Periods and PCOS

How does having PCOS affect your periods?

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Emma Thornton
Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
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An introduction to periods and PCOS

Polycystic ovary syndrome, (PCOS) involves problems with insulin sensitivity and an imbalance in sex hormones. PCOS is also characterised by a woman’s ovaries containing a number of harmless cysts which can affect ovulation and the menstrual cycle.

Although these are common features of the condition, not every woman with PCOS has all three of these issues; often the appearance of at least two of the above suggests the condition may be apparent.

PCOS is fairly common, with up to 10% of women thought to be affected. On this page I aim to discuss some of the common causes and symptoms associated with PCOS and how home, herbal and conventional treatment options can help you to manage this condition.

Causes of PCOS

There are a number of factors thought to contribute to the onset of PCOS:

  • Insulin resistance – Many women who have PCOS have insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone responsible for controlling your blood sugar levels. As your blood sugar levels increase (for example after a meal) insulin is released in order to clear the glucose into your tissues to be used for energy. In insulin resistance, the cells of your body stop responding appropriately to insulin. This means your blood glucose stays high and more and more insulin is released in a bid to clear it. These elevated levels of insulin can cause problems elsewhere and are one of the reasons PCOS is thought to develop: it can affect the ovaries and can upset their release of hormones. This results in too much testosterone being released relative to the female sex hormone oestrogen
  • An increase in androgens – An imbalance of the androgen testosterone gives rise to many of the symptoms of PCOS. Testosterone is the main ‘male’ sex hormone, although females do have this hormone too, just usually in smaller amounts. However, if testosterone becomes dominant in a woman, this can give rise to a number of undesirable symptoms as we will go on to discuss
  • An imbalance in other sex hormones – As well as testosterone dominance, the other sex hormones are often affected in PCOS. Oestrogen, progesterone and luteinising hormone (LH) are required to be present in certain amounts and ratios in order to initiate ovulation and your period. Typically in PCOS a woman has higher levels of LH and lower levels of progesterone which means ovulation and menstruation are often affected
  • Genetics – Although PCOS isn’t thought to be purely hereditary, it is thought to run in families to some extent. However, this area isn’t well understood and the effects of diet, lifestyle and environments must also be taken into consideration – the contribution of genes alone is not so clear.

Symptoms of PCOS

Some common symptoms of PCOS are as follows:

  • Irregular periods – An imbalance of sex hormones in PCOS means in most cases irregular periods are common. Your menstrual cycle involves specific rises and falls in the females sex hormones – if these are in some way out of balance, you can have trouble ovulating. In most cases a period follows successful ovulation. In PCOS you are likely to have a longer cycle with your period coming less often than every 28 days. Small cysts that commonly form on the ovaries can be problematic and hinder ovulation
  • Missed periods – Click the following link to determine when irregular periods become missed periods. An imbalance in your hormones can mean you skip periods altogether
  • Heavy periods when they come – Months of missing periods can mean that the lining of your womb builds up without ever being shed. Then, when you finally have a period, this can end up being be heavier than normal
  • Fertility issues – Having a period each month is usually a sign you are ovulating. You need to ovulate each month in order to have a chance of falling pregnant. If imbalances in hormones mean that you aren’t ovulating, then you could be at risk of having fertility issues. However, it isn’t the case that you can’t fall pregnant with PCOS. By managing your symptoms as best as possible through a range of dietary and lifestyle interventions it is still possible to fall pregnant.

Home remedies for PCOS

If you have PCOS there are some simple steps you can take at home to try and keep your symptoms under control:

  • Manage your diet – Diet is an important step in managing PCOS as insulin resistance is so often a big contributing factor. Avoid refined carbohydrates and sugar as much as possible. Opt for complex carbohydrates instead and ensure your meals incorporate sources of good-quality protein and healthy fats rich in essential fatty acids such as omega-3. Eat little and often and avoid skipping meals in order to keep your blood glucose levels more stable. Try to eat fresh foods and avoid processed foods, alcohol, and too much red meat. Inflammation is also thought to be an implication in PCOS and can be managed partly through diet. Include half a teaspoon of cinnamon each day which can help to improve your sensitivity to insulin.
  • Watch your weight – Being overweight can further upset hormone levels and your cells’ responsiveness to insulin; aim to have a BMI within the normal range
  • Take part in regular exercise – Taking part in regular exercise helps support a healthy body weight and can help to improve insulin sensitivity.

How can natural remedies help?

There are some natural remedies that can help if you suffer from PCOS:

  • L+ lactic acid – The metabolism of starches and sugars is important in PCOS and this takes place in the gut. Molkosan is rich in L + Lactic acid which helps to support the gut environment and the beneficial bacteria that exist there which are involved in metabolising the sources of carbohydrates that you consume
  • Chromium – Chromium can help to support carbohydrate metabolism which in turn supports your blood sugar levels
  • Maca – Maca is an adaptogenic herb which can help your body cope in times of stress. It can help to gently support levels of your sex hormones.

When should I see my doctor?

If it has already been confirmed that you have PCOS, then home and herbal remedies can be a beneficial addition to your regime. However, if you only suspect that you have PCOS or you have the condition but home and herbal remedies aren’t helping, it might be time to then pay your doctor a visit.

Your doctor might suggest trying a type of hormonal contraception. These contain synthetic versions of the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone (which are often lacking or in the wrong proportions relative to testosterone in cases of PCOS). The pill or certain types of the implant for example, could help to rebalance these hormones. In extreme cases, when testosterone levels are very high, anti-androgen medication may be prescribed.

In cases where insulin resistance has developed into Type II diabetes, medication such as Metformin may be required in order to regain insulin sensitivity; this in turn can help to improve the function of the ovaries.

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