So here it is – the article about Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
Considering PCOS is a very common hormonal disorder amongst young women – apparently affecting 5 to 10% of all women – and one of the main symptoms is acne, this really should have come sooner.
However, I don’t consider myself an expert on PCOS, so I was a bit intimidated to write about it. But I’m going to do the best I can to at least inform you about what this is and give you what I know and some info on treating it from sources I trust.
What is Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome?
PCOS is a metabolic disorder where the ovaries tend to be large and covered in cysts. It is thought that these cysts are what create endocrine disruption and basically screw up the hormones being created there – and we know that when your hormones are messed up, it leads to all sorts of bad stuff!
In the case of PCOS, the usual profile of someone afflicted is that she is overweight and shows symptoms of excess androgen (testosterone) production such as hirsutism (excess hairiness where there shouldn’t be, such as in the beard area), male pattern balding, abnormal periods and infertility, masculine personality traits, and yes – acne. She is usually a bit depressed and emotionally unstable as well.
Not everyone with PCOS has all of or even any of those symptoms, but most will have some.
What is the Root Cause of PCOS?
The root cause of PCOS is insulin resistance.
What’s insulin resistance?
Well, when you eat and break down your food, you break it down into glucose which then enters your bloodstream (we tend to know this as “blood sugar”). Glucose needs to then move into your body’s cells so that they can use the glucose as energy. This process requires the hormone insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas in the correct amount to carry out the task.
However, most of us in the modern world are sending ourselves on blood sugar rollercoasters every day by feeding ourselves excess carbohydrates and sugars, which then results in the body pumping out tons of excess insulin to control the swing.
Eventually (because your you aren’t eating the right foods, or you’re genetically predisposed to it as is probably the case with women with PCOS) your cells become ‘resistant’ to the insulin because there tends to be so much circulating all the time. Once they become resistant to the insulin, the glucose begins to ‘bounce off’ the cells instead of going inside to be burned for energy.
Why is this situation bad and how does it cause PCOS?
- Since the glucose can’t get into the cells, much of it remains in the bloodstream causing elevated blood sugar. The excess is sent to the liver, which converts the sugar into fat, and it then gets deposited throughout the body – aka you become overweight (although not everyone with this condition is overweight).
- Once you become insulin resistant, your pancreas ends up overproducing it because it’s getting the message that the glucose isn’t getting in the cells, therefore, they must need more insulin to help do the job. However, excess insulin triggers the adrenals to release male androgens, which can lead to the hirsutism, male pattern balding, and acne as described above.
- Too much insulin can also cause more luteinising hormone (LH) to be produced compared to follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which then results in the woman’s eggs not maturing and instead the eggs grow into cysts. The cysts then cause the ovaries to produce more testosterone than estrogen leading to the male characteristics, irregular periods, and infertility.
To clarify: insulin resistance is not exclusive to those with PCOS. Insulin resistance is extremely common amongst both sexes and is a major reason that people get tired and fat as they age (particularly around the belly in that “apple shape”). Insulin and blood sugar swings are also a major contributor to acne in general, not just those with PCOS acne. So if you have PCOS, it is simply that you are genetically predisposed to having your body react to the insulin with these symptoms, where as someone else isn’t.
But remember – genetic predisposition does not mean you are doomed. Bad genes don’t express themselves in healthy bodies, and PCOS can be beaten with diet and exercise. And in fact – if you do have PCOS, I would highly recommend doing so because you are at a huge risk of developing type 2 diabetes if you don’t.
For most women, the first clue that you might have PCOS is looking at the symptoms you are experiencing. If you have any combination of acne, weight problems, irregular periods, excess hair growth or anything else I described above , there is a chance you are suffering from this.
To diagnose you as officially having PCOS according to the Rotterdam 2003 definition, apparently you need at least 2 of the following criteria:
- abnormal or absence of periods
- polycystic ovaries diagnosed with an ultrasound
- excess androgen levels or clinical signs of excess androgen (hirsutism, male-pattern baldness, acne)
However, things are rarely so black and white – you can apparently also have just straight up PCO (poly cystic ovaries) without all the excess testosterone symptoms, but still have weird periods and be infertile. You can also have PCOS in some cases without having cysts on your ovaries.
But anyway – doctors will usually diagnose you by any combination of looking at your symptoms, taking hormone tests, and doing an ultrasound to check for the cysts.
A saliva hormone test with a natural practitioner is another good way to get tested, as saliva tests are more accurate than the blood tests they take at the doctor’s office. It might be a better idea in the long run as well, since they will work with you to correct your diet and lifestyle. The doctor is likely to throw you on some birth control pills and send you on your way.
How to Treat PCOS Naturally
From my understanding, the best way to treat PCOS is with a low carbohydrate real foods diet (such as the paleo diet) and exercise. That is what is required to avoid symptoms while you are still insulin resistent, and a healthy lifestyle is what will eventually increase your body’s insulin sensitivity and normalize your hormones.
How low carb you need to go will be individual for everyone – some people’s body respond really well to diet changes, and others have a more difficult time with it and need to be a bit more extreme to get things under control, so don’t be discouraged if a few slight diet changes hasn’t fixed anything quite yet. You will likely have to play around with things and they could take quite a while to normalize.
Something you might want to read if you’re battling PCOS is this article from Dr. Thomas Cowan from the Weston A Price foundation, whose opinion I greatly respect.
“The reason why changing to a diet based on the principles of Nourishing Traditions is the first step in the therapy of PCOS is that your ovaries need the animal fats, and yes, even the cholesterol found in food in order to make estrogen and progesterone, the correct female hormones. Swollen ovaries is a condition analogous to goiter, when the thyroid swells in response to iodine deficiency. Goiters often also result in a hormonal imbalance leading to hypothyroidism. In the case of PCOS, the starvation of the ovaries causes them to become cystic, swollen and eventually unable to regulate the synthesis of their hormones.
The other main dietary trigger for this imbalance is that when the proper dietary fats are missing, they are inevitably replaced by excessive carbohydrate consumption. This results in excessive insulin production, weight gain, abdominal bloating, and eventually will itself cause hormonal shifts. The biochemistry of this process is well described in the book The Schwarzbein Principle which also suggests a diet based on the principles in Nourishing Traditions, along with a restriction to about 75 grams of carbohydrates per day. More good fats and fewer carbohydrate foods should help in restoring your hormones to their proper balance.”
He also suggests glandular formulas:
In addition to the dietary program I have outlined, there are many natural medicines which I have seen, and which have been shown in the medical literature to help PCOS. The first is the protomorphogen extract from Standard Process called Symplex F. This medicine is a mixture of specially processed glandular extracts from the four organs that make up the so-called pituitary axis–the pituitary, thyroid, adrenal glands and the ovaries. It was the insight of Dr. Royal Lee to suggest that it is far more productive to work on the entire system rather than trying to normalize one gland. For we now know that these glands compensate for each other, and that they all get ill as a group.
And finally he suggests a few herbal extracts:
The final therapy that I use for PCOS is a 50/50 mixture of the herbal extracts of Peony lactiflora and Glycyrrhiza uralensis (commonly known as licorice). There have been three studies in the literature showing that this combination of herbs can result in a complete remission in PCOS, and that it does so by normalizing adrenal function and reducing testosterone levels.
Further Reading on PCOS
Here are a few stories from real women who have beaten their PCOS with nourishing foods:
My Story: Recovery from Gluten Intolerance, PCOS, and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease
A Really Amazing Ebook Guide to PCOS
One last thing I want to tell you about… I have found a really amazing, in depth guide to PCOS that covers EVERYTHING you could possibly want to know about PCOS and how to combat it naturally with diet and lifestyle. It’s written by Stefani Ruper who has suffered with PCOS and the accompanying severe acne her whole life and has really done a seriously amazing job with this ebook (and reversing her PCOS!)
Click here to pick up her guide right now.
Okay! That is all. After writing that, I don’t think I did such a bad job breaking it down…
Do you suffer with PCOS or suspect that you might? What has your experience been?