You are not alone. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common endocrine disorders found in women, affecting approximately 10 percent of women worldwide, with less than 50 percent of them diagnosed. The syndrome is present throughout a woman’s life from puberty through post-menopause and affects women of all races and ethnic groups. Women with PCOS wrestle with an array of possible symptoms, including infertility, acne, hair loss or excess hair, weight gain and depression. Far reaching health implications such as increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes make these already stressful symptoms even more daunting.
If you are a woman struggling with PCOS, I have good news — there is hope! While you cannot cure PCOS, most women can alleviate symptoms by losing weight through mindful eating and moderate exercise. Lifestyle change is the key for women with PCOS, whether they are overweight or not. We need to be thoughtful about the foods we use to fuel our bodies, the exercise we choose, the toxins we are exposed to and, just as importantly, the emotional and mental care we take with ourselves.
If you’ve just been diagnosed and you’re not sure what to do next, these 10 lifestyle shifts are a good place to start:
1. Educate yourself. By understanding the causes, symptoms and possible treatments, you can begin to see the path to healing. With that knowledge under your belt, you are ready to start healing. For example, you should know that…
- Treatments are determined by your age, symptoms and your personal pregnancy plans.
- There are a lot of options! Your doctor may talk to you about any of the following, depending on your specific case: birth control pills, insulin-sensitizing medications, ovulation induction, androgen-blocking medications, hair-related treatments, acne treatments and more.
- Changing your diet can help treat your symptoms too: Choosing whole foods (see #3!) low-carb foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, beans and brown rice, can help you digest food more slowly, helping you better manage your blood sugar levels.
2. Assemble a top notch team. A coordinated group of practitioners can get you on track quickly. Start by finding an endocrinologist and Ob/Gyn that are both current on PCOS research and willing to communicate with you and with each other. Assembling a team you trust is critical.
4. Load up on whole foods and supplement your diet. Begin by eliminating as much processed food as possible. Food is medicine! Whole foods such as nuts (Cinnamon Roasted Almond Butter), lean meats (Easy Spicy Asian Chicken Salad) and organic fruits and vegetables (No Fuss Tomato Salad) will be the foundation for rebuilding your health. The sugars (natural and artificial) in processed foods throw your insulin out of balance and trigger nasty side effects. PCOS can be well controlled with diet, but supplements can make it easier.
4. Dump the dairy and get free of gluten. Women with PCOS have specific dietary needs. In order to get your hormones and insulin levels back on track, you must eat mindfully. Work to eliminate inflammatory foods such as dairy and gluten. For women with PCOS, these two categories of foods cause inflammation that triggers many of your symptoms from acne to insulin imbalance. Need help with your meals? Check out our dairy-free and gluten-free recipes.
5. Make a plan. This is one of my most important tips. Plan your meals, exercise and self-care ahead of time. You are bound to make destructive food choices when your hunger drives your food choices as you rush home from work and eat anything you can find or eat from the dreaded snack machine at work because you didn’t pack a snack. Exercise and self-care will be pushed aside if you don’t allocate time for them as you would a doctor’s appointment. Plan and thrive!
6. Move it every day. This isn’t just for weight loss. Movement relieves stress and clears your mind. Whether it is a walk at lunchtime, yoga, swimming, gardening or a strength training class, any time spent moving is time well spent. Keep moving in little spurts throughout the day — take the stairs, park far from the store or stretch.
7. De-stress. We all lead busy and stressful lives. The way we approach the stress can make all the difference. Healthy women have learned coping mechanisms (like meditation, yoga or deep breathing) to take on less stress, as well as to effectively manage and have a positive perspective on the stress they do have. Stress triggers the production of cortisol in our bodies, which wreaks havoc on our hormonal system and PCOS symptoms and gives you belly fat! Who needs that?!
8. Get support. Studies show that you are more likely to stick with a lifestyle change if you have a supportive community. First, educate your loved ones so that they can offer support as you make important changes. Next, find a community of like-minded women that will help cheer you on now and in the future, whether they’re online or in person (or both!). You may even want to buddy up with a walking or grocery shopping partner with whom you can share your journey.
9. Make time for self-care. The need for self-care cannot be over emphasized. Taking care of your mind, body and spirit is not selfish. You are more able to give your friends, family and co-workers your whole self when you have taken the time to refresh. Self-care means eating well and exercising, but just as importantly, it means taking a few minutes to yourself every day to recenter and relax. You may choose to meditate, take an Epsom salt bath or write in a journal. Whatever you choose (check out these 10 tips), give yourself over to the experience wholly and see the difference it makes in your life.
10. Be kind to yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day. The diet and lifestyle changes I suggest will improve your quality of life more than you can imagine, but you have to be kind to yourself while you do it. Take baby steps and eliminate/change one thing at a time. If you make a mistake, remember that you are only one choice away from being back on track. Try to spend a little time each day doing something just for you — take a walk or a hot bath, make some tea or read a book. You must be your own top priority.