An Integrative Approach to Managing PCOS
By Alexis Brooks
Pelvic Health Dietitian
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a complex hormonal disorder that affects 1 in 10 women, can impact many aspects of a woman’s health and quality of life. From irregular periods to insulin resistance, digestive issues, and fatigue, those who live with PCOS may experience great discomfort regularly. Unfortunately, when many sufferers approach their providers with their concerns they are often dismissed. This may look like being denied requested lab work or worse, not even receiving acknowledgment that there indeed is an issue. Instead, women may be suggested by their providers that it is all in their heads or offered birth control to address their symptoms without considering why the symptoms may exist.
As a women’s health dietitian living with endometriosis, I have experienced first-hand what it feels like to not have my concerns taken seriously. During my 18-year journey to receive a diagnosis I saw several providers and unfortunately, each one focused on treating my symptoms rather than evaluating me to get to the root. In my personal case, birth control worked, until it didn’t. I realized it was only a temporary solution to a complex problem and I desired to use holistic practices to heal. It was not until I was introduced to integrative and functional nutrition that I achieved relief. This experience inspired me to complete additional training to become an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Credentialed Practitioner to complement my work as a registered dietitian. I believe in addressing PCOS through an integrative lens that considers the intricate interplay of nutrition, lifestyle, and emotional well-being. In this article, we’ll explore how adopting an integrative approach can empower women to better manage PCOS and enhance their overall health.
Before we jump into the integrative approach, let’s briefly discuss what PCOS is. PCOS is characterized by hormonal imbalances, particularly elevated levels of androgens (male hormones), insulin resistance, and ovarian cysts. Although let’s be clear that not all three need to be present for a diagnosis. These factors contribute to a wide range of symptoms, including irregular menstrual cycles, acne, excessive hair growth throughout the body (hirsutism), hair loss on top of the head, unintentional weight gain, and fertility issues. Beyond the annoyances of these symptoms can also be some pretty serious health complications including the increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and endometrial cancer. This makes treating PCOS all the more important.
The Integrative Approach
Because our bodies are intricately connected, we must treat the body as a whole to achieve results. Using an integrative approach to manage PCOS means recognizing that no single strategy can address all its complexities. This is done by using nutrition, lifestyle, movement, targeted herbs and supplements, and optimizing mental health. I even address personal care products with my clients as these can have a big impact on hormones and overall health.
One of the most important things a woman with PCOS can do is to balance her blood sugars. This is huge, considering nearly 80% of those with PCOS have some degree of insulin resistance. This alone can improve symptoms such as acne, sugar cravings and elevated androgens.
Use the plate method to focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods that support hormonal balance and manage insulin resistance. Make half of your plate produce such as fruit and non-starchy vegetables. Include complex carbohydrates in ¼ of your plate such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, which have less of an impact on blood sugar levels. Because protein and fat help to maintain blood sugars by preventing any large spikes or dips, it is important to include them with each meal. Good protein choices are poultry, fish, eggs, Greek yogurt, beans, lentils and tofu. I find in my practice that most women do not eat enough protein. Aim for about 30 grams per meal. Try adding protein powder, nuts and seeds or include high protein snacks to your diet if this is something you struggle with. Additionally, healthy fats from sources like avocados, nuts, and olive oil support hormone production and overall health.
Anti-inflammatory foods, such as fatty fish, berries, and leafy greens, can help reduce the chronic inflammation often associated with PCOS. An easy way to get more antioxidants into your diet is to “eat the rainbow”, meaning eating a wide variety of colors and going heavy on the veggies. Each color found in nature gives us a different antioxidant. Plus, it will help feed your healthy gut bugs to make for a well-balanced gut microbiome. This is actually key to reducing inflammation and restoring hormone balance.
Sleep may be one of the most underrated tools in PCOS treatment. Poor sleep disrupts hormonal balance and increases insulin resistance, exacerbating PCOS symptoms. Sleep must be adequate (recommended 7-9 hours) and good quality. Prioritize a consistent sleep schedule and create a wind down routine that helps you ease into a restful state. Good sleep hygiene includes avoiding blue light at least 1 hour before bed and sleeping in a cool, dark room.
Unchecked stress can increase inflammation, impair sleep, cause blood sugar dysregulation, and threaten gut health – all things that aren’t helpful for PCOS. Incorporate stress-reduction techniques into your daily routine, such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and spending time in nature. These practices can help regulate the body’s stress response and improve hormonal balance.
Ditch plastics as much as possible and switch to glass. Plastics contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that wreak havoc on your hormones. Check your personal care and household products for other EDCs like phthalates, parabens, fragrance, dioxins, BPA, and PFCS.
Joyful movement improves insulin sensitivity, energy and supports a healthy metabolism in those with PCOS. Plus, it can boost mood, reduce stress, and help regulate hormonal imbalances. Aim for a combination of cardio workouts, strength training, and mind-body practices like yoga or meditation.
Supplements and Herbs
Certain supplements and herbs have shown promise in managing PCOS symptoms. Some examples of supplements I use in my practice include inositol, berberine, and omega-3 fatty acids, which can help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation. Teas such as spearmint, dandelion, and nettle can also be supportive.
Emotional well-being can greatly influence PCOS symptoms. Practice self-compassion and surround yourself with a supportive community. Square breathing, meditation and apps like Calm can be helpful. Also, consider seeking therapy or counseling to address any emotional challenges related to PCOS.
Remember, embracing an integrative approach is not just about managing symptoms; it’s about fostering a holistic sense of wellness that supports every aspect of your life. If you are looking for a more tailored approach, please book a free consultation.
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Alexis Brooks, founder of Alexis Brooks Nutrition, is a registered dietitian based out of Los Angeles, CA. She holds her master’s degree in nutritional science and has received advanced training to become an integrative and functional nutrition credentialed practitioner. Her experience over the past 10 years as a registered dietitian is comprised of work in both clinical and outpatient settings. These experiences helped to shape Alexis ‘expertise in her current role of providing individualized nutrition counseling. Her passion is helping those struggling with endometriosis, fibroids and PCOS, make healthy lifestyle changes by translating science into easy to digest evidenced-based recommendations.