Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition affecting women of reproductive age. It is characterized by an excess of androgen hormones in the women who are affected by this condition. Androgens are a group of hormones that play a role in the development of male traits. While it’s normal for a female body to produce some androgens, problems arise when these androgen hormones exist in excess. The most common symptoms of PCOS include ovarian cysts, menstrual irregularities, weight gain, acne, male pattern baldness or thinning hair, and hirsutism (excess hair growth on areas such as the face).
PCOS is the most common endocrine abnormality among women of reproductive age in the United States. In fact, it affects approximately 5 million women of childbearing age in the U.S. While there are various forms of treatment, it can be challenging for a woman to figure out what works best for her. And it turns out that the majority of women with PCOS actually have some degree of insulin resistance, so that should be an important area of focus for those struggling with PCOS.
What is Insulin and Insulin Resistance?
Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps the glucose in your blood enter the cells in your muscle, fat, and liver so it can be used for energy. Insulin resistance is when your cells don’t respond well to insulin and can’t easily take up glucose from the blood. When blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas makes more insulin to help glucose enter your cells. But over time, this mechanism fails to keep everything in check. As the insulin levels in the blood increase, this causes your cells to become resistant to the hormone’s effect (insulin resistance). When insulin isn’t able to do its job properly, this leads to long term elevated blood sugar levels.
When insulin levels build up in the body, this can lead to an increase in androgen hormones, increasing the symptoms of PCOS. Insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels also increase inflammation in the body. Chronic low-grade inflammation is a big contributor to the pathogenesis of PCOS, so getting insulin in check is very important.
What You Can Do to Fix Insulin Resistance
The best way to fix issues with insulin resistance is to focus on dietary changes. It’s important to eliminate sugary foods and processed, simple carbohydrates while aiming to eat meals with a balance of macronutrients. The type of carbohydrates you eat can make a big difference when it comes to blood sugar regulation. Try to eat carbs that are higher in fiber, as they will be digested more slowly and keep your blood sugar levels more stable. You should be focusing on eating meals with adequate amounts of protein and fat along with complex carbohydrates. So some examples of carbs to limit include processed white bread, pasta, pastry items, and sugary cereal. Some examples of carbs that you should focus on eating are oatmeal, beans, legumes, quinoa, barley, and lots of fresh vegetables!
An Important Micronutrient for Insulin Resistance
Chromium is a mineral that does many things for our bodies. Chromium is important in the breakdown of fats and carbohydrates, but also aids in insulin action and glucose breakdown. In fact, a lack of chromium in the diet may be seen as impaired glucose tolerance. So eating foods that provide your body with chromium may help reverse your insulin resistance and bring your blood sugar levels back into balance. Some foods that are good sources of chromium include brewer’s yeast, broccoli, chicken, eggs, beef, liver, whole grains, and oysters.
Other Things to Focus On
It is well established that chronic stress can increase the symptoms of PCOS. When we feel a heightened level of stress or anxiety, our cortisol levels increase. Prolonged elevation of cortisol can worsen insulin resistance and can increase our body’s level of androgen hormones. Focusing on stress relieving activities can be very helpful for people with PCOS. Some helpful things to consider would be engaging in light exercise, yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises to enhance your body’s ability to handle stress and lower cortisol.