What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder amongst women today, and can manifest in a variety of symptoms and presentations including correlations between PCOS and gut health. It is a tricky diagnosis, as conventional medicine will say that they “don’t know what causes it” and that there is “no cure”. There are plenty of myths about PCOS and when seeking help you should be prepared to hear them and know the facts.
From a holistic standpoint, we find that typically a combination of diet, lifestyle factors, and genetics are the contributing facets of PCOS. And being someone who has reversed PCOS myself, I do not subscribe to the idea that you are just stuck with PCOS for the rest of your life, with nothing you can do about it.
In order to qualify for the diagnosis of PCOS, you must have at least 2 of the 3 criteria:
- Irregular menstrual cycles (or with delayed or no ovulation)
- High androgenic hormones (like testosterone)
- Polycystic ovaries on pelvic ultrasound
Some of the symptoms of PCOS can include…
- Hair loss
- Excess hair growth on the chin, upper lip, or other areas
- Weight gain
- Irregular/missing periods
- Anovulatory cycles (lack of ovulation during menstrual cycle)
- Low grade inflammation
- Insulin resistance
How Gut Health Impacts PCOS
Gut health and PCOS are interlinked because our gut health directly correlates with the health of our endocrine system, AKA our hormones. In a nutshell, poor gut health = poor hormone health. Think of it like a cascade effect; if our gut health is in good standing, our hormones are much more likely to be balanced. And on the other hand, if we have poor gut health…symptoms of hormone imbalances (including PCOS) are much more likely. My first step in helping women reverse their PCOS is to improve their gut health and the status of their microbiome.
The microbiome refers to the environment within your gut, mainly your large intestine. This can include your normal bacterial flora (AKA our “good” gut bacteria), as well as imbalances such as dysbiosis, pathogens, or fungal overgrowth. It is very important that your microbiome is in good standing, and is free from pathogens and unwanted overgrowths. One of the reasons for this is that when we have pathogens or overgrowths going on, this makes it much more difficult for the body to properly digest and absorb nutrients from all of the food you are eating. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to all sorts of symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, brittle nails, and hair loss.
Another thing that can happen when we have unwanted pathogens or overgrowths in the microbiome is something called intestinal permeability, otherwise known as “leaky gut”. This refers to the tight junctions in the small intestine loosening over time, and allowing unwanted food particles to pass in and out. This can lead to food sensitivities, and overall chronic inflammation within the body. Seeing as inflammation is already a leading factor in PCOS, we absolutely want to heal leaky gut first and foremost.
The microbiome also largely ties into our immune system; poor gut health = poor immune health. As you can see, our gut health is truly so important and must be addressed when managing PCOS.
Symptoms of Poor Gut Health
- Bloating and gas
- Acid reflux/heartburn
- Diarrhea/loose stools
- Belching often
- Food sensitivities/intolerances
- Skin issues (acne, rosacea, skin rashes)
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Mood issues like anxiety or depression
Tips for supporting PCOS and Gut Health
PCOS is a complex hormonal disorder that requires support in terms of diet, lifestyle changes, and sometimes also supplementation.
Eating a Balanced Diet
I recommend all my clients with PCOS focus on eating a diet of whole, unprocessed foods. I never recommend calorie counting or restricting food intake, as those are additional stressors and are not necessary in reversing PCOS. I find that my PCOS clients do best when focusing on eating balanced meals including moderate amounts of protein and healthy fats in each meal, with a side of carbohydrates. Eating 3 balanced meals per day, including breakfast within 1 hour of waking up, will help with overall blood sugar balance and improve energy. Managing blood sugar is a HUGE piece in managing PCOS.
One of the hallmark symptoms of PCOS is chronic low-grade inflammation. When supporting a body with PCOS, it is incredibly important to decrease inflammation as much as possible. This can be done through removing inflammatory foods from your diet, as well as removing toxic household & personal care products from your life. Opt for non-toxic cleaning, personal care, feminine products, and makeup.
Healing Your Gut
Once we have removed the inflammatory offenders, we heal the gut. As stated above, gut health is SO crucial for overall hormone balance. If digestive health is impaired, the body may not be absorbing nutrients properly, and you can also experience the symptoms stated above. This can lead to a cascade of negative health effects, and can negatively impact your overall life.
Supporting Your Adrenal Glands & Managing Stress
The adrenal glands are responsible for releasing the stress hormone cortisol. When the body is under lots of stress, excess cortisol can be released. Decreasing stress is essential in managing PCOS, as high cortisol levels also contribute to inflammation. As stated above, we really want to decrease inflammation as much as possible when working with PCOS. Implementing stress management techniques such as deep breathing, gentle walks in nature, stretching, meditation, talk therapy, and journaling regularly can be helpful in managing stress levels, supporting your adrenal glands, and therefore managing your PCOS. Making sure to prioritize quality sleep (at least 8-9 hours per night) is another key factor in supporting your adrenal glands, managing stress, and decreasing overall inflammation in the body. Our body heals the most while we sleep, so don’t skip this part!
Balancing hormones (most of which will naturally happen through addressing 1-5 above)
Once you have addressed your diet and implemented healthy lifestyle changes (sleep, stress management, enjoyable forms of exercise), I assess if supplementation would be helpful for a client. I always like to see how far this can take clients before implementing specific supplements for hormonal balance. Oftentimes, diet & lifestyle changes are enough to have a positive effect on ones’ hormones, and reduce (or even eliminate) symptoms of PCOS. In some cases though, it can be helpful to also utilize targeted supplementation geared towards hormone balance (be sure to work with a trained practitioner if implementing supplements).
Seeing a Nutritional Therapist for PCOS and Gut Health
As a nutritional therapist I can help you determine if you are experiencing a hormonal imbalance and gut health issues that are leading to PCOS. Many hormonal imbalances stem from underlying gut issues and being familiar with the connection can be invaluable when healing something as complex as gut health and PCOS. As part of my practice I also recommend hormone testing for clients so that we can see exactly what is out of balance and needs support. It is possible to heal from your PCOS and don’t ever let anybody tell you otherwise. I am here to support you through your journey!