Natural options for managing PCOS
A few weeks ago I wrote about endometriosis as a leading cause of infertility. PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, also linked to infertility, is actually more common than endometriosis. Prevalence rates vary based on the way it’s diagnosed, but range from 4% to 20% of women in reproductive age. It is consistent enough in its symptoms and management to be called a bona fide disease. Women who have it certainly would attest to it being really a pain.
PCOS causes women to have irregular cycles, often long cycles that may or may not result in ovulation. From the standpoint of the ovaries and your reproductive system in general, ovulation is definitely a positive sign, a sign of health. Women who have trouble ovulating experience a “backlog” in their ovaries that can result in pain. Roughly 50 percent of those with PCOS also have some degree of endometriosis, to make monthly matters worse.
What bothers me about the general approach to this condition is that it’s rarely discussed openly, nor are women offered in-depth analysis or different management options. Women just quietly go to their doctor and most of them take the artificial hormones they are prescribed—without asking why or even if this is best option.
Yet, breakthrough medical research from Creighton Model FertilityCare™ System and NaProTECHNOLOGY teaches something very different. Here is what I learned at their training this past April about the identification and treatment of ovarian cysts: “The overwhelming majority of [ovarian] cysts…are functional cysts. In many cases, these women are treated with oral contraceptives to help suppress the function of the [ovarian] cyst. However, research…suggests that these cysts occur as the result of hormonal dysfunction. Thus, the use of oral contraceptives, which make the hormone dysfunction even worse, can be counterproductive.”
And that’s bad news for millions of women who depend on oral contraceptives to manage their PCOS symptoms because their doctors don’t know about other options.
The good news is that coming off hormonal birth control and tracking the natural cycle of your ovaries (and their pesky cysts) can lead to complete elimination of benign cysts.
The first step is therefore quitting the contraceptive (which may actually exacerbate the dysfunction) in conjunction with documenting the signs and symptoms of the cysts. There are many different types of cysts. Persistent follicular (pre-peak) cysts appear at the first part of the cycle, and persistent luteal (post-peak) cysts appear in the the second part.
Cysts often cause regular, cyclic pain in the pelvic region. Charting helps the woman identify unusual cervical mucus discharge that pinpoints which type of cyst (follicular or luteal) she is dealing with based on when the discharge appears. It’s that simple.
Follicular cysts are usually caused by prolonged over-production of estrogen. A trained ob/gyn can disrupt the estrogen dominance with targeted injections of progesterone, which usually alleviates the pain caused by the follicular cyst. As a general rule, women with these types of cysts—called functional cysts—do not need surgery. Hooray for natural, non-invasive health care!
Luteal cysts, on the other hand, are also called luteinized unruptured follicles because that’s what they are—a follicle that has matured but not release an egg. Sometimes surgery is recommended. If you or someone you know suffers from cysts, you can read more about treatment options that safeguard fertility by clicking here.
Speaking as an integrative nutritionist, I definitely see management of PCOS as something that needs a lifestyle component. PCOS doubles a women’s risk of “metabolic syndrome,” a combination of heart disease risk factors that include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a high waist circumference. (Remember how we talked about how the Pill could increase heart disease risk?) Insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic state, and weight problems caused by insulin resistance also often go hand-in-hand with PCOS. Here’s where the nutrition link becomes obvious.
What to Eat to Help
Managing blood sugar levels is the key to stopping the insulin resistance that is associated with PCOS. Eliminating refined carbohydrates is in fact the most effective nutrition strategy for managing PCOS. There are several foods that help with blood sugar and help the body eliminate excess estrogen. They include:
- Ground flaxseeds and other high-fiber foods
- Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables
- Young soy beans (edamame), legumes and other sources of phytoestrogens
There are tons of ways to insert these functional foods into your daily meals. Ground flax and cinnamon into your cereal or morning smoothie…coleslaw or roasted cauliflower at lunch…edamame for a snack at 3 p.m…easy peesy steamed broccoli with your dinner. I find that it’s not so much the foods that are a challenge – it’s whether or not the person wants to eat them now they’ve been told they should eat them.
Behavior change…isn’t that what this move towards natural womanhood is all about? It’s not easy, but it’s worth it if you value your health.
Certain nutrients, called nutraceuticals, also have a drug-like effect on improving hormonal balance. Under the supervision of a clinical nutritionist, you may want to include:
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid
- Calcium D-gluconate
Of course, if you’re into the supplements, you’ll really want to talk to a knowledgeable natural health practitioner (knowledgeable in that they know about you and which nutraceuticals would suit you best) who can recommend that most effective dose.
Here are take-home points: get off artificial hormones, start tracking your cycles to find out what kind of cyst you have with the help of a trained teacher of fertility awareness based methods, and take small steps towards avoiding foods that mess with your blood sugar and don’t help you balance your sex hormones.