Many people think of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) solely as a hormonal or reproductive health condition. However if you have PCOS, you’re likely well aware that it’s associated with metabolic problems, as well.
PCOS is a metabolic disorder that causes insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body move glucose (sugar) into your body’s cells. However, insulin resistance means that your body isn’t able to effectively use its insulin, causing your body to pump out even more to keep your blood sugar levels in the normal range. This free-flowing insulin can block receptors that normally contain excess androgens. Androgens are typically a male hormone, but are found in relatively small amounts in women. Abnormally high amounts of free-flowing androgens in women, can cause multiple ovarian cysts to develop, giving PCOS its name. PCOS also causes other symptoms, including irregular or absent periods, fertility problems, excessive body hair growth, and male pattern baldness.
The impact of insulin resistance is far-reaching:
- It can cause your ovaries and adrenals to produce more androgens, further aggravating PCOS symptoms
- It puts you at high risk for developing Type II diabetes
- It can make it hard for you to lose or manage your weight, which is important in controlling both PCOS and insulin resistance
While all this may sound bleak and out of your control, there’s actually good news in the fact that what you eat can have an impact on your PCOS. Here are some tips for controlling PCOS through diet:
- Opt for high fiber foods. They help control insulin resistance by slowing your digestion and helping to offset the effect of sugar on your blood. Good high fiber choices include greens of all kinds, broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts. Also good are peppers, berries and legumes like beans and lentils. If you’re having a hard time getting enough fiber in your diet, add a little spinach to your morning smoothie, it might sound bad but you will hardly taste it.
- Choose foods that help reduce inflammation. Fatty fish, leafy greens, darkly colored fruits and berries, avocado turmeric and olive oil are a part of an anti-inflammatory diet, which may help reduce symptoms that are related to inflammation. Research has shown that there is a strong relationship between inflammation and PCOS.
- Eat low glycemic foods. These are foods that your body breaks down more slowly, which helps keep your insulin levels in check. Low glycemic foods include nuts, seeds, fruit, legumes, avocados, vegetables and foods that are low in carbohydrates.
- Check out the DASH diet. It’s a diet that helps reduce the risk of heart disease, but can also help manage your PCOS symptoms. DASH is high in fish, poultry and other lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy foods. Foods to avoid on this diet are those high in saturated fats and sugar.
- In general, look for lean protein foods, such as chicken, turkey, fish and tofu. They help fill you up and slow down spikes in insulin.
- Steer clear of foods like white bread, pastries, muffins and sweet desserts. They’re high in refined carbohydrates that can raise your blood sugar and aggravate insulin resistance.
- Avoid pastas that are made with refined white flour. This includes pasta that list durum flour, durum wheat or semolina as the first ingredient. These are high carbohydrate foods that are devoid of fiber. Instead look for pasta that’s made from lentils, bean flour or whole grains.
- If you have PCOS, sugar is not your friend. However, sometimes sugar hides behind other names on food labels. Avoid foods that have sucrose, dextrose, fructose or high fructose corn syrup, maltose, cane juice crystals, corn syrup solids and any ingredient that has sugar in its name.
- Sugar also hides in all kinds of drinks too, including pop, fruit juice and chocolate milk. Choose water, sparkling water, tea or other drinks that are low in sugar.
- Avoid foods that promote inflammation, such as fried foods, red meat, processed meats (lunch meat, sausages, hot dogs, etc.), lard and hydrogenated fats, such as margarine and shortening.
In sum, a diet that’s low in refined carbohydrates and sugar, and high in lean protein, fiber, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes can have a positive impact on women with PCOS. It can help improve insulin metabolism, reduce inflammation, support weight loss and help regulate your menstrual cycle. If you want more information about controlling your PCOS through diet, our holistic nutritionist, acupuncture practitioners and naturopathic physician are all able to help you and are happy to answer your questions.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.