Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects approximately 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. It is also one of the leading causes of infertility in the United States, with about 10 million women affected. These are big numbers for a condition that has such a profound impact on a woman’s fertility; and yet, the support for it is so lacking.
The symptoms of PCOS can impact all elements of a woman’s life and can include irregular cycles, the prevalence of acne, mood swings, weight gain, and unwanted hair growth, to name a few. But having trouble becoming pregnant is often what prompts investigations that lead to a PCOS diagnosis.
Receiving a PCOS diagnosis can be a lot to take in, and research has shown that many women with PCOS suffer from anxiety and depression, on top of other health concerns. While there is currently no cure for PCOS, there are a number of options to help manage the symptoms of this condition, including nutrition and exercise.
So, what exactly is PCOS?
PCOS is a disorder of the endocrine system. Your endocrine system is like your internal communication network. It is composed of organs that produce hormones (called glands) that help regulate things like metabolism, reproduction, sleep, mental state, and growth. Your ovaries are actually glands that produce estrogen and progesterone, and these hormones play an important role in your menstrual cycle, fertility, and ability to support a pregnancy.
Common Impacts of PCOS
High androgen levels
A blood test to check androgen levels, or the levels of male sex hormones, can help diagnose PCOS. Women with PCOS tend to have higher levels of testosterone, and this can profoundly impact ovulation and menstruation.
Normally, each month a woman’s body matures one egg during ovulation. A follicle is then prompted to grow and mature with the help of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). Then, luteinizing hormone (LH) surges, and the mature follicle ovulates. If you are tracking ovulation at home with a kit, the test strips you are using are testing for an LH surge. This surge occurs just prior to ovulation.
It is often found that women with PCOS have multiple follicles (fluid-filled sacs, which are the “cysts” in polycystic ovaries). These follicles do not mature enough to be released. The lack of ovulation has a cascade effect, with estrogen, progesterone, LH, and FSH levels all impacted. The female sex hormones–estrogen and progesterone–are depressed, while the male androgens–which include testosterone–become elevated.
In some women, PCOS is suspected if insulin levels are elevated. If this is the case, you require higher levels of insulin to keep your blood sugar levels normal. However, high levels of insulin are one of the drivers of ovulation disturbances, causing the ovaries to produce more testosterone, as described above. Insulin resistance and higher levels of body fat can contribute to worsening insulin resistance and additional PCOS symptoms.
Many of the additional health concerns linked to PCOS are, in fact, linked to insulin resistance, including Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease, Metabolic Syndrome, and even certain types of Cancer.
The approach you use to manage your PCOS depends on what symptoms you are experiencing and what your family planning goals are. Changes to your diet and activity level can help manage your symptoms. Options like birth control can also be beneficial, although this is obviously not an ideal approach if you are trying to conceive. For those not TTC, birth control can help normalize your menstrual cycle, reduce acne, and help control unwanted hair growth. For those who are trying to become pregnant, there are other medication options available to help support ovulation.
At myMindBodyBaby, we have created a number of resources to help with your PCOS diagnosis. If you would like to try a free PCOS meal plan, a one-week exercise schedule (with videos!), plus a guide to managing PCOS symptoms through lifestyle modifications, you can download your copy here.
Step 1: Let’s Look at Nutrition
Nutrition and lifestyle changes can greatly help to improve insulin resistance, high androgen levels, mental outlook, and body composition, all of which can help reduce the severity of PCOS symptoms.
Foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) are beneficial for those with PCOS. These foods help control insulin levels, as they are digested more slowly. This helps to reduce insulin spikes, which can happen with high GI foods.
Inflammation is also associated with PCOS, so consuming items with anti-inflammatory properties, such as dark, leafy greens, blackberries, blueberries, and “good fats” like avocado and olive oil can be hugely beneficial.
But what about dessert?! Chocolate lovers do not have to despair–there are lots of options for you to enjoy, too. Here is a super simple recipe that you can whip up in a flash:
Chocolate Banana Ice Cream
Prep Time: 5 mins
Servings: 2 servings
2 bananas frozen and sliced
2 tbsp cocoa powder
Add frozen bananas and cocoa powder to a food processor and blend. Occasionally scrape down the sides and continue to blend until smooth (approximately 3 to 5 minutes).
Scoop into a bowl and enjoy immediately as soft serve or for firmer ice cream, place in an airtight, freezer-safe container, and freeze for at least 1 hour before scooping.
Step 2: Let’s Get Moving
Regular, moderate exercise is great for everyone. But it is particularly helpful for PCOS patients in supporting healthy body composition. Many women with PCOS find their weight to be a huge struggle. Trying to find ways to fit in a little bit of extra exercise can go a long way to helping manage weight and the related PCOS symptoms associated with it.
Exercise guidelines tell you to aim for 150 minutes a week. If you aren’t working out at all that can seem incredibly daunting. But even adding in a few 10-minute workouts a week to start can have an amazing impact, not only on your physical health but also on your mental health. From there, you could aim to increase that 10 minutes to 15 minutes and go from two times a week to three times a week. Keep adding on a little at a time. And if you miss a workout, do not let that derail you. Just pick back up the next time you have a spare 10-15 minutes!
Try to find a balance between cardiovascular activities (like running, brisk walking, biking, and aerobics classes) and resistance training activities (like squats, push-ups, lunges, and weight lifting). Cardiovascular exercise can help reduce insulin resistance and cardiovascular health, improve mood, achieve a healthy body composition, and support overall fertility health and ART success rates. Resistance training benefits can help reduce insulin resistance, increase metabolic rate, support a healthy body composition, reduce injury rates, and prepare your body for a more comfortable pregnancy (if that is your goal).
Click here for a free HIIT workout video you can do anywhere! This workout is great for all levels, as there are modifications for beginners right up to fitness fanatics!
Here is another super easy workout you can do without equipment:
Warm-Up: Marching, jogging, or skipping on the spot (3 minutes)
Circuit: Complete the following circuit as many times as you can in 7 minutes. Rest for 1 minute. Repeat 2x more for a total of three (3) rounds.
15 jumping jacks (low impact modification: jack step-outs i.e. remove the jump and alternately step one leg out to the side)
10 shoulder-width squat jumps (low impact modification: squat without jump)
20 mountain climbers
20 side plank hip dips (modifications: lower bottom knee to the ground; remove hip dip)
15 tricep dips (on the floor or off of a chair, bench, etc)
10 pushups (modification: on your knees)
30 high knee runs / 30 “butt-kickers” (modification: march instead of run)
Cool Down: Marching with alternating quad stretch and single knee hugs (4 minutes)
PCOS sucks. There, we said it. We know your diagnosis may feel overwhelming. So, start with a few small lifestyle changes at first. Get used to them, and then try adding another one in. You’ve got this!
Lyndsey Clabby is the co-founder of myMindBodyBaby. It took her and her husband four years, countless needles & tests, multiple failed rounds of IUI, miscarriage, and two rounds of IVF to bring their son Bronsen into the world. Sawyer came two years later, followed by Adalyn in 2020. When she's not momming and helping to support other infertility warriors, self-proclaimed cardio addict Lyndsey likes to run and try new workouts. She also pretends she’s crafty. She is a marketer & entrepreneur (BMSc, MBA), a certified fitness instructor for the past 16 years, and a patient advocate for Fertility Matters Canada.