I’m no military expert, but you can’t go to battle without knowing your enemy. Plus being the academic type, I like to learn as much as I can about a problem so I can figure out how it works and how it can be solved. So here’s what I’ve learned:
What is PCOS?
PCOS is PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome, and is named for the cysts that can develop on your ovaries. Scientists don’t know what causes it, although many studies suggest it can run in families. It can’t be “cured,” but it can be treated. For some women, PCOS symptoms begin with their first periods in puberty. For others (like me) it develops after gaining a lot of weight (for instance after pregnancy).
Symptoms vary widely, but typically include irregular periods, elevated levels of male hormones and irregularly functioning ovaries. It is believed that gaining too much weight can throw off insulin levels, which sets off a whole set of hormonal imbalances.
…With Insulin Resistance
Many overweight women diagnosed with PCOS often get the “with insulin resistance” tacked onto the end. It took me a while to wrap my brain around how this works. Basically when we eat foods that contain glucose, our pancreas generates insulin to process these sugars and deliver them to our muscles. But the muscles that would use that insulin-glucose combo are no longer receptive to the insulin, so they reject the energy. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why muscles don’t “unlock” to receive that insulin-glucose combo. The body then takes that insulin-glucose combo and stores it as fat for later use.
So how do you solve for PCOS? Doctors don’t really have a good answer here. They say to eat a Mediterranean style diet and get moderate exercise. Some will prescribe Metformin, which is used to unlock the insulin receptivity of muscle cells. My strategy is to attack it from a few fronts:
- Muscle receptivity to insulin: I think this is a core issue and solving it will unlock the key to reversing the rest. Increasing muscle activity and muscle needs for fuel will prevent the body from immediately storing food as fat. For me that means resistance training 3 times a week and activating those slow-twitch muscles for the entire week.
- Preventing sugar / insulin spikes: Keeping sugar levels steady throughout the day prevents the pancreas from overworking itself to produce insulin. Because insulin levels are lower, muscles are less likely to develop resistance to it.
I also take a supplement called Inositol, a type of B vitamin that helps improve insulin sensitivity.
- Controlling stress reactions: The rejected insulin packs food away as fat, but specifically it stores it around the torso. Why? Stress activates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol and high cortisol levels means higher belly fat. That belly fat then increases inflammation, which triggers more cortisol production.
- Reducing inflammation: Inflammation triggers the body’s stress response as well. Refined carb and processed foods can create that inflammation. For some women, dairy products also create that inflammation response. By avoiding foods that create inflammation responses, the goal is to reduce cortisol levels.
- Hormone disruptions: Hormones play a critical role in the puzzle. There are a lot of hormone-disrupting foods and additives, and women have found that eliminating most of these foods can help alleviate symptoms. Soy is considered to be a big one, as is dairy. Doctors often prescribe oral contraceptives to force regularity in periods.