If you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), then you know just how frustrating it can be if you’ve been trying to gain control of your weight. I have quite a few friends, clients, and patients that deal with this condition that digs deeper than infertility, as devastating as that can be on its own.
First let’s define what it is and why it matters for your weight. PCOS is characterized by overproduction of the androgen testosterone, menstrual abnormalities when ovulation does not occur and enlarged ovaries containing multiple small follicles (hence, polycystic ovaries). Women with severe PCOS have greater menstrual irregularity, androgen excess, total and abdominal fat and resistance to insulin; higher degrees of obesity are associated with worsening symptoms. This means their risk is increased for metabolic comorbidities such as diabetes. Since insulin is a known fat storage hormone, the greater the insulin resistance, the harder it usually is to control weight gain. It’s a double whammy.
Did I just described you or someone you know personally? Whether your insulin resistance is caused by PCOS or something else, some of these principles will apply. Insulin resistance otherwise known as “pre-diabetes” or “glucose intolerance” often leads to diabetes later in life and can really wreak havoc on your weight loss efforts. If you have received a diagnosis of insulin resistance, it means your insulin receptors are not very sensitive to the “lock and key” fit that insulin creates to move glucose (sugar) into their cells for energy. As a result, your pancreas produces more insulin to try and keep up. But like anything, our bodies become tolerant when it gets too much of something. Same thing happens when you take antibiotics over and over- your body recognizes it and you become antibiotic resistant over time. Consider someone who has become addicted to a drug and requires more over time to attain the same effect they did when they first tried it. Same concept.
When you have an abundance of insulin circulating in your blood stream, it’s constantly promoting fat storage in your body making it extremely difficult for you to succeed at any weight loss attempts. A common treatment in PCOS specifically is to prescribe metformin. However this isn’t really correcting the problem – it’s just telling your liver to produce less glucose but not directly addressing the fact that your body is producing too much insulin.
My expertise is in natural health and what to eat. So I’m not recommending you stop any current medical treatments without speaking to your physician. But I do want to help you with what you can safely control, starting today.
Begin with these simple (but maybe not so easy) steps:
- You gotta cut out fake food – meaning processed, refined, simple carbohydrates and sugars. These foods do nothing for you. Well, nutritionally they do nothing. I know emotionally they are “feel good” foods and literally turn on the pleasure centers in our brain by increasing dopamine levels and offer a great distraction to our negative emotions. But they spike insulin levels quickly and when consumed persistently (as part of frequent snacking let’s say), they worsen insulin resistance eventually leading to type 2 diabetes. Don’t misread this, those with a normal functioning pancreas cannot give themselves diabetes by eating these foods alone. Many other factors are running behind the scene including weight and genetics.
- Reduce your total carbohydrate intake. Key word here is REDUCE not eliminate. I’m really not a proponent of consuming under 10% of your calories from carbohydrates because I haven’t seen anyone sustain it for long term and there are very healthy foods that truly don’t deserve that kind of neglect. Why would you eliminate an apple from your diet that contains fiber and vital nutrients? It doesn’t make any sense. But it IS a good idea to cut back to 100 to 130 grams of total carbohydrate per day. If that sounds like a lot to you, consider that most people consume anywhere from 300 to 600 grams of carbohydrate per day in the standard american diet. Restricting down to 100 or so is enough to put you into a very mild ketosis so that you are depleting your glycogen stores (in simple terms, energy from sugar stores) while dipping into some of your fat stores. The effect of ketosis is to reduce hunger and successfully lose weight while not feeling terrible. *Note if you are a diabetic taking insulin you will need to discuss this with your doctor before lowering your carbohydrates this much as your regimen is likely designed for you to eat more than this.
- Consider a 30 day cleanse to reset your system and begin to bring your hormones into balance. This will not be an overnight fix. But, essential oils are natural, aromatic compounds that when coming from pure sources, have therapeutic properties that can have amazing benefits for bringing body systems that are out of balance, into balance. A good cleanse eliminates processed food and sugars, includes a high quality multivitamin, whole food enzymes, essential oils, probiotics and others that I outline specifically on a recent post here that you can read about if interested. If you experience symptoms like fatigue, irritability, headaches, stomach distress, bloating, recurrent sinus infections, lack of focus, or other vague symptoms not otherwise diagnosed as anything definitive, a cleanse could be exactly what you need. These could be signs of a weakened immune system caused by increased levels of stress, poor diet, increased candida overgrowth in your gut, and/or sleep deprivation.
- Incorporate essential oils into your daily maintenance plan to bring and keep your hormones in balance. Oils like clary sage and geranium when used daily regulate the hormones responsible for the female reproductive system. Clove, cinnamon, and rosemary support the pancreas to balance healthy blood sugars. Grapefruit, cinnamon and ginger regulate appetite and reduce cravings, particularly for sweets. Making teas using these can help along with increasing your fluids. And lastly but just as important, oils like cilantro, lemon and tangerine regularly cleanse and assist the liver to keep it functioning at it’s best. I recommend adding lemon to all of your water for this purpose. Just one drop of essential oil per eight ounces.
- Manage sleep and stress. This isn’t easy, I realize. However, you can do all of the above and if you don’t take care of these two, it won’t do you any good. Stress and sleep deprivation increase the hormone, cortisol, which inhibits the production of progesterone, a main marker of PCOS. Grapefruit essential oil can also prevent cortisol from doing this, so adding it to some of your water is a good idea. But more importantly, taking measures to get at least seven hours of sleep each night is key. Refer to this post I did a while back on taking simple measures to achieve this.
I’ve only scratched the surface on this. As you know, PCOS affects many areas of your life from causing unwanted facial hair, to thinning hair, and infertility. This post was meant to focus primarily on the weight and insulin resistant aspects as that is what I do best. However, I do believe that by addressing diet and hormonal issues that naturally, each of the symptoms can be improved greatly over time. If you’d like to know more about my cleanse and diet program, please feel free to contact me.
P.S. If you’re looking for online support with like minded women striving to live a healthier lifestyle, you may be interested in joining my free support group here.
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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN