PCOS - what is it and what can we do about it?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a common, heritable endocrine disorder that primarily affects women of childbearing age. It impacts women differently, but generally, it causes the body to produce excess male hormones, including testosterone and androstenedione and may stop the ovaries from functioning correctly. Most women also become insulin resistant and gain excess body fat.
Scientists are still unsure of the exact causes of PCOS, but current evidence suggests that lifestyle factors including diet, exercise and sleep play a role. As a result, physicians typically recommend lifestyle changes as the first line of treatment, but lifestyle changes must never replace medication unless a physician explicitly recommends it.
Diet is the factor that most people focus on initially and for a good reason. The correct diet can help to improve insulin sensitivity, lower the levels of circulating testosterone, reduce inflammation, and promote fat loss.
Unfortunately, no specific diet is suitable for everyone with PCOS. Different strategies work for different women, and diets must be personalised for optimum benefits. That said, current evidence suggests that eating a low glycaemic index diet is beneficial. A low glycaemic index minimises insulin and blood glucose spikes, improving insulin sensitivity and potentially reducing PCOS symptoms.
A low glycaemic index diet prioritises whole foods, limits added sugars, processed foods and alcohol. As a rough guideline, consider implementing these tips:
- Swap foods containing refined grains such as white bread, breakfast cereals, and white rice for high-fibre, whole grain versions that naturally have a lower glycaemic index, such as rye bread, brown or black rice and steel-cut oats.
- Swap vegetable oils such as corn oil, sunflower oil and rapeseed oil for fruit oils such as olive and avocado oils. Vegetable oils are rich in omega-6 fats, which can be inflammatory in excessive quantities.
- Eat enough quality protein. Quality protein, typically present in meat, chicken fish, and soya products provide essential amino acids for tissue repair and making immune cells. It also helps to stabilise blood sugar levels, preventing insulin spikes.
- Eat carbohydrate-dense foods such as rice, bread, potatoes in moderation. Carbohydrates are the food group that spike insulin levels the most. It is crucial to keep your carbohydrate intake moderate even if you choose whole, unprocessed options.
- Fill at least half your plate with as many colourful vegetables as possible to get a wide range of nutrients.
- Eat quality fats from salmon, avocado, nuts and seeds. Fats are crucial for keeping your cell membranes healthy and reducing inflammation.
Sleep, exercise, and smoking are also linked to insulin resistance. Ensure you get enough sleep, exercise regularly and quit smoking (if you’re a smoker) to boost the effect of any positive diet change you make.
Dr Somi Igbene is a Registered Associate Nutritionist and Biomedical Scientist with a keen interest in diabetes, metabolic health, and lower-carb nutrition. She is passionate about helping women develop healthy eating habits to lower their risk of metabolic disease and reclaim their health.