us educate ourselves about PCOS and take a closer look into this syndrome, its impact and how diet & exercise can help in stopping this condition from taking over our lives.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, commonly known simply as “PCOS” is a condition characterised by an increased production of male sex hormones (androgens). The three main characteristics of PCOS are:
Every month, the ovaries release a mature egg for fertilisation. This process is called ovulation. If the egg is not fertilised, it is released from the body (periods). In some cases, women may experience irregular periods, indicating problems in ovulation.
Small quantities of androgens or “male” hormones are produced by the adrenal glands, ovaries and fat cells. They are vital to normal reproductive function, emotional stability, cognitive function, muscle function and bone strength. High levels of androgens can result in abnormal hair growth (especially facial hair), acne and male patterned baldness.
Polycystic ovaries are characterised by enlarged ovaries containing large number of cysts (fluid-filled sacs). These cysts surround the eggs making it difficult for the ovaries to release the eggs. This results in anovulation.
Women with PCOS experience at least two of the above characteristics.
What is the impact of PCOS?
Earlier, PCOS was considered to be a simple endocrine disorder, causing hormonal imbalances. However, today with advances in research, we have a better understanding of this syndrome. It is now treated as a complex condition with metabolic, hormonal and psychological factors. Patients too are treated holistically by addressing the phycological impact of the disorder as well as the physiological one.
PCOS can be devastating for women in their childbearing years. It is one of the leading causes of female infertility. For many women, giving birth is an important aspect of their identity, and they face judgment by their partners, family and society if they are unable to do so. It is important to educate the family as well so that they can give the required emotional support to the patient.
Studies also indicate that women with PCOS have higher levels of psychological distress. This can be in part due to symptoms of PCOS such as obesity, hirsutism (excessive hair growth) and infertility.
PCOS is also known to increase the risk of several complications such as developing metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. Early intervention, lifestyle changes and long-term monitoring is key to relieving the symptoms of PCOS.
What causes PCOS?
Many women mistakenly feel that something they did cause PCOS. This adds on to the psychological impact of this condition. The exact cause of PCOS is still not known, it is believed that it is caused by a combination of several factors including genetics and having insulin resistance. Obesity is also known to increase the likelihood of developing PCOS.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
The symptoms of PCOS depends on the severity of the condition. In a large number of PCOS cases, diagnosis is made when the woman experiences difficulty in conceiving. This is because the symptoms may not be severe enough to cause the patient to seek medical help. Some of the most common symptoms of PCOS are:
- Irregular or missed periods
- Enlarged ovaries with or without cysts
- Excessive body and facial hair (Hirsutism)
- Weight Gain
- Hair loss or male patterned baldness
- Skin discoloration in the back of the neck, armpits or under the breasts
As the symptoms need not be evident all the time, especially in the early stages, routine gynaecological check-ups are advised as soon as you start menstruating, especially if you are at a higher risk of developing PCOS.
How can PCOS be managed?
Home remedies for PCOS are usually the first line of defense against this condition. This can further be classified into two categories i.e.: Dietary changes & Lifestyle changes. Let us take a closer look into home remedies for PCOS management.
Diet tends to influence our health to a great extent. Women affected with PCOS are likely to have higher levels of insulin than the ones without PCOS. This is because insulin resistance is one of the symptoms of PCOS. Insulin resistance indicates that the insulin produced by the pancreas is not utilized for digestion of the sugar in the body, resulting in excess blood sugar.
In addition to this, due to insulin resistance many affected women find it difficult to lose weight, especially around their abdomen. Excess insulin is also linked to increased production of androgens (male hormones) causing male patterned baldness and hirsutism.
Keep the following guidelines in mind while coming up with your own unique PCOS diet plan.
- Certain foods can help in improving the overall health of a PCOS patient. For example, foods rich in fibres like broccoli and green leafy vegetables can help in maintaining the glucose levels in the body.
- PCOS Patients who have cut down on their carbohydrate intake are shown to have more regular menstrual cycles as compared to those who followed other diets for weight loss. Switch to more complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat, ragi, dalia, oats and quinoa.
- Small and frequent meals rich in fibre and protein can help in regulating the insulin level throughout the day.
- Add more healthier fats to your diet like omega 3 fatty acids by switching to fish oil, avocado oil, olive oil etc. Avocados are also a good source of omega 3 fatty acids.
- Reduce salt intake and limit consumption of cured and smoked meats, salted nuts, canned and processed vegetables, packaged & other processed foods.
- Increase your intake of lean protein in your diet as it helps in improving metabolism. Try switching red meat and processed meat with white meat such as chicken. White meat is a leaner source of protein with lower fat content.
- Consume more foods which have anti-inflammatory properties such as turmeric, ginger, tomatoes etc.
- Flaxseeds, cinnamon, methi dana can help in maintaining hormonal balance.
- Similarly, certain food items tend to increase damage and hence need to be avoided. Steer clear of foods rich in processed sugar and carbohydrates. Limit your intake of sugary and aerated and/or caffeinated drinks.
Regular physical activity and weight management are important aspects of PCOS management. The following exercises will help you relieve PCOS symptoms.
- Strength training
Strengthening exercises such as squats, push-ups, triceps dips etc can help improve your insulin function as well as boost your metabolism by building more muscle mass. This doesn’t mean “bulking up” rather it indicates that your body burns more calories even while you are at rest (idle).
- High intensity interval training
This involves alternating between short bouts of high intensity exercises and low intensity recovery exercises to cool down. It is known to increase cardiovascular fitness and reduce waist circumference. Studies show that this can help you achieve 5-10% weight loss.
- Core strengthening exercises
Obesity and overweight problems that often go hand in hand with PCOS can cause lower back pain as well as poor posture. Exercises designed to improve core strength such as yoga and Pilates can help in strengthening the muscles supporting your back. Start performing Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles if you are planning for a pregnancy. These not only help in preventing urinary incontinence but also boost sexual health and improves your pelvic stability that can aid in a healthy pregnancy.
In more severe cases, medication can be used to manage PCOS symptoms. Following a healthy lifestyle and managing your weight with regular exercise is the best way to minimise the impact of PCOS.