Questions and Answers about PCOS by Kathy Scalzo, MA, RD, CDN
Send Email to Kathy: email@example.com
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, can be a frustrating diagnosis for physicians and patients alike because the symptoms vary from person to person. It is also one of the leading causes of infertility, an emotional problem which can lead to more frustration for the physician, but particularly for the patient.
What causes PCOS?
Women with PCOS have hormonal imbalances, but the exact cause of the imbalances are not known. Most women have high levels of androgens, or male hormones, that cause hairiness and acne on the face, chest, and back. Most women with PCOS also have some degree of insulin resistance. Insulin is another hormone; it helps your body control the amount of sugar in your blood.
Because many women with PCOS are overweight, researchers are engaged in a classic debate of “Which came first?” It is not clear if the hormonal imbalance in PCOS is caused by being overweight, or by insulin resistance, which often results in weight problems, including rapid weight gain.
I’m not quite sure what you mean by insulin resistance. Is that the same thing as having diabetes?
The major portion of any meal that you eat gets turned into glucose, or sugar, for your body to use as energy. Insulin helps your body to access the sugar that is in your blood. Unlike women with diabetes, women with PCOS are able to control the amount of sugar, but because they are insulin resistant, their body has to work twice as hard to do so. Many women with PCOS are at a higher risk for developing diabetes in the future.
What should women with PCOS do to prevent diabetes?
Exercise. Eat right. Take care of themselves. Women with PCOS are not only at increased risk for diabetes, but they are also at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and other gynecological cancers, like ovarian, endometrial and uterine cancers. There are some medications that help to restore the hormonal imbalances, but self-care is the most important.
What do you mean by self-care? Brushing your teeth?
Actually, many women don’t take the time to do anything more for themselves than to do their hair and makeup every day. The majority of their day is spent on taking care of others – their husband or partner, their children, their family. The symptoms of PCOS can really affect a woman’s identity and femininity. Approximately 80% of women with PCOS are overweight and a large percentage of these women use food as a comfort to mask how they are really feeling. As I said before, PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility – can you imagine how a woman feels who can’t have a child? Self-care can mean different things to different people. I like my clients to be able to list at least 10 things they do for themselves each day that make them feel special. It may be as simple as taking time for a cup of herbal tea. It may be going for a brisk walk. It all depends on the individual.
As a registered dietitian, what kind of diet do I recommend for women with PCOS?
I see two kinds of women with PCOS. The first group is made up of women who are so afraid of getting diabetes or so desperate to lose weight that they follow any low carbohydrate diet that they can find – from Dr. Atkins to Sugarbusters. The other group is also determined to lose weight, however, they tend to follow high carbohydrate diets and that are very low in fat, and therefore tend not be very satisfied. Both groups have difficulty staying on their “diets.” As I said before, many women with PCOS have disordered eating patterns. My job is not to put anyone “on” a diet, but to help them find a balance of foods, carbohydrates included, that will provide them with the nutrients their body needs to work right. I focus on exercise to help improve insulin levels and to relieve the stress that comes with PCOS. I help my clients learn what “hungry” means, how to identify their real feelings, and how to express themselves without using food.
Other than self-care, what REAL action can women with PCOS take?
Learning to take care of yourself in a positive way is a REAL action that can have positive effects on the symptoms of PCOS! Being your own best friend is harder than you think. Get support! If you feel frustrated by your medical care, I urge you to seek out a provider who you feel comfortable with. If you feel that you use food in an unhealthy way, visit with a registered dietitian who specializes in woman’s health and has experience with PCOS.