During a typical menstrual cycle, the body prepares an egg for release in the ovaries in what is called a follicle. Then, about halfway through the cycle, the egg is released by bursting through the follicle, which is referred to as ovulation. However, in PCOS, there is a problem with the development and release of the egg. The egg may remain in the follicle, which becomes a fluid-filled sac. Several sacs may appear over the course of many disrupted cycles. This where the name PCOS is derived.
Causes of PCOS
Eggs do not develop properly in PCOS due to an imbalance in hormone levels. Estrogen and progesterone, the two main female hormones, are out of proportion with androgens, or male hormones. While androgens may be referred to as male hormones, it is normal and necessary for the female body to have a small amount. However, in PCOS, androgen levels are far above normal. Unusually high androgen levels can stop the ovaries from releasing an egg.
It is not known what causes this hormonal imbalance in some women but not others. Genetics may play a role, given that PCOS often runs in families. High levels of insulin - the metabolic hormone that regulates the body's use of glucose - may also be involved in PCOS.
Not all women with PCOS have the same symptoms, though nearly all women experience some form of menstrual irregularity. Symptoms of PCOS include:
- Irregular periods
- Missed periods (amenorrhea)
- Excessive body hair growth, sometimes referred to as hirsutism
- Weight gain
- Darkening of skin on skin folds
- Skin tags
- Inability to conceive
Women with PCOS often have other conditions alongside it, including obesity, insulin resistance or diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and high cholesterol levels.
Tips for Alleviating PCOS
When employing natural methods, PCOS can first be addressed with healthy lifestyle adjustments. By and far, the most effective way to manage PCOS naturally is by maintaining a healthy weight. In fact, as little as a 10% drop in weight can help balance the abnormal hormone levels of PCOS and better regulate menstruation. The following tips can help you maintain a healthy weight and relieve the other symptoms of PCOS.
Consume a balanced diet
Eating a healthy diet is the first step in weight loss. Most importantly, portion size should be moderated. There are also some general recommendations for women with PCOS in regard to nutrient intake. Fat intake should be limited to 30% or less of total calories, and unsaturated fat is recommended over saturated fat. Low-carb diets - in which carbohydrate intake does not exceed 20 grams per day - can help reduce symptoms of PCOS and improve hormone levels. Whole grains are preferable to refined grains because they have a low glycemic index, meaning they take longer to break down and do not cause a spike in blood sugar.
In addition, vitamin D and calcium may help regulate menstrual cycles in women with PCOS. In research, supplementation of these nutrients was combined with the antidiabetic drug metformin, so it is not known whether vitamin D and calcium would help on their own. Even so, these are essential nutrients that also help in the prevention of osteoporosis.
Physical activity is the other facet of weight loss. Exercise has been shown to not only shed pounds, but also help in regulating periods and ovulation in up to 30% of women with PCOS. Although any type of physical activity can generate these improvements, moderate-intensity exercise has been the most widely studied in women with PCOS. The important thing is to get moving and get your heart rate up.
Yoga, while less helpful for weight loss, has been shown to increase the frequency of periods and reduce androgen levels in adolescents with PCOS. A potential exercise regimen could include both aerobic exercise and weekly yoga sessions.
There are many great reasons to quit smoking, and relief of PCOS symptoms is one. Women who smoke tend to have more severe symptoms, like excess body hair. Smokers are also at a greater risk of developing cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, a risk that is already elevated from PCOS. Cigarettes also worsen hormonal imbalance because they lower estrogen levels.
Get quality sleep
Women with PCOS are twice more likely to experience sleep disturbances than women without this syndrome. This is in part because women with PCOS are often overweight and also have excess levels of melatonin, the “sleep hormone.” Therefore, women with PCOS may need to take extra steps to get a good night's sleep.
Waking up and going to bed around the same time every day, including days off, helps to regulate the body's sleep-wake rhythm. Abstaining from caffeine, nicotine, strenuous exercise, and alcohol in the late afternoon and evening can help ensure the body is not stimulated before bed. Finally, use the hour before bed to wind down and relax without any bright lights, big meals, or electronic devices with screens.
Natural Treatments for PCOS
Alternative therapies are available to both assuage the symptoms of PCOS and manage their underlying cause: hormonal imbalance. These therapies can serve as a complement to the healthy lifestyle changes outlined above. However, in severe cases of PCOS, medical intervention may be necessary, especially if a woman has PCOS alongside another medical condition.
Natural treatments for PCOS symptoms
The following herbal medicines have been used to treat the symptoms of PCOS.
- Chasteberry. This herb can increase menstrual regularity.
- Licorice. This herb, better known for its use in confectionary, can help in lowering testosterone levels in women with PCOS.
- Cinnamon. This herb has not been widely studied in women with PCOS, but it may help in reducing testosterone levels. It can also lower insulin resistance, which is important because insulin resistance is a common complication of PCOS.
Natural treatments for balancing hormone levels
These alternative medicines address the underlying cause of PCOS symptoms by altering hormone levels.
- Phytoestrogenic herbal supplements. These supplements are made from herbs like black cohosh, dong quai, soy, and red clover. They contain phytoestrogens, or estrogen-like compounds found in plants. Black cohosh in particular has been found to increase fertility in women with PCOS. However, while estrogen levels may be unbalanced in PCOS, estrogen is not the only hormone at play.
- Hormone-regulating herbal supplements. These supplements, such as Macafem, contain nutrients that support the hormonal glands. This allows them to produce hormones at the balanced levels the body needs. Because they work directly on the hormonal glands, they balance not just estrogen, but also androgens and other hormones.
PCOS is a complicated syndrome, so not every treatment is helpful to all women. The relevant lifestyle changes combined with hormone-regulating supplements are the key to alleviating PCOS symptoms and addressing the underlying hormonal imbalance. Women can select the above elements that would help with their particular symptoms and that suit their personal preferences to alleviate PCOS naturally.
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