Managing PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome) Print
PCOS Nutrition Part 1: General Information & Associated Conditions
Part 1 of a 5 part series to explore PCOS nutrition written by Teagan Evans, University of Alberta Student in the Nutrition and Food Science program at the University of Alberta and reviewed by our Health Stand Nutrition Dietitian Team.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (or “PCOS” as it is commonly referred to) is one of the most prevalent endocrine conditions that affects women and a common referral we see in our Dietitian practice.
The primary characteristic of PCOS is sex hormone imbalance which results in altered functionality of the female reproductive system. The origin of PCOS and why it develops is unknown, however it has been associated with genetic influences.
PCOS can be associated with various health conditions such as diabetes, weight concerns, heart conditions, and metabolic syndrome. Unfortunately, many women are not officially diagnosed with PCOS and can struggle to manage their symptoms.
PCOS hormone imbalance
Researchers have discovered that women who are diagnosed with PCOS exhibit higher levels of male androgens (sex hormones) than typical female levels. Normally, female sex hormones instruct the body to release an egg from the ovaries monthly that will travel throughout the reproductive system and either become fertilized or be shed at the end of every month.
However, in women with PCOS, lower levels of female hormones may cause impartial release of an egg from the ovaries, potentially causing ovarian cysts to develop. These ovarian cysts produce the higher levels of male androgens that are characteristic of PCOS and lead to various symptoms. While not all women who have PCOS have cysts, there is a significantly greater chance of cysts with this condition.
Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome
PCOS has a variety of symptoms that can change and develop over time.
Here are the most commonly reported symptoms:
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Weight gain (including body composition and weight distribution changes)
- Ovarian cysts
- Excess body hair (hirsutism)
- Skin tags or changes in skin appearance
- Thinning or balding hair
- Acne and increased oily skin
- Insulin resistance
Diagnosis and treatment of PCOS
Prior to treatment, PCOS must be diagnosed by your healthcare provider. It is estimated that up to 75% of women who have PCOS go undiagnosed as a result of overlapping symptoms with other conditions and lack of condition knowledge.
In order to be diagnosed, your physician or health care provider will go through a series of blood tests and ultrasounds to determine any ovarian cysts and levels of androgens in your body. Once PCOS is confirmed, you can begin various treatments and lifestyle changes that can help manage your symptoms.
Associated conditions with PCOS
PCOS can be associated with an increased risk of a variety of health conditions. Diabetes, weight concerns, heart conditions, and metabolic syndrome have been linked with PCOS.
Diabetes and insulin resistance:
Insulin resistance and diabetes is one of the major symptoms and associated conditions with PCOS. It is reported that over 50% of women who have PCOS are diagnosed with type II diabetes prior to their 40th birthday. As a result, managing diabetes can be a major component of living with PCOS.
Individuals with type II diabetes produce insulin, a hormone used to manage blood glucose levels, however their body’s cells are unresponsive and therefore struggle to manage blood sugar. Insulin resistance is the beginning indicator of developing type II diabetes.
Having diabetes increases your risk of developing other associated conditions, such as heart and stoke complications, weight concerns, and metabolic syndrome. Through proper treatment, daily management, and development of healthier behaviours, diabetes can be successfully managed for many years.
For more information about diabetes and nutrition, check out our blog for related articles:
- Tasty, Healthy, and Simple Food Swaps for Diabetes
- Nutrition for Diabetes Management
- One of the best diets in the world: the Mediterranean diet | Reduce heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Weight gain and issues managing weight are key symptoms of PCOS. Due to the increase in male hormone production (androgens) that occurs with PCOS, many women will experience weight gain in areas of their body where typically males gain weight, such as their abdominal area. While the entire connection between PCOS and weight gain is unclear, having either of these conditions can increase the risk of developing the other.
Another reason why weight gain can occur is due to the insulin resistance or diabetes that can develop alongside PCOS. When blood sugar is unable to be managed properly by the body, it can lead to weight gain.
There are many nutrition and lifestyle changes that can be made to help manage weight concerns. Talking with your doctor and a Registered Dietitian that specializes in emotional eating and weight concerns about how to achieve your personal best weight.
These articles may be of interest to those looking for weight management:
- How Does Less Sleep Affect Your Weight?
- Best Way to Lose Weight Healthfully: Dietitian Advice
- Dietitian Answers to Your Top Weight Loss Questions
Women with PCOS are at increased risk of developing heart conditions and experiencing heart health issues. Researchers have found that there is a two time higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke if you have PCOS. There is also an increased risk of heart issues if there is any previous episodes or hereditary conditions affecting the heart.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet can positively influence your heart health and reduce risk of future complications. Consuming heart healthy foods can benefit your overall health and reduce your risk of heart disease.
For more information about heart healthy diets, here are some great articles:
- High Cholesterol Diet Support: Foods for a Healthy Heart
- Nutrition for a Healthy Heart
- Good or bad fats? The scoop about saturated fat for your heart health
Metabolic syndrome is the combination of multiple noncommunicable disease, such as those discussed above and can also include hypertension and atherogenic dyslipidemia, a condition where there are increased levels of triglycerides throughout your blood. It is diagnosed using multiple methods of measurement, including body metrics, blood tests, and personal health history.
Metabolic syndrome increases your risk of developing health conditions that can have a substantial impact on your overall well-being. Many of our clients find this diagnosis can be very overwhelming and difficult to know how to manage multiple conditions. However, there are lifestyle changes that you can make with the help of your doctor and a Registered Dietitian to reduce your risk for health conditions and manage associated symptoms. Contact us for help.
Lifestyle changes and healthy food choices for PCOS
Each of the previously discussed conditions has unique treatments and management options, however there are commonalities between each condition that can help.
Limit ultra-processed foods:
Ultra-processed foods can contain high levels of salt, sugar, and fat and lower levels of essential vitamins and minerals. While each of these components plays a necessary role in your diet, over-consumption can lead to increased blood pressure, weight gain, and cholesterol levels.
While all foods can fit and soulful foods chosen for taste and enjoyment are important for sustainability and social fun, being mindful of the quantity of pop, potato chips, candy, fast food and desserts is important for long term health and PCOS management. A diet that includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, heart healthy fats and lean protein sources can help balance your diet. As part of this article series on nutrition for PCOS stay tuned for additional articles that will dive deeper on healthy eating for PCOS. Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter here so you can be sure to receive notification about these upcoming articles and more healthy eating content and tasty recipes from our Dietitian team: Subscribe to our weekly nutrition newsletter here.
Elevate your physical activity:
Regular physical activity helps your body in numerous ways. It strengthens your heart, muscles, lungs, and mental perseverance, all while improving your overall health. As well, regular physical activity can help you sleep better and remain rested and increase your muscle mass which elevates your metabolic rate (the rate your body burns calories).
Being active does not mean you need to exhaust your body every day, but instead can include walking, yoga/stretching, and daily outdoor activities with your friends and family. Adults should be aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week. Women with PCOS can also benefit from strength training to increase their overall muscle mass. There are numerous online resources through social media and YouTube that provide free and accessible workouts for your favourite type of activity or work with a certified personal trainer for a customized plan.
Dedicating time to ensuring you get enough sleep can be difficult, especially when managing families, careers, and various activities. Adults should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep every single night.. Eliminating screen time and taking the proper steps to relaxation before bed can help you fall and stay asleep throughout the night.
Benefits of proper sleep go far beyond feeling energized the next day, but also include reduced stress, weight management, lowered risk of mortality, reduced disease risk, and an overall better quality of life.
Read part 2 of our polycystic ovarian syndrome series here. We will continue to discuss various health conditions and how they relate to PCOS and most importantly what you can do to help protect your health. Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter here so you can be sure to receive notification about these upcoming PCOS articles: Subscribe to our weekly nutrition newsletter here.
Looking for a PCOS Dietitian?
Contact us for help as PCOS is a common nutrition condition we provide support with. Customized care is available to help work with you to help you best manage symptoms and your overall health. Learn more about our PCOS Dietitian services here: PCOS nutrition counseling by a Registered Dietitian.