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Will Dieting Reverse Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

Will Dieting Reverse Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome was first diagnosed in the 1930s as Stein-Leventhal Syndrome or PCOS which is a prevalent condition that affects between 5% to 10% of adolescent girls and women of childbearing age. This is very interesting because so many women suffer from this ailment. And, like many other conditions, it also can go undiagnosed. No probable cause of PCOS has been identified although the condition is closely linked to hormonal imbalances in the female body. Loosely defined, PCOS is the existence of multiple cysts inside the ovary which prevents it from releasing mature eggs for ovulation. Thus, women and girls with PCOS experience irregular periods or at times, the complete lack of it. 

The PCOS Cycle

Although the definite cause of PCOS is yet to be identified, hormonal imbalances in the female body are said to affect the condition directly.  Both male and female bodies produce sex hormones in different amounts. In females, the ovaries produce three kinds of hormones namely, progesterone, estrogen, and androgen. These hormones regulate the female cycle from ovulation to menstruation. However, in women affected by PCOS, the ovaries produce higher amounts of androgens which are sometimes referred to as “male hormones.” This spike in androgen production is linked to an increase in insulin production. Research indicates that women with higher levels of insulin in their bodies tend to produce more androgens which cause the imbalance. 

The imbalance caused by the excess androgens interferes with the development of the egg cells and their release. Some eggs do not mature but instead, develop into little sacs filled with a liquid called cysts.  Since no eggs are released during ovulation, these cysts enlarge and build up inside the ovaries, causing missed or irregular periods. 

Signs and Symptoms of PCOS may vary from woman to woman so regular checkups with a gynecologist are a must for proper diagnosis. Below are some symptoms usually caused by PCOS:

  • Obesity
  • Clogged pores and acne
  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Heavy periods that come more than once in a month
  • Hirsutism – excess facial and body hair
  • Alopecia – thinning hair on the head
  • Thickened and dark skin on armpits, neck, and breasts
  • High blood pressure, high blood sugar level, or high levels of cholesterol

PCOS Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosis for PCOS usually comes in three stages in order to eliminate other probable conditions that may have caused the symptoms. First up is a discussion of medical history to determine whether there are past medical and health conditions that can be linked to PCOS. After this, a physical examination is conducted to check for symptoms like excess weight, darkened skin, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels. A gynecologic exam is done last to check for other probable infections which may have caused the symptoms. Doctors typically diagnose PCOS in women who have at least two of these symptoms; high androgen levels, irregular menstrual cycles, or cysts in the ovaries.  Moreover, seeking treatment is important since PCOS can lead to possible infertility and sexual problems. Although there is no specific cure yet for PCOS, it is treatable. Birth control and certain diabetic drugs have been administered to help fix hormonal imbalances and improve symptoms.

Can Dieting Help?  

Interestingly, low carb diets such as the zone diet may help overweight women with PCOS. A recent study of 11 non-diabetic, overweight women with PCOS who had an average age of 33 was conducted. The study compared a 'standard' diet with 56% carbohydrates and 16% protein, with a lower-carb diet of 43% carbohydrate and 15% protein. The fat component of the lower carb diet was a lot higher than the standard diet, by 14%. This is higher than it would be in the Zone diet. The fat content of the low carb diet was almost evenly split between polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids. The fat content of the standard diet was almost evenly split between the two types of fatty acids but was slightly higher (by 3%) in the monounsaturated variety.

A third diet, one high in both carbohydrates and monounsaturated fatty acids were also compared. The study participants only followed each diet for 16 days. They had a 3-week break between each diet and tried all 3. Because the production of the androgen hormones is influenced by the presence of insulin, the researchers were interested in finding out whether a low carb diet could reduce the amount of insulin circulating in the body. They believed this would have an indirect positive effect on PCOS.

For those who may not know, carbohydrates are a source of energy for the body, the only source used by the brain. But when the body is deprived of carbohydrates after the threshold level, it will use alternate methods of metabolizing energy. It uses stored fats and protein, but this is not a very biologically efficient way of producing energy for the body. So, there are a lot of acidic metabolic by-products, called ketones. These are released into the bloodstream, to be excreted by the body.

The results of this study found that whilst hormones that were circulating weren't significantly affected by the lower carb diet, the women's cholesterol, fasting insulin levels, free fatty acids, and their response to insulin were positively affected. The fact that their response to insulin improved is an indicator of the possible benefit of a low carb diet to PCOS sufferers. And because the women-only followed the diet for 16 days, this may be why their levels of circulating insulin were not more prominently affected.

The authors of the study state that: “Because elevated insulin is thought to contribute to the endocrine abnormalities in PCOS, a reduction in insulin would be expected to ultimately result in an improved endocrine profile." They go on to say that these improvements indicate that using a low carb type diet, with lower calorie intake, would probably benefit overweight women who suffer from PCOS.

However, not all low carb diets are created equal and or suitable for all body types. For instance, the Atkins diet has been associated with an increased risk of heart problems for some, as well as being implicated in the hospitalization of others. That is why we encourage you to do your own research, and check with your primary doctor or speak with a healthcare professional before considering using dieting as an option.

Storytime: Be Cautious & Be Careful

A 40-year-old woman was hospitalized with very high levels of acids in her blood as a result of following the Atkins diet strictly for about a month. The release of acids in the blood, called ketosis, is an indicator of the 'success' of the Atkins diet and is actually a result of the process of starving the body of certain nutrients beyond a threshold level. The nutrient being, of course, carbohydrates. In the case of this woman, these metabolic by-products weren't excreted fast enough and built up in her bloodstream. She was vomiting 4 to 6 times a day. This buildup of blood acids represented a dangerous situation and she was admitted to intensive care.

The Atkins Foundation responded that this woman must have had abnormal metabolic or clinical issues. But given that this woman, who was obese, is in a category at which the Atkins diet is marketed, there is a real cause for concern here. With obesity, there is a greater likelihood for both general medical problems, and metabolic problems. If an obese person did not have metabolic problems of one form or another, they would not be obese. Perhaps there were circumstances that were particular to this woman here, but until those potential dangers are understood more fully, this is a significant issue. It's ironic that a diet should be implied as not being suitable for anyone with metabolic issues, particularly if this diet is marketed as a 'way of life' - that is, recommended for long term use. Please take note: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.

This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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