10% of all women has Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. However 70% of women suffering from PCOS never receive a diagnosis. Which does carry a lot of health risks. High time to create more awareness.
Unwanted hair growth, mood swings and depressive symptoms, acne, an irregular or absent cycle, hair loss, problems with weight, poor sleep and fatigue are all symptoms of the condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (= PCOS) that is responsible for most fertility problems in women. Let’s have a closer look at what it is.
What is PCOS?
It is a hormone imbalance that impacts your fertility and metabolism. A woman with this condition produces many follicles (vesicles in which an egg grows), but they don’t grow or don’t grow until much later. As a result, ovulation may occur late in the cycle or not at all.
Because most women receive their diagnosis because of the absence of a cycle, PCOS is still often and wrongly seen as a purely gynecological problem. The solutions offered are limited to the pill or hormonal stimulation in case of a desire to have children. In case of obesity the advice is often “lose weight and then come back”. There is usually no explanation of what PCOS actually is and what it really means. Yet it is so much more than having trouble getting pregnant.
The cause of PCOS
PCOS is an epigenetic disorder and can be passed on and -given. As a result, there are often several women in one family with the condition. This is because the tuning of our genes, the task they are given, happens during the first weeks of pregnancy. Certain factors can influence that tuning and thus change the task of the genes. Stress, lifestyle, behavior, environmental factors, etc. play a role in this. The 1944-1945 Hunger Winter is a clear example of this. Due to the shortage of food, certain growth genes were ‘recalibrated’ so that children born during this time have more health problems at a later age, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease.
External factors, poor gut health, and abnormalities in hormone balance can also play a role in the development of PCOS. For example, high insulin levels can interfere with the maturation of follicles.
Being overweight also increases the likelihood of developing PCOS, is at the same time a consequence of it, but is not a prerequisite for having PCOS.
Those who do become overweight often have numerous attempts and strict restrictive diets behind them. Because losing weight with PCOS does not come naturally. The interplay of hormones makes it a challenging puzzle that you can only solve by simultaneously working on a positive self-image and handles to deal with stress and other emotions.
Other implications of PCOS
The abnormalities in hormone balance not only complicate the maturation of an egg, making it more difficult to conceive naturally. The insulin disorder that often accompanies PCOS increases the risk of pregnancy and type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and liver problems.
In addition, PCOS also brings with it an increased risk of miscarriage and of other complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
And finally, there is an impact on the mental health of women with PCOS: they are more likely to feel unhappy and suffer from mood swings.
What can you do yourself?
Fortunately, you can do a lot yourself to feel better physically and mentally and to increase your chances of a natural pregnancy. The best part is that you can simultaneously change your own health and that of your (future) children and grandchildren.
Our lifestyle largely determines our insulin balance. It is about the choice of our diet, how much we exercise and how much we sleep.
Insulin is released by our pancreas in response to the amount of sugars we eat. Sugars are necessary, but the source of our sugars is important. ‘Quick sugars’ from cookies, candy, soda and fruit juices cause a quick and large release of insulin. You’d rather limit that. By cleverly putting together our meals, we can stabilize the release of insulin somewhat and therefore stimulate the growth of follicles.
Choose a meal with lots of vegetables and possibly some fruit, a piece of lean meat, fish or a vegetarian product, a portion of whole grain pasta, rice or other cereals or potatoes and a tablespoon of healthy cooking fats per person. For example, a breakfast can consist of unsweetened yogurt, fresh fruit, a handful of oat flakes and a handful of nuts.
If you feel the need for a snack, it is best to have some vegetables with hummus or combine fruit with yogurt or nuts. Because of the proteins and the (healthy) fats, you limit the impact of the fruit sugars.
In addition, a high-fiber diet is also ideal to support your gut health. The intestinal bacteria themselves also produce hormones and the whole hormonal process starts from the moment the food arrives in our gut. But the permeability of the gut also plays a role. Nutrients must be able to pass through the intestinal wall, toxins we prefer to keep out.
When we move, our cells automatically open to absorb the sugars present. Thus, much less insulin is needed. A short walk after eating is enough to reduce the need for insulin.
Sleeping in and out is an interplay of hormones. These hormones are also influenced by and themselves have an impact on PCOS.
Cortisol counteracts the sleep hormone, making falling asleep and staying asleep more difficult. During sleep, the body normally produces leptin, the satiety hormone so we can sleep through the night peacefully. A bad night’s sleep makes us crave sweets more the day after.
Stress causes a rise in the hormone cortisol which, like a domino, triggers a whole host of processes an other hormones, including the production of insulin and male hormones.
Stress is a part of everyday life, but the stress we impose on ourselves through low self-esteem, people leasing and perfectionism, we can unlearn.
Endocrine disruptors are substances from our environment that affect our own endocrine system. They include pesticides, BPAs or plasticizers in plastic, parabens and phthalates (substances in cosmetics, detergents and perfumes). Reading labels, rinsing new clothes and linens before using them, washing fruits and vegetables well and choosing organic products, … can all help keep your own hormones and those of your (unborn) children healthy.
Even though there is no medication to cure PCOS and only extra hormones are prescribed to reduce symptoms or to help with pregnancy wish lists, you can do a lot yourself to take charge of your body and your cycle.
If you are ready to really get started, you can work in groups or individually in the PCOS Academy. With or without guidance. You can find all the information here.