Understanding Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
What is it?
PCOS is a hormone condition that affects people with ovaries, it can develop at any age after puberty and affects around one in ten women in the UK!
With PCOS, small, fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries. Polycystic literally means: ‘multiple cysts’. It ultimately affects the reproductive organs that produce oestrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle.
Getting a diagnosis
PCOS can be diagnosed if any of the two below-mentioned diagnostic criteria are present:
- Hyperandrogenism - where there are increased levels of androgen hormones (which can also cause acne, excess body hair (Hirsutism), and loss of hair from the scalp)
- Anovulation - where ovulation is irregular, but not completely absent
- Polycystic ovaries - viewed on an ultrasound, the appearance of numerous cysts in the ovaries when incomplete ovulation occurs
To get a diagnosis, speak to your GP, who may then refer you to a specialist to implement a management plan personal to you. The issue with PCOS symptoms is that they are often mistaken for symptoms with other conditions or dismissed as nothing, so be persistent with your GP if you feel something isn’t right! It is important to do so because women suffering with PCOS are at an increased risk of developing more serious conditions later in life, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and endometrial cancer, as well as being at risk of experiencing fertility struggles.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Recent research suggests that insulin resistance is a major underlying cause of PCOS, as 70-80% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance. When foods containing carbohydrates are eaten, the carbohydrate is converted to glucose and enters the bloodstream. As the blood glucose levels (BGLs) rise a hormone called insulin is released. Insulin helps to carry the glucose into the body’s cells to be used as energy. The BGLs then return to normal levels.
In insulin resistance, the cells do not take up the glucose from the bloodstream as efficiently. The body responds to this by producing more insulin to normalise BGLs. Increased insulin levels cause the ovaries and the adrenal glands to produce an enzyme that stimulates androgen production. Increased androgen production is one of the three key diagnostic criteria of PCOS.
Lifestyle factors to help with PCOS
- By maintaining a balanced, nutrient-rich diet, you can help reduce the severity of PCOS symptoms. It is important to be particularly mindful of cholesterol levels and reduce processed foods, alcohol intake and avoid smoking, while increasing intake of foods rich in iron and protein.
- Maintain a regular exercise routine. Regular physical activity can vastly improve our physical and mental health. Whether it’s losing weight or maintaining a consistent weight, exercise can help regulate menstrual cycles and even reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease associated with PCOS.
- PCOS can also take a mental toll as much as a physical one, so maintaining a consistent sleep routine is also necessary, and aim to keep stress and anxiety at bay by introducing relaxing activities to your routine, such as mindfulness and meditation, or talking therapies with as an alternative strategy.
- Reducing caffeine intake is also important, as it can increase anxiety and interfere with sleep patterns. If you are trying to cut down on your coffee intake for example, you could swap a cup of coffee for decaf, or green tea. Don’t forgot to include other caffeine containing foods and beverages such as dark chocolate, energy drinks and coca cola in your daily caffeine consumption!
If you think you are suffering from PCOS, or already have a diagnosis but are not sure how food and exercise can help to alleviate your symptoms don’t hesitate to get in touch by emailing
Written by Abigail Attenborough (ANutr)