What do celebrities Daisy Ridley, Victoria Beckham, Jools Oliver and Emma Thompson have in common? They have all publicly shared their struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). But what exactly is PCOS? If it’s a hormone imbalance, what does your diet have to do with it? Is there a specific PCOS diet you should follow? In this PCOS Explained blog, these are exactly the types of questions I’ll be answering.
PCOS is a common hormone disorder that affects one in five women in the UK. It can be devastating to a woman’s self-esteem and quality of life. As if this weren’t bad enough, many cases are missed because the pill is often prescribed to young women for painful and/or irregular periods and this can mask symptoms. It is usually only when you are taken off the pill and your periods aren’t regular, or if you experience fertility issues that explorations uncover the condition.
Common signs and symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular periods
- Difficulty getting pregnant
- Excessive hair growth where it shouldn’t be, e.g. face, chest and back
- Resistance to weight loss (although many sufferers are not overweight)
- Thinning hair on head
- Oily skin/acne
Does this sound like you?
What’s happening inside?
If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, usually you have too much of a hormone called luteinising hormone (LH) which stimulates your ovaries to make too much of the male hormone testosterone. Testosterone stops the follicles developing properly, which can stop ovulation (this affects your ability to get pregnant). Too much testosterone may mean you grow facial or body hair, start to loose hair or get thinner hair around the scalp (aka ‘male pattern baldness’). Your body might also have a problem with insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar and fat storage. Over time, receptors on the surface of cells become less sensitive to insulin, so your body has to produce more and more to take the sugar out of your blood and into the cells, where it can be used as energy.
Too much insulin also causes your ovaries to produce testosterone and prevents the liver from producing another hormone called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which mops up any excess testosterone. There’s another downside to excess insulin in the body; it leads to high levels of sugar in the blood and this can, in time, cause type 2 diabetes.
Who gets PCOS?
The exact cause is not known, but PCOS is thought to run in families. Researchers suspect PCOS is influenced by genes and possibly exposure to androgens (male hormones) and environmental toxins in the womb. But a genetic tendency to PCOS does not mean you have to suffer the symptoms – you can modify them through diet and lifestyle.
To find out whether you might have PCOS, make an appointment to see your GP and they can run some tests. Some of the things your GP will be looking for include evidence of irregular periods, enlarged ovaries containing many fluid filled sacs that surround the eggs (despite the name these are not actually cysts) and high levels of androgens. The ideal way to get a diagnosis is to have an ultrasound scan and a blood test. Although insulin resistance and elevated luteinizing hormone are common, they are not required for diagnosis.
Because insulin has such an important role to play, a diet with a low glycaemic load (known as a low GL diet) is the best place to start when changing to a PCOS diet. The GL of foods explains how quickly your blood glucose (blood sugar) rises after eating carbohydrates. Low GL foods can improve and help balance insulin levels.
Have you have been diagnosed with PCOS or do you think you might have it? I have a Facebook group that can help you understand more about a Low GL diet and how it can help your symptoms, I’d love for you to join us. Click here to join.
I also warmly invite you to book a free hormone health discussion with me. During our call you can tell me about your experience, your diagnosis and we can work out the best steps for you.