September is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Awareness Month, and the annual occasion always hits home for me. Like millions of other women in the U.S. and around the world, I suffered from PCOS in my twenties. I was told I had no hope of overcoming the weight gain, acne, and plethora of other issues associated with the syndrome.
But instead of listening to my doctor’s misguided advice, I listened to my gut — and it told me that there most certainly was a way to overcome this illness and its related symptoms.
Seventeen years after that initial diagnosis, I’m happy to report that I’m now not only PCOS-free, but I’m also the proud mother of a gorgeous daughter — a feat my doctors said I’d never accomplish without medical intervention.
And so in honor of PCOS Awareness Month, I'd like to help people learn more about this misunderstood, often misdiagnosed illness, as well as find ways to heal naturally.
What is PCOS?
Women with PCOS produce more male hormones, called androgens, than they should, which can affect ovulation and throw off the normal levels of insulin and cortisol — two majorly important hormones related to stress, weight, and much more. The signs of excessive androgen production in women include weight gain, acne, excessive hair growth, and problems with ovulation. And although PCOS presents differently from woman to woman, common symptoms like ovarian cysts, irregular or absent periods, and anxiety can also crop up.
In my case, I had it all: deep depression; infrequent periods; severe cystic acne on my face, chest, and back; and profound weight gain that had me pushing 200 pounds.
After years of research, education, and deep dedication, I healed my own PCOS. Now, I help other women learn how to manipulate their hormonal biochemistry through dietary choices.
Over the last two decades, there are so many things I’ve learned about PCOS from my personal and professional experiences. But if you’re still trying to wrap your head around your diagnosis and just need a few quick takeaways to start the healing process, here are five action items worth tackling right now:
1. Stabilize your blood sugar.
Getting off the blood-sugar roller coaster is often the first and most important step in getting hormonal issues under control — stabilizing your blood-glucose levels can have a serious affect on your symptoms.
And it’s easy to take small steps toward stabilization: One of my favorite tips is to add cinnamon to as many meals and snacks as possible. That's because the spice has been shown to improve insulin and glucose management, and can help keep you feeling even. Eating energy-boosting snacks throughout the day can also help to stabilize your blood sugar.
2. Add just a little exercise to make a big difference.
Studies show that gentle movement (even just a five-minute walk) after eating helps mobilize the glucose from your meal into your cells more efficiently. I recommend doing short activities throughout the day after eating, since they can be even more effective for your condition than doing one long, cortisol-producing workout.
3. Seriously consider quitting the Pill.
The hormones in birth control pills mask your natural hormonal patterns to prevent ovulation and therefore prevent pregnancy. But they also mask the underlying imbalances causing your PCOS — meaning your symptoms will likely return once you go off the Pill.
If you went on the Pill to manage symptoms, rather than covering up the true cause, you can instead help reestablish your monthly menstruation by restoring key micronutrients naturally through food. For example, leafy greens containing magnesium can help eliminate excess estrogen or other hormones from the body that could be impeding your natural flow. And avocados, full of essential fatty acids, provide support as well.
4. Nix your morning cup of coffee.
Caffeine has actually been shown to increase levels of estrogen in some women, and if you are prone to ovarian cysts or fibrocystic breasts, this could exacerbate those cysts.
Just one cup of coffee can disrupt your entire hormonal cascade, causing you to release extra cortisol and insulin, and rerouting your entire endocrine system to focus solely on dealing with the fallout, while other important jobs (like ovulation) are ignored. If you'd like help quitting coffee, check out my guide.
5. Combat hair loss and hirsutism with the right foods and supplements.
Foods rich in omega-3 (like egg yolks and salmon), foods high in phytosterols (like wheat germ and Brussels sprouts), and some supplements, like saw palmetto, may help improve hair loss or hirsutism (excessive hair growth).
And are you ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.