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When it comes to female hormonal conditions, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is probably one you’ve heard of.In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age have PCOS. That means someone in your female tribe – sister, friend, co-worker – is battling it. In earlier years, doctors suggested that hormonal imbalances caused by PCOS – which are usually caused by the presence of excess androgens – only affected women from their teenage years to menopause. But new research shows the damage can start much earlier and last much longer.
1. What's going on hormonally if I have PCOS?Most often, the body of a woman with PCOS is making too many androgens (the best known androgen being testosterone). About 82 percent of women with excess androgens have PCOS, but it’s important to note not all women with PCOS have high androgens. The key is that PCOS is characterized by insulin resistance and problems with ovary function (ovarian cysts, fertility issues, etc.). The delicate balance between testosterone, progesterone and estrogen can then become disrupted. On top of the already existing hormonal chaos, a poor diet, lack of exercise or high levels of stress can make PCOS symptoms worse.
2. I don't have PCOS symptoms – could I still have it?The hallmark characteristics of PCOS – or at least the ones most discussed in articles that discuss the topic – are typically those that correspond to high testosterone levels: acne, extra hair growth on the face, chest or arms, and weight gain. But since about 70 percent of women with PCOS are undiagnosed, you might still have the condition and not know it. Some women only find out because they can’t get pregnant, and PCOS shows up as the culprit when their doctors start conducting tests. For other women, PCOS might show up as irregular periods or female androgenic alopecia (FAGA), which causes hair loss on the head similar to male pattern baldness.
3. How can I treat PCOS without drugs?Depending on the problems you’re experiencing with PCOS, your doctor might recommend a variety of different treatments: birth control pills, to balance hormone levels; diabetes medication, to help manage insulin; or fertility drugs, to help stimulate ovulation. Yet PCOS can also be managed with dietary and lifestyle interventions, which can help reduce symptoms and reset your hormones to a more balanced place. Here are some things you can do:
- Go on a low-glycemic diet. Lowering the glycemic index of your food can lower testosterone by 20 percent. The great thing is that this can be accomplished in as little as a week!
- Up your omegas. Higher omega intake has been shown to be helpful in treating PCOS.
- Avoid dairy. Properties in dairy products can increase inflammation and lead to high androgens. Cut out dairy for six weeks and see if you notice improvement in your symptoms.
- Lose weight. Even a 7 percent loss of body weight can impact hormone levels for the better.
- Eat zinc. Zinc deficiency has been associated with higher androgens and acne, especially. Load up on foods like pumpkin and sesame seeds, beans and nuts to get your daily dose of this critical mineral.