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A Holistic Approach To Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

by Marilyn Glenville, PhD(more info)

listed in women's health, originally published in issue 201 - December 2012

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovaries are ovaries that are actually covered with very small follicles in which the egg develops. In each menstrual cycle, follicles grow on the ovaries. Within those follicles eggs develop, one of which will reach maturity faster than the others and be released into the fallopian tubes. This is known as ovulation. The remaining follicles (sometimes hundreds) will degenerate. In the case of polycystic ovaries, however, the ovaries are much larger than normal, and there are a series of undeveloped follicles that appear in clumps, rather like a bunch of grapes.

Polycystic ovaries are not particularly troublesome and in many cases they will not even affect your fertility. Where the problem starts, however, is when the cysts cause a hormonal imbalance, leading to a series of other symptoms. These symptoms are the difference between suffering from PCOS and from polycystic ovaries. So a woman can have polycystic ovaries without having PCOS but all women with PCOS will have polycystic ovaries.

Natural Solutions to PCOS

What Symptoms Could you Experience?

With the most extreme form of PCOS, you would tend to be overweight, have no or very few periods, be prone to acne, grow unusually heavy body hair, often on the face, breasts and inside of the legs, and be susceptible to mood swings. And with this can come problems with fertility and often recurring miscarriages. Women with PCOS may be seven times more likely to develop diabetes because of problems with blood sugar balance.

What are your Choices?

Over the last few years, research into the nutritional approach to PCOS has revolutionized the treatment of this problem.

As women with PCOS lose weight, hormone levels start to return to normal. Testosterone levels fall, serum insulin levels go down, Sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) levels go up and the symptoms of PCOS diminish, with significant improvements in the growth of excess hair as the women lose weight.

Along with the weight loss comes a remarkable change in ovarian function. In one study, 82 percent of the women who were not previously ovulating showed improvements, with a number of successful pregnancies during the study, even though many of these women had a long-standing history of infertility.

So dramatic have been some of the results, that it has now been suggested that changing a woman's diet should be the first move if she is overweight and failing to conceive. One study found that 11 out of 12 women who had been overweight and not ovulating conceived naturally after reducing their weight.

In this article I am going to describe the ways in which changing the way you eat and supplementing your diet can help managed the symptoms of PCOS.

Your Seven Step Nutritional Plan Of Action

The food we eat has been proven, over and over again, to have a huge effect on our health. The fundamental aim of my nutritional approach to PCOS is to target a number of areas simultaneously, so that you get the maximum effect in the minimum amount of time. Here’s how:

1.         Switch To Unrefined Carbohydrates (Eaten with Protein)

I believe this to be the most important dietary chance any PCOS sufferer can make, as it constitutes the foundation of all healthy eating. Furthermore, you should never go for more than three waking hours without food to keep your blood-sugar levels balanced. Examples of unrefined carbohydrates include:

  • Barley
  • Brown Rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Maze
  • Millet
  • Vegetables
  • Wholemeal flour

2.         Eat Oily Fish and Foods Rich in Omega 3 Fats

Forget switching to a tasteless, low-fat diet. If you really want to clear your PCOS you need to boost your intake of the sorts of healthy fats you find in oily fish such as salmon and nuts and seeds. This encourages your body to become more sensitive to insulin, and helps it overcome insulin resistance.

3.         Cut out All Dairy Products for Three Months

Milk, cheese and butter contain a substance called insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), which is similar in structure to insulin. Its insulin-like properties mean it can stimulate the storage of glucose in fat cells. Cutting out dairy has also been show to have a beneficial effect on controlling the production on male hormones that can make PCOS so distressing.

4.         Eat More Vegetables and Pulses

This helps to increase levels of the protein Sex-Hormone-Binding Globulin (SHBG) which helps to control those male hormones. Research has shown that SHGB levels are up to 23% lower in women who heat a lot of meet and starchy foods, but much higher in those whose diets are rich in vegetables and pulses such as soya, chickpeas and lentils.

5.         Cut Right Back on or Cut Out Alcohol for 12 Weeks

Your liver plays a significant part in the balance of blood sugar and in detoxifying and eliminating hormones. If you really do want to control your PCOS, you need to give your liver a break from the rigours of trying to metabolize alcohol, so it can concentrate more fully on helping sort out your PCOS symptoms.

6.         Cut Down on Caffeine

If you are serious about getting to the bottom of your PCOS symptoms, you really need to try to keep your adrenal glands as happy as possible - the key to this is to cut right back on caffeine. Anything containing caffeine acts as a stimulant that will make your body release more of the stress hormones and cause blood-sugar levels to fluctuate. Women with PCOS have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, so it’s vital to help reduce this in order to help insulin levels.

7.         Cut Down on Saturated Fats and Completely Eliminate Unhealthy Trans-Fats

It’s a really good idea for PCOS sufferers to try to reduce their intake of the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products. High intakes of saturated fats makes it more difficult for your body to absorb the Omega 3 fats efficiently, which, in turn, leads to an increase of inflammation in your body. Trans fats have no nutritional benefits at all and should be avoided at all costs. Trans fats will cause you to put on more weight around the middle of the body, even if you are sticking to a low-calorie diet; they block the absorption of essential fatty acids needed to overcome insulin resistance.

Super Supplements

The supplements recommended below have been studied in clinical trials and have been found to be effective in connection with PCOS. For best results you should take them over a period of three months, at the end of which you should be reassessed in order to monitor improvements and changes.

If you have been using the Pill to regulate your periods, you may have an even greater imbalance between a number of key vitamins and minerals. Correcting this imbalance will go a long way towards treating the root cause of the problem.

Multivitamin and Mineral

A good quality multivitamin and mineral would form the foundation of your supplement programme to make sure that you are getting a 'little bit of everything'. You then add in those nutrients, known to be helpful for PCOS, in slightly higher amounts.

Chromium

Chromium is an extremely important mineral if you have PCOS. It helps to encourage the formation of glucose tolerance factor (GTF) which is a substance released by the liver and required to make insulin more efficient. A deficiency of chromium can lead to insulin resistance, which is a key problem in the case of PCOS; too much insulin can be circulating but it is unable to control your blood sugar (glucose) levels.

B Vitamins

The B vitamins are very important in helping to correct the symptoms of PCOS. Vitamins B2, B3, B5 and B6 are particularly useful for controlling weight, and any deficiencies in these vitamins can affect thyroid function and consequently affect the metabolism. The B vitamins are also essential for the liver to convert your 'old' hormones into harmless substances, which can then be excreted from the body.

Zinc

Zinc is one of the key minerals that we need in our daily diets and it has a wide range of functions. It is an important mineral for appetite control; a deficiency can cause a loss of taste and smell, creating a need for stronger-tasting foods, including those that are saltier, sugarier and/or spicier (in other words, often more fattening!). Zinc is also necessary for the correct action of many hormones, including insulin, so it is extremely important in balancing blood sugar. It also functions together with vitamins A and E in the manufacture of thyroid hormone.

Magnesium

Magnesium levels have been found to be low in people with diabetes and there is a strong link between magnesium deficiency and insulin resistance. It is, therefore, an important mineral to include if you are suffering from PCOS.

Co-Enzyme Q10

This is a vitamin-like substance that is contained in nearly every cell of your body. It is important for energy production and normal carbohydrate metabolism (the way our bodies break down the carbohydrates we eat in order to turn them into energy). One study showed that people on a low-fat diet doubled their weight loss when they supplemented with Co-Q10 as compared to those who did not take it. Co-Q10 has also been proved useful in controlling blood sugar levels.

Alpha Lipoic Acid

This powerful antioxidant helps to regulate blood sugar levels because it releases energy by burning glucose and it also helps to make you more  insulin sensitive. It also has an effect on weight loss because if the glucose is being used for energy, the body releases less insulin and then stores less fat.  

Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 fatty acids taken in supplement form have been found to reduce testosterone levels in women with PCOS.

Amino Acids

Certain amino acids can be very helpful for PCOS as they can improve insulin sensitivity and also can have an effect on weight loss.

N-Acetyl Cysteine

In women with PCOS this amino acid helps reduce insulin levels and makes the body more sensitive to insulin.

Arginine

Arginine can be helpful in reversing insulin resistance. In one study, a combination of both arginine and N-acetyl cysteine were given to women with PCOS.  The two amino acids help to improve blood sugar and insulin control and also increased the number of menstrual cycles and ovulation with one women becoming pregnant on the second month. 

Carnitine

Carnitine helps the body break down fat to release energy and can help improve insulin sensitivity.

Tyrosine

Tyrosine is helpful for women with PCOS who are overweight as it helps to suppress the appetite and burn off fat.

Glutamine

This amino acid is useful for helping with sugar cravings as it can be converted to sugar for energy and so takes away the need to eat something sweet.  It also helps to build and maintain muscle which is important for fat burning. (To save you taking all of these nutrients separately, there are two I use in the clinic NHP’s Nutri Support and Amino Support available from www.naturalhealthpractice.com )

Herbal Helpers

Herbs are extremely useful in the treatment of PCOS. Making changes and adding supplements to your diet will help to control weight and balance blood sugar, while herbs go a step further, targeting any problems involving hormone balance.

Herbs can also be very beneficial in encouraging the function of your liver, in order to make sure that it is metabolising the hormones efficiently and then eliminating them:

Agnus castus (Vitex/chastetree berry)

This is one of the most important herbs for PCOS because it helps to stimulate and normalize the function of the pituitary gland.

Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa)

Black cohosh helps to suppress LH levels, which are usually high in PCOS.

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

Research has shown that saw palmetto works as an anti-androgen, which can be very helpful given the high levels of testosterone in PCOS. I would suggest that you add saw palmetto to your treatment plan if you have excess hair growth, or have been told you have high levels of androgens. Otherwise, take Agnus castus on its own.

Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum)

This is one of the key herbs for the liver, which acts as your waste disposal unit, and it is therefore essential for the treatment of PCOS. It helps to protect your liver cells against damage and to promote the healing of damaged cells, so improving the general functioning of the liver and all its detoxifying properties.

Caution

You should not take any of the above herbs if you are taking, The Pill, Fertility drugs, HRT or any other hormonal treatment or other medication unless they are recommended by a registered, experienced practitioner.

I hope you have found all this information helpful and that you can use the information to help you beat PCOS and enjoy a symptom-free life, naturally.

References

1. Gialaria, F. et al, ‘Androgens in PCOS: the role of exercise and diet’, Semin Reprod Med, 27 (2009), 4, 406-15

2. Wu, A.H. et al, ‘Dietary Patterns and breast cancer risk in Asian American women’, AM J Clin Nutr, 89 (2009), 4, 145-154

3. Roelfsema, F. et al., ‘Cortisol production rate is similarly elevated in obese women with, or without the PCOS’, J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 95 (2010), 7, 3318-24.

Further Information

For further information on how to do this is, please read my book Natural Solutions To PCOS, available to buy from www.naturalhealthpractice.com .

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About Marilyn Glenville, PhD

Dr Marilyn Glenville PhD is a leading UK nutritionist specializing in women’s health.  She is the Former President of the Food and Health Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine and the author of a number of internationally best selling books including The Natural Health Bible for Women, Getting Pregnant Faster and Natural Solutions to the Menopause. For more information go to www.marilynglenville.com

 

Dr. Glenville runs a number of women’s health clinics in London, Tunbridge Wells and Dublin. If you are interested in a consultation, you can contact Dr. Glenville’s clinic on Tel: 0870 5329244; health@marilynglenville.com  www.marilynglenville.com

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