PCOS can be one of the most challenging and frustrating conditions – not to mention extremely common! I have dedicated my career to helping women with PCOS and other hormone imbalances find health and happiness with the least invasive and most effective natural therapies. But first, let’s talk about what PCOS actually is.
What is PCOS?
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, is a condition in which the ovaries produce excess androgens (e.g. testosterone). It is estimated that 5-10% of reproductive-aged females have PCOS. The condition can develop at any age following puberty; however, women often become aware of PCOS when they experience difficulties getting pregnant. Women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are susceptible to PCOS. If you are obese or have a family member with PCOS, your risk of developing the condition may be increased. The most common symptoms associated with PCOS include irregular periods, ovarian cysts, excessive body hair, weight gain, acne, and hair loss or thinning.
Women with PCOS are at a higher risk for developing certain conditions such as uterine cancer, cardiometabolic disease, infertility, and mood disorders.
The name itself, polycystic ovary, describes the cysts that can develop on the ovaries as a result of the condition, but not all women with PCOS develop cysts. How and why do these cysts develop? Well, women’s ovaries contain follicles, which are small sacs that contain eggs. When ovulation occurs, an egg is released from the follicle. Women with PCOS don’t make enough hormones to ovulate properly which cause the ovaries to develop multiple, small cysts that start excreting excess androgens.
What causes PCOS?
The exact cause is unknown. The diagnosis is often based on clinical presentation and symptoms. It is believed, however, that a number of elements, including genetics, are involved. The two main mechanisms that have been identified are elevated androgen levels and insulin resistance.
Even though women produce modest levels of androgens, these hormones are commonly referred to as “male hormones” as they regulate more masculine characteristics. In women, high androgens contribute to excessive hair growth, acne, and irregular cycles.
The hormone insulin, secreted from the pancreas, regulates the metabolism of food by promoting the absorption of glucose. When the body stops responding to insulin as it should, we refer to that as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is common in women with PCOS and can cause high blood sugar levels over time, which can predispose you to cardiometabolic complications, such as diabetes. Insulin can also cause higher androgen levels and perpetuate the cycle.
Natural PCOS treatment options
A variety of factors affect treatment options for PCOS, such as your age, severity of symptoms, and desire to have children. Current conventional treatment options include diet and exercise, birth control, blood sugar medications, and ovulation-inducing medications. From an integrative perspective, PCOS is a complex condition and the best treatment approach is one that addresses each of the root causes as opposed to treating symptoms or downstream effects. Some of my favorite natural therapies for PCOS include:
- Dietary modifications – Diet is one of the most important keys to healing PCOS and reversing insulin resistance! Keep your blood sugar balanced throughout the day and avoid letting yourself go hungry. Choose foods that are fresh, frozen, or dried. Limit sugar, processed foods, alcohol, and caffeine. Eat less meat and animal products. Consider eliminating dairy as it can be inflammatory and often exacerbates acne. Aim for 8-10 servings of colorful vegetables per day to support nutrient diversity and a healthy gut microbiome. Limit fruit to two servings daily and pick low-glycemic choices such as dark berries. Choose organic foods as much as possible to limit exposure to herbicides, pesticides, and plastic compounds from store packaging.
- Avoid exposure to endocrine disruptors – Endocrine disruptors confuse the body’s hormone communication pathways. Common offenders include BPA, phthalates, dioxin, perchlorate, and PFCs to name a new. One of the best things you can do is to use less plastic. Avoid canned foods. Be very conscious of the ingredients in your cosmetics, personal care products, household cleaning items, etc. The Environmental Working Groups app “Healthy Living” can help guide your purchases. Consider investing in both a high-quality water filter and air filter for your home.
- Inositol – Inositol is a non-negotiable for most women with PCOS. It also has the most research behind it. Inositol is a stereoisomer of glucose that helps improve cellular signaling and metabolism, therefore reducing insulin resistance, improving ovarian function, and reducing androgen levels in women with PCOS.
- N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) – NAC is the precursor to glutathione, the body’s main antioxidant. Studies have shown that in women with PCOS, NAC was able to improve insulin resistance, lower testosterone levels, and improve menstrual regularity. In one study, it was comparable to Metformin in regulating blood sugar.
- Spearmint – In two small studies, two cups of spearmint tea a day was shown to reduce testosterone levels.
- Vitamin D – Vitamin D can improve blood sugar control, ovarian reserves, and fertility outcomes. Please get your Vitamin D level tested and then dose accordingly.
- Magnesium – Magnesium has a multitude of roles in the body; however, research indicates that taking a magnesium supplement may enhance insulin sensitivity.
- Saw Palmetto – Saw palmetto is an herb with anti-androgenic properties that may be helpful in lowering testosterone levels.
- Chromium – Chromium is an essential mineral that aids in the regulation of insulin and blood sugar levels in the body. A recent study looked at the mineral’s role in women with PCOS. The study found that chromium reduced fasting blood sugar and insulin levels in subjects significant enough to be comparable to the pharmaceutical metformin.
- Omega-3 fatty acids – Fish oils are anti-inflammatory, help regulate insulin, lower leptin levels, and can aid in weight loss. According to one study, women with PCOS who took fish oil had lower testosterone levels and more regular periods compared to placebo.
Please consult with your healthcare provider before starting any new regimen or supplement.
Dr. Alyssa Burnham is a licensed naturopathic doctor (ND) that specializes in women’s health across the lifespan. Her practice combines the best of conventional and naturopathic therapies, including botanical medicine, clinical nutrition, mind–body techniques, lifestyle practices, and nutraceuticals. Dr. Burnham’s approach to health is to identify the root cause and treat with the least invasive therapies. She currently practices at Wise Woman Wellness LLC, an innovative wellness and hormone center at 1480 Swan Road, De Pere, WI. For more information call 920-339-5252 or visit www.wisewomanwellness.com.