Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?
It is estimated that between 10-15% of women suffer from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, PCOS, making it one of the most common hormonal concerns in women of reproductive age.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a medical condition that we still do not fully understand. The treatment for PCOS is usually aimed at alleviating PCOS symptoms. It is a debilitating condition which is caused by elevated levels of the male hormone, testosterone, and also oestrogen. PCOS refers to multiple cysts on the ovaries and a whole host of other problems which include a lack of ovulation, infertility and menstrual problems.
There are many factors which may cause PCOS. Genetics are thought to play a part in this concern. If you mother or sister suffers or suffered from PCOS, then the chances are much greater that you will suffer from this too. Insulin resistance is another possible cause whereby your body cannot utilise insulin effectively resulting in high levels of insulin being produced. Since all hormonal glands communicate with each other using hormones as chemical messengers, any hormonal imbalance has any effect on other hormonal glands leading to possible concerns.
Symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
A woman who has PCOS has high levels of testosterone. Increased levels of testosterone can lead to a range of symptoms which include:
- Stopping to ovulate or a frequency change in ovulation
- Inability to fall pregnant
- Excess facial and body hair
- An increase in facial acne & spots
- A gain in weight for no known reason
- Mood changes
- Your period stops or becomes completely irregular and often painful
- Thinning hair
- Experience high blood pressure which should not be the case for your age
- High cholesterol levels
- Elevated insulin levels leading to insulin resistance which is only detectable by a blood test. This results in more likelihood of suffering from type 2 diabetes
PCOS is dangerous not only because of the painful cysts, but because it increases the risks for infertility, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol. Before we look at conventional treatments, I would like to just highlight insulin resistance and what this means.
What is Insulin resistance?
Your body breaks down foods to release glucose, sugar, into the bloodstream which is used for energy. Insulin, which is released as soon as you eat food, helps maintain healthy glucose levels by transporting some of it into the cells. This lowers blood sugar levels and provides energy for the cells within our body.
In women suffering from PCOS, the insulin is not utilised properly. This is referred to as insulin resistance. With insulin resistance, the pancreas produces insulin however the cells are not utilising the insulin effectively which results in large amounts of circulating glucose. Since glucose or sugar is one of the big culprits of destroying tissues and structures, the body starts to produce increasing amounts of insulin. Unfortunately, large amounts of insulin results in greater amount of fat deposition and thus weight gain. Additionally, this excess insulin also lends to greater testosterone production which then causes more problems such as acne, spots and thinning hair for sufferers with PCOS. The symptoms of insulin resistance are not noticeable immediately but occur over a period of time. High blood pressure, heart disease and stroke are just some of the increased risk factors associated with insulin resistance.
Conventional treatments for PCOS
Conventional treatments generally focus on tackling PCOS symptoms such as weight gain, spots and so on. Since many women with polycystic ovaries suffer from weight gain, this is usually the first treatment that GP’s may embark upon. The amount of body fat greatly influences hormones levels. For many sufferers, simply reducing weight has a positive major impact on preventing many of the effects of PCOS. However as many people know, losing weight is not always easy.
Birth control tablets are usually the second stage of treatment. Progesterone tablets are often prescribed since this hormone is capable of reducing androgen, male hormone, levels within the body. When these progesterone tablets prove ineffective, anti-androgens are prescribed which lower male hormone levels and also help reduce the severity of some concerns such as acne and spots.
Metformin is an anti-diabetic drug that has been shown to help control the symptoms of PCOS. It is particularly of benefit in those who already have prediabetes or actually have type 2 diabetes.
Fertility medications may also be prescribed since infertility is a big concern for many women who wish to get pregnant.
All the above treatment options are not without side effects and certainly in the case of anti-androgens, withdrawal from this treatment has to be carried out slowly.
Natural remedies for PCOS
By far the biggest lifestyle contributor to PCOS is a poor diet. Research indicates that high consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates all lead to increased insulin production. Increased insulin levels leads to excess male hormone production which leads to most of the symptoms of PCOS. Additionally, this increased insulin will result in weight gain which as mentioned above will aggravate the symptoms of PCOS. If you exercise daily and eat a balanced diet to keep your weight within a healthy range, you may be able to prevent many of the symptoms associated with polycystic ovaries.
There is no cure for PCOS. Whether you embark upon medications or consider the use of herbal supplements, the aim is to minimise the impact PCOS has on the body or to treat and control the side effects of PCOS.
Chaste berry, also known as Vitex or Agnus Castus, is a well-known herb that is often used for hormonal imbalances such as those experienced during PMS. Chaste berry works on the pituitary gland and indirectly works to raise progesterone levels naturally within the body. Because progesterone is capable of reducing male hormone levels, many women resort to the use of Chaste berry. Chaste berry should not be used by anyone undergoing infertility treatment and is also not recommended by anyone on the birth controlling pill. The supplement of choice is PeriAgna by Bio-Health which is a licensed remedy containing Vitex agnus castus fruit.
A liver cleansing herb such as milk thistle is very important if you suffer from PCOS. This is because many menstrual problems and infertility concerns are made worse because of the backup of hormones within the liver. Milk thistle will keep your liver working efficiently and will help eliminate toxins and compounds that the body does not require. The milk thistle supplement that I recommend is European Milk Thistle by Life Extension. This supplement is not suitable for vegetarians.
Acne, excess facial and body hair, and thinning hair on the scalp are associated with excess male hormone levels. The body works within very finite levels of all hormones including testosterone. An increase in testosterone results in its conversion into a metabolite called dihydrotestosterone (DHT). DHT is an inflammatory compound which stimulates the production of sebum which results in acne and spots and it is also responsible for male pattern hair growth and male pattern hair loss. The herb saw palmetto berry inhibits the production of DHT and also helps with the breakdown of DHT. Saw palmetto berry has also been shown to have anti-oestrogen properties.
Saw palmetto berry, because of its anti-DHT and anti-oestrogen effects, may also help to protect the ovaries and is useful in many female hormonal concerns. The use of a saw palmetto berry supplement such as Lamberts Saw Palmetto Extract capsules will therefore help to protect the ovaries and address acne, hirsutism and thinning hair.
Finally please consider the use of Myo-Inositol and Folic Acid powder. Myo-inositol, a form of inositol, is a member of the B-complex family of vitamins. In a double blind study, 92 women with PCOS were split into two groups. The placebo half got folic acid only whilst the test group got folic acid with myo-inositol for 14 weeks. The myo-inositol group had a significantly higher rate of ovulation, achieved better levels of good cholesterol and lost weight, while the placebo group gained weight. Similar results were found in another study using inositol and folic acid.
These studies indicate that Myo-Inositol and Folic Acid can be very effective for PCOS symptoms helping to restore hormonal balance, ovulation, metabolic health and fertility. The recommended daily amount is 2 grams of myo-inositol alongside 200mcg of folic acid taken twice daily. This dose is found in Viridian Nutrition’s Myo-Inositol and Folic Acid. Since both these nutrients are safe, there is no reason why this supplement should not be used by all women with PCOS whether on medication or those seeking alternatives.