PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, is the most common hormone imbalance impacting women and teenage girls. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, meaning “multiple ovarian cysts” can start during puberty and can persist for years. For some women it starts later – but for all women and teenage girls, it is an incredibly frustrating, and sometimes painful condition.
What is PCOS?
Ovarian cysts occur when ovulation doesn’t occur as it is supposed to. In each menstrual cycle the ovaries stimulate a number of follicles to develop, one of which will release an egg at ovulation. In PCOS the follicles are stimulated to grow (normal), but they do not respond to the hormonal cue to release an egg at ovulation. Instead they continue to grow and form cysts within the ovary.
There are many reasons why you may not respond appropriately to the hormones and instead form ovarian cysts – you can learn more about the types of PCOS in this article.
Symptoms of PCOS
In this article I discuss the criteria for a PCOS diagnosis, but listed below are the most common symptoms that may lead to you seek a diagnosis of PCOS:
- Irregular or absent periods
- Hair growth on the upper lip or chin
- Hair loss from the head
- Acne – especially on the body or on the “beard distribution” of the face
- Weight gain or excess weight around the abdomen
Talk to your mom, sister, aunts and grandmothers to see if you have a family history of PCOS – If you have a family member with PCOS, you are more likely to develop it.
What Causes PCOS?
PCOS is the result of failed ovulations – so the cause can be anything that disrupts healthy ovulation. Hormone imbalances stemming from the pituitary gland, the thyroid, the adrenal glands or pancreas can all cause PCOS. Insulin resistance – when your cells no longer respond to the hormone insulin – is probably the most common hormone imbalance that leads to PCOS.
How is PCOS Treated?
Many women are choosing a more empowered approach to treating their PCOS. In conventional care, PCOS is most often treated with the birth control pill. Other choices, like spironolactone or metformin, are also suggested if acne or insulin resistance are present. However, these treatments can have many unwanted side effects, or can prevent pregnancy (if that is desired).
Luckily, there are many well-researched natural treatments that can support women with PCOS and give them the choice in how they want to treat their PCOS.
Diet and Lifestyle
While not every woman with PCOS is overweight, if you are, losing weight is an important goal. Losing as little as 5% of your body weight can reverse insulin resistance, promote ovulation and decrease testosterone (less acne and chin/lip hair!)
I go into great detail on the basics of the PCOS Diet in this article – also available as a fun infographic! Check it out for all the information you need.
Vitamins and Minerals
Many different supplements can be used for managing PCOS. These are best selected by working with your ND – knowing what your hormone imbalance is will allow you to choose those supplements most likely to work for you. Here are a few of the most helpful options:
Vitamin B6 – can help balance prolactin levels, a hormone often elevated in PCOS.
Vitamin D – essential for healthy ovulation. Every Canadian is deficient during the winter months, and supplementation is often needed to correct that deficiency.
Chromium – essential for proper blood sugar regulation. Taking chromium (also known as insulin tolerance factor) increases the uptake of glucose into cells, decreasing insulin resistance.
When it comes to supporting hormone balance, plant medicines can be incredibly powerful medicines. It depends on your type of PCOS what herbal medicines may be recommended.
Chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus) – one of the most popular herbal medicines for PCOS, chaste tree lowers prolactin levels and raises progesterone levels. It can also restore regular ovulation, the main issue in PCOS!
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) – an incredibly effective hormone balancer, saw palmetto decreases the conversion of testosterone to its more powerful form, dihydrotestosterone (DHT). This makes saw palmetto an excellent choice in the treatment of acne, hair loss, and facial hair growth.
Other Natural Supplements
No discussion of PCOS would be complete without mentioning these superstars – they can be incredibly effective in the management of PCOS, and are being featured in many studies on PCOS with excellent results.
Inositol – a B-like vitamin, inositol has many benefits for PCOS – it decreases insulin resistance, decreases testosterone levels and helps to promote regular ovulation.
Berberine – compared in studies to metformin, berberine has powerful actions on blood sugar regulation and insulin resistance. It can reduce testosterone, and androgens. Women taking berberine also achieved greater weight loss in some studies.
Knowing that there are a great many different options for the treatment of PCOS, some women can feel overwhelmed by information. This is one of the many benefits of working with a Naturopathic Doctor. Your ND can help you understand your individual hormone imbalance and guide you to the treatments that will be most effective for you.
Remember, any hormone imbalance will take time to resolve. Start taking the steps now to achieve your healthy hormone balance.
Dr. Lisa Watson delivers health care that supports balanced and attainable health at all ages and stages of life. Of primary importance is health care that nurtures the body, mind, spirit, family and community. As a Naturopathic Doctor and mother, Lisa believes that health care and a healthy lifestyle are intrinsically linked and that each serves to support the other. Dr. Watson practices at the Integrative Health Institute in Downtown Toronto.
Check out Dr Watson’s blog: www.drlisawatson.com