Hello everyone! The following is a guest post by one of my favorite primal bloggers. Please welcome Peggy, The Primal Parent, who discusses how to cure PCOS through a paleo diet and lifestyle!
For a full guide by a great friend of mine – Stefani Ruper – take a peak at PCOS Unlocked.
The choice to change our diets often happens when doctors have failed us, medicine isn’t working, and there seems to be no hope of recovery from modern illness.
For many of us it’s weight gain. For some it’s joint pain or depression. For women it’s usually some set of hormonally related symptoms.
Simply eliminating packaged foods and switching to a whole foods approach works for many, but a lot of us can’t seem to achieve any semblance of health without taking an evolutionary approach to our diet and lifestyle.
We are finding that the silver bullet for most modern afflictions is the Paleo/Primal diet. The Primal eating strategy and lifestyle almost miraculously brings us back into balance and restores health and happiness.
This is what happened to me. All of my life I suffered from a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, and I cured it with diet.
This hormonal condition affects about 4 million women in the US alone. While there are synthetic drugs meant to control it, they often don’t thoroughly eliminate symptoms and many of us end up looking to diet and herbs for the cure that our doctors never offered.
What is PCOS
PCOS is a hormonal imbalance. In women with PCOS the ovaries produce too much male hormones (androgens), making it difficult for the ovaries to release an egg. The increase in androgens can cause a host of embarrassing and debilitating symptoms.
Symptoms of PCOS
- Irregular or absent periods
- Pelvic pain
- Cysts on the ovaries
- Weight gain
- Facial hair growth (hirsutism)
- Sleep apnea
Causes of PCOS
Like with every other modern health condition PCOS can be avoided or controlled by diet and lifestyle changes. (Genetics can predispose a person to develop the condition but genetics are rarely the cause of disease. Check out this article on Mark’s Daily Apple for more information about the relationship between genetics and disease.)
While there are many factors which can predispose a woman to develop PCOS such as obesity, genetics, and exposure to synthetic estrogen, insulin resistance is the root cause of polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is a totally avoidable and treatable condition.
Insulin resistance comes about from a constant need for the body to lower blood sugar with insulin. In time, the cells become desensitized to it. This is problematic in two ways:
- When cells are desensitized to insulin the pancreas produces more of it – thinking that the reason the cells aren’t taking glucose is because there isn’t enough insulin.
- Insulin helps glucose pass through cell walls. When cells become resistant to insulin glucose must make its way to the liver to be converted to fat instead of being used as energy by the cells.
Now you have excess insulin floating around in the bloodstream. This free-floating insulin stimulates the ovaries to produce excess testosterone. This prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg each month (a leading cause of infertility).
Hormones are in delicate balance. When one gets out of whack, the others must compensate in order to keep us alive (this is called homeostasis). This “compensation” results in symptoms.
Pollution, exposure to plastics, other chemicals, and conventional beef treated with synthetic hormones can also contribute to hormonal imbalances because they contain xenoestrogens (synthetic or environmental estrogens). These environmental estrogens wreak havoc on our delicate hormonal processes by tricking the body into thinking that there is too much estrogen, causing it to produce excessive amounts of other hormones in attempt to balance it out.
The Vicious Cycle of PCOS
- “The secretion of insulin from pancreatic beta cells is a complex process involving the integration and interaction of multiple external and internal stimuli. Thus, nutrients, hormones, neurotransmitters, and drugs all activate — or inhibit — insulin release.” From Medscape.
- “An extended period of physical or psychological stress, will produce stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, that can interfere with the synthesis of the brain neurotransmitter, Serotonin.” From The Seratonin Connection
- High levels of insulin can cause the body to dump magnesium into the urine which is needed in order to produce serotonin. Without high enough levels of serotonin we can feel depressed and are subject to food cravings (refined carbohydrates make tryptophan more available for the body to utilize which is a precursor of serotonin).
- Fluctuating blood sugar levels can trigger the release of adrenaline which causes the liver to produce glucose in expectation of the brain needing extra fuel (flight or fight). This can in turn trigger the release of insulin which, when not properly utilized and is left free-floating in the blood, can increase testosterone, leading to all the nasty symptoms of PCOS.
- Excessive Weight training or low body weight can also increase the production of stress hormones and, consequently, androgens.
- Food allergies and intolerances compromise the absorption of nutrients, causing a cascade of symptoms. Even if you’re doing everything right with diet and lifestyle, if you don’t absorb the nutrients, you can’t heal. Of course, it is often nutritional deficiencies which cause allergies in the first place, but once they’ve surfaced the nutritional deficiencies continue because the body can’t absorb the nutrients it needs to heal from them. Many women who have PCOS also have food sensitivities. This is a really common correlation.
- A high carbohydrate diet, allergies, and a diet which includes lots of processed, dead foods can, in time, imbalance gut flora. For some, the extra fiber that we have been told to increase is actually a problem for people with digestive problems and it can be helpful to cut down or even eliminate it altogether for a time.
How to Control PCOS
Most women will find that a simple move to the Paleo diet will balance their hormones and free them from the ugly symptoms of PCOS. But for some of us the road to recovery is a little longer because our bodies have been damaged for so long and by so many different variables.
The Paleo diet eliminates the elements of modern eating that leads to insulin resistance. These foods include grains, added sugars, artificial chemicals, and processed oils. And it adds back into the diet many of the missing links to recovery like protein, saturated fat, and added nutrients.
Some women will need to be more strict than others but in general there are some things to avoid when recovering from hormonal imbalances.
- Keep carbohydrate intake low, no more than 80 grams a day. For many it may need to be as low as zero.
- Avoid foods that you are intolerant to.
- Avoid vegetable oils to balance omega6 and omega3.
- Avoid dairy.
- Avoid grains.
- Avoid processed foods of all kinds.
- Avoid artificial ingredients.
Things to help ensure adequate nutrition and recovery:
- Eat organs.
- Drink bone broth.
- Eat oysters and other highly nutritious seafood.
- Eat eggs (if well tolerated).
- Take cod liver oil, magnesium supplements, and B-vitamins.
- Get sunshine.
- Exercise lightly every single day.
- Eat lots of saturated fat to avoid cravings and improve mood.
- Don’t eat anything that will impair digestion.
- Relieve stress.
- Reduce fiber (helpful for some women).
Peggy Emch has a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Colorado. She has spent the last 10 years since researching nutrition, writing blogs, articles, a novel, and is currently working on her first of a series of books about the Primal lifestyle, starting with pregnancy.