Got PCOS? Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes...
Katie* came to see me complaining of hair loss, acne and irregular periods, due to PCOS, despite ‘doing everything right’!
She was eating an organic paleo diet, working out daily and taking high quality supplements, however wasn’t seeing great results. Her acne was actually getting worse!
Understandably she was frustrated, and was considering going back on the birth control pill, as this was the only thing that had ever improved her symptoms.
After speaking with Katie*, I could immediately identify the important lifestyle factors that she had overlooked.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine condition in women of reproductive age, believed to affect 1 in 10 (possibly up to 1 in 5!) women.
The conventional advice, is to lose weight by eating less calories (particularly from carbohydrates) and exercising more.
The problem is that PCOS is a complex metabolic condition that tends to be caused by imbalances with adrenal stress, inflammation and insulin. Because of this, the conventional advice ‘eat less, move more’ isn’t actually effective, and may actually make certain women worse.
I commonly see women with PCOS making these mistakes when they want to overcome their symptoms naturally…
#1 Not regulating blood sugar levels
80% of women with PCOS have some degree of insulin resistance. This occurs when the cells become ‘numb’ to insulin and they cannot efficiently uptake your blood sugar as fuel.
This leads to elevated sugar in the bloodstream which further increases insulin levels. In women with PCOS, excess insulin stimulates the ovaries to produce androgens, which are ‘male hormones’, that drive symptoms such as acne, hair loss, facial hair growth and menstrual irregularities (1)
Even if you are eating a ‘healthy’ and organic diet such as Paleo or Vegan, your blood sugar might not be balanced. Too many ‘paleo’ or ‘raw vegan’ treats made with coconut sugar, dates or maple syrup could actually raise your blood sugar and insulin.
The women that I work with aren't usually insulin resistant because they consume excess carbs and sugar. Instead, chronic inflammation (often stemming from the gut), stress, nutrient deficiencies and thyroid issues are the factors that promote the development of insulin resistance.
Even though 'healthy' carbs like potatoes, rice, fruit and honey may not be the CAUSE, it is important to reduce the intake of these things until we have addressed the underlying issues and the insulin resistance is under control.
On the flip side, too few carbohydrates on a diet like Keto or strict low carb, could also be too stressful on the body and may actually raise stress hormones and blood glucose levels, as a protective mechanism.
I recommend that my clients with PCOS purchase a glucometer to measure their unique response to carbohydrates. If they are displaying signs of insulin resistance, I also recommend timing their carbohydrate consumption around workouts or going for a brisk walk after meals, to support their insulin response.
#2 Being stressed out!
It isn’t just your ovaries that can produce androgens, your adrenal glands can too. Our adrenals sit on top of our kidneys and their main job is to regulate the stress response.
If we are constantly pumping out cortisol and adrenaline, the adrenals can also increase production of androgenic hormones like DHEA-S, androstenedione and testosterone. We could be eating the best diet in the world, however if we are living in a sympathetic dominant state (fight or flight), then this could be overriding our efforts.
Back in the day, our stress response was only triggered on rare occasions, for actual life-threatening situations such as famine, war or being chased by a saber-tooth tiger.
In our modern lifestyle, we are constantly bombarded by stressors, whether it’s traffic, deadlines, social media or finances. Our thoughts are powerful too. Our body doesn’t know the difference between a stressful thought, and a real life event. It will produce the same stress response, even if you are sat at home on your sofa.
We can’t avoid stress, however we can control how we manage and respond to it. Each day, take time out to decompress and get into the parasympathetic state (rest and digest). Take an epsom salt bath, meditate, go for a walk in nature, journal or attend a yoga class. These activities can lower cortisol levels and calm the adrenal overdrive.
#3 Over exercising
Exercise itself is a stressor, and even though it is a positive stress (eustress), too much can be detrimental. Long duration cardio in particular, can really stress the female body. In nature, the only time we would have been running for a long period was when we were running away from danger. Although we have evolved as humans, this mechanism is still the same.
It is important to stay active and move every day, but that doesn’t mean you need to head to the gym, push yourself and sweat like crazy.
A more suitable form of exercise for women with PCOS is strength training, as lean muscle mass helps the body uptake more glucose from the bloodstream, without the need for insulin. However, too much of this type of exercise without sufficient recovery, can stress your body in a similar way.
I like to recommend women aiming for 10,000 steps daily as a baseline. We are designed to walk as humans and this is a low impact, stress relieving activity, especially if done outside in nature. Strength training 3-5 times a week for no longer than an hour each time, is ideal. You can also sync your training around your menstrual cycle, opting for lower intensity, more restorative movement, as you approach the week of your period.
#4 Skimping on sleep
You can’t expect your body to heal or your hormones to be balanced if you aren’t sleeping. Studies have shown just one night of poor sleep, (less than 5 hours) reduced insulin sensitivity by 33%. (2)
The majority of women with PCOS are already struggle with insulin resistance, so can you imagine what damage a few months (or even decades) of sleep deprivation can have. The hours between 10pm-2am are known as the ‘golden hours’, as this is the time when our body repairs physically and we tend to enter the deepest phases of sleep.
If you are waking up at 5am to attend your daily spin class or you only get to bed by 11.30pm each night because you are watching Netflix or answering emails, then your hormones are going to be negatively affected.
Embrace your circadian rhythm (internal body clock) by getting outside in the sunlight during the day and avoiding blue light from devices and artificial room lighting at night. Our circadian rhythm has massive influence over our hormones and may actually impact the length of our menstrual cycle and when we go into menopause. (3,4)
Aim to be in bed by 10.30pm at the very latest and ideally get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. First thing in the morning, get outside or expose your eyes to natural daylight, as this can help us sleep better in the evening. In the evenings, avoid blue light from technology and wear a pair of blue light blocking glasses. Incorporating these simple habits can help to rebalance our body clock and hormones.
#5 Exposure to environmental toxins
If you are sipping your organic green juice from a plastic bottle or covering your skin with chemical laden products after you work out and shower, then you could still be harming your hormones. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) such as BPA and phthalates can enter our blood stream via our skin and mimic our own natural hormones like oestrogen. Women with PCOS are believed to be more sensitive to the negative effects of environmental toxins, and may have a reduced ability to detoxify them. (5,6)
Start by switching your skincare to natural, organic brands. It is believed that the average woman uses 12 different personal care products products, exposing herself to around 168 different chemicals, before she even leaves the house in the morning! (7) You can use the ‘Think Dirty’ app created by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as a way to measure the toxicity of your products. Stay away from plastic as much as possible, by investing in a stainless steel or glass water bottle and glass lock Tupperware in your kitchen.
Don’t forget about your sanitary products too, as conventional tampons and pads can contain pesticides, bleach and dioxins (another type of endocrine disrupting chemical). Always choose organic, or try out a reusable menstrual cup! This is not only a better option for your health, but also the environment.