We know that polycystic ovary syndrome — better known as PCOS — is a common endocrine disorder, affecting about 10% of people with uteruses. We also know that despite its prevalence, it can be difficult to receive a diagnosis, not to mention learn how to manage it. But as PCOS awareness grows, there are now more ways than ever to keep symptoms at bay.
Typically, a diagnosis requires at least two out of three common signs: the ability to see sacs on ovaries with an ultrasound, lack of ovulation, and high levels of androgens. These signs usually result in a combination of irregular periods, excessive hair growth, weight gain, acne, or thinning hair. If you think you may have PCOS, you can check your hormone levels conveniently from home by using our PCOS kit, which tests for levels of anti-mullerian hormone (AMH), sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and testosterone.
Following diagnosis, there’s a wide array of PCOS tips to explore. While the goal is to figure out ways to restart ovulation and balance hormone levels, there are plenty of practical tips that can make it easier to live with in the meantime. Below are just a few ways you can incorporate practical PCOS management into your everyday routine, ranging from hair maintenance tips to dietary changes, supplements to exercise.
Hair removal how-to
There is no reason to change or remove body hair apart from personal preference, but if you make the choice to do so, there are lots of options to try. Excess hair growth — also known as hirsutism — affects lots of people with PCOS. It is a symptom of having high levels of androgens, hormones that are present in all people, but more so in men. Hirsutism can cause dark, coarse hair to grow on your face, neck, back, chest, buttocks and thighs. There’s nothing wrong with body hair, of course, but it can still be a frustrating presence if you don’t want it there.
Shaving is the classic option: cheap and painless, but unfortunately not with very long-lasting results. If you have hirsutism from PCOS, you may find yourself reaching for your razor on a daily basis. Waxing is a more long-lasting option, albeit more painful. Bear in mind that both shaving and waxing could cause irritation if you have sensitive skin. Epilators have been growing in popularity, working by plucking hair from the root for a longer-lasting result. Many brands even focus on hair growth from PCOS, and you can purchase smaller epilators specifically for facial hair. IPLs, standing for “intense pulsing lights”, can also be purchased for at-home use, and work by stopping hair growth. Both epilators and IPLs have become popular for tackling hirsutism as they reduce or even eliminate stubble, providing a more low-maintenance hair removal experience.
Hair removal creams — also known as depilatories — are a painless option and will leave you without stubble. Always make sure to do a patch test first, though, as the chemicals in these creams may irritate sensitive skin. Eflornithine cream is similar to depilatories but works more as a hair growth slower than hair remover. It usually takes a few months to take effect, so is typically used along with another hair removal method.
And finally, there are procedures done outside your home such as electrolysis and laser hair removal, which are more invasive but also yield long term results. Electrolysis utilises fine needles to pass electric currents to hair follicles and sometimes entails multiple treatments. The level of permanence varies from person to person. Laser hair treatment is considered more likely to be permanent, as hair follicles are destroyed by the heat of a laser. For greater success, it may take multiple treatments. For both electrolysis and laser hair treatments, make sure that your practitioner is registered with the Care Quality Commission or the British Medical Laser Association if you’re in the UK.
Nutrition, not fast diets
Nutrition and insulin levels play a significant role in managing symptoms, as high insulin levels are common in people with PCOS. In cases of insulin resistance, your body isn’t able to use the insulin it creates efficiently, leading to an over-production of insulin in an attempt to keep your blood sugar levels up. High levels of insulin may cause your body to produce more androgens, such as testosterone. In some cases, insulin resistance is caused by having an above-average body mass index (BMI). The frustrating reality is that high insulin levels also make it difficult to lose weight, placing insulin resistance and weight in a tricky relationship with one another.
Some research finds that just a 5% weight loss can lower insulin levels, thus lowering androgen levels and improving PCOS symptoms. That should be the key takeaway from any dietary changes: not to lose weight quickly or try crash diets, but to find a healthy diet that works for you and disrupts that relationship between weight and insulin resistance.
So what are some foods to add to your diet, and why? Fibrous veggies (broccoli, leafy greens), legumes (beans, lentils), berries, and certain nuts (like almonds) are all great options as they slow down digestion, reducing the impact of sugar on blood. Anti-inflammatory foods also help, as they combat the high inflammation caused by insulin resistance and weight gain. These include foods such as tomatoes, kale, spinach, berries and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines. Herbs and spices such as ginger, black pepper, chilli pepper, cumin and more have also been known to lower inflammation.
On the flip side, foods that are high in refined carbohydrates or of a high glycaemic index (GI) contribute to further insulin resistance and cause inflammation. These include foods like white bread and pasta. Sugary drinks and high inflammatory foods (such as red meat and processed food) have a similar impact. These foods should be limited, but do not need to be completely avoided. There has been some evidence to suggest that the time of day at which you consume the most calories can also contribute to PCOS management, with people eating their most caloric meal in the morning seeing a greater decrease in insulin resistance and androgen levels than those eating more in the afternoon or evening.
Recent studies have also proven that a ketogenic diet can be successful in maintaining a healthy weight and regulating hormone levels with PCOS. Keto follows the principle of a high fat, low GI diet — both aspects which are helpful for weight loss and insulin regulation. For some people, it helps to follow a focussed diet plan such as keto; for others, diets can carry negative connotations, and they prefer to focus on incorporating foods conducive to PCOS management without making certain foods entirely off-limits.
Find what works for you, and you may see a serious improvement to PCOS symptoms. In the SORA app, you can track your diet to help better understand which foods help your symptoms and which don’t. You can also book a PCOS package on weight management with a PCOS dietician, which includes personalised meal plans.
You may have heard of “superfoods”: leafy greens with their anti-inflammatory superpowers, or bananas for their magnesium boost. One way to boost your nutrition further is to directly introduce these properties into your routine via supplements. Taking a B-vitamin such as inositol has been proven to improve insulin resistance and even help with fertility for those with PCOS. Vitamin D and calcium have also been known to help regulate periods and ovulation — and Vitamin D deficiency is common in people with PCOS. Cod liver oil supplements can be taken to help regulate periods and assist with weight loss.
For hair thinning or excessive hair growth, zinc has been proven to help. Turmeric and berberine — a herb popular in Chinese medicine — are both helpful with insulin resistance. There are also supplements to improve fertility such as magnesium and N-acetylcysteine (NAC), an antioxidant and amino acid.
Break a sweat
Lastly, incorporating daily exercise can help regulate PCOS symptoms, with research proving that it not only aids in weight loss, but also in regulating insulin levels. Moderate cardio like walking, jogging, swimming and cycling increases your body’s sensitivity to insulin and helps with fertility, not to mention aid in weight loss if necessary. A serotonin boost is an added bonus for your mental health.
Strength training is also great for reducing insulin resistance as well as increasing your metabolic rate, meaning your body will naturally burn more calories while exercising, even gently.
If a 5% weight loss is your main goal, give high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts a try. These workouts don’t take long to finish but burn lots of calories in a short amount of time. However, be mindful of your stress levels during and after these types of workouts. For some people, the intensity of HIIT may actually cause more stress and as a result, worsen inflammation. Be mindful of how your body and mind react to different types of exercise, as increased intensity may not always yield more positive results.
For more PCOS tips and tricks, check out the SORA app where you can chat to a large PCOS community, nutritionists and therapists, as well as track your health.
This was written exclusively for Syrona by Emma Olsson
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