Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and Diet

Thursday, August 23, 2007 - 4:14pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

The list of symptoms for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is enough to drive anyone to drown their sorrows in a bowl of ice cream: unexplained weight gain, irregular periods, infertility, high blood pressure, insulin resistance, unwanted hair growth, and (as if that weren't enough) male-pattern baldness. PCOS has been recognized for about 70 years, but so far there are no effective treatments. Despite all these symptoms, diagnosis is not always clear, as a woman may not have all the signs. One sign she will have is cysts on her ovaries, as seen with ultrasound. She will also have elevated levels of male sex hormones.

What causes Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

The cause of PCOS is not understood. It is the leading endocrine disorder in pre-menopausal women, affecting perhaps 10% of females. PCOS is also a leading cause of infertility, and predisposes affected women to diabetes and heart disease. Some of the symptoms are common to other diseases, so self-diagnosis based on one or two symptoms is definitely not recommended. Some women gain weight due to PCOS, but more women gain weight simply because they eat more calories than they burn.

Current Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) treatments

Medical science has few solutions for women with this syndrome. Currently, some diabetes drugs are being used in an attempt to improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels. Diet is the first line of defense for many. While about half of PCOS sufferers are obese, researchers cannot pinpoint major dietary differences between obese and normal weight subjects. Other metabolic or lifestyle factors may be at work.

Diet strategies that may help PCOS

There is no magic dietary fix for PCOS, at least not one known at this time. One plan of action most professionals and support groups agree upon is this: Your carbohydrate intake should be from complex-carb foods such as high fiber whole grains and foods baked using whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. Stay away from overly-sugary foods. These kinds of foods will exacerbate the insulin resistance and high blood sugar common with PCOS, leading to weight gain and diabetes.

Some people have tried low-carb/high-protein diets to deal with PCOS, but these have not resulted in any improvement compared to normal carbohydrate intake. A low sugar/healthy carb food plan, with adequate protein and healthy fats like olive oil, is the best bet. This type of diet actually resembles a Mediterranean Diet . Many practitioners also recommend eating small, frequent meals to combat hunger, which could trigger sugar cravings and binge eating. In addition to diet, regular physical activity is highly recommended for women with PCOS.

PCOS Supplements

No nutritional supplements have been shown to improve PCOS symptoms...so far. Some health professionals believe omega-3 fats could help with some symptoms, but at the moment there is no solid evidence that any supplements will be helpful.1

Conclusion: suspect you have PCOS? Seek information from your doctor and support groups

PCOS is a poorly understood disease, frequently misdiagnosed. Some doctors may dismiss symptoms like unwanted hair growth as insignificant. Do not settle for anything less than a proper diagnosis if you suspect PCOS. The insulin resistance, hypertension, and weight gain associated with PCOS are serious health issues which can set you up for diabetes and heart disease. If you do have PCOS, use diet as your first line of defense. Stay informed. Examples of information and support groups are: