The Paleo diet is well known for being weight-loss friendly, but a bonus is that it’s also an amazing food plan for fertility and reproductive health, including women with PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome.
Numerous conditions can impact a woman’s or man’s ability to conceive, and diet can’t always correct them. With PCOS, which is strongly tied to insulin resistance, hormonal imbalance, and irregular menstrual cycles, Paleo can be the perfect reset needed to encourage natural fertility, and beyond that, a healthy pregnancy.
What Is PCOS?
One in 10 women of reproductive age have PCOS. (1) It is a condition where hormone imbalances cause the ovaries to incorrectly respond to normal menstrual signals. Every cycle, an egg is supposed to be released at ovulation. When the egg gets fertilized and implants, pregnancy results. When it doesn’t get fertilized, a normal period occurs. Eggs are released from follicles that have to mature first. With polycystic ovary syndrome, sometimes follicles don’t mature or ripen, and eggs never get released, resulting in anovulation, or a cycle without ovulation. In other cases, eggs may be released but may not be good quality, resulting in trouble getting pregnant.
PCOS can cause irregular or infrequent periods, leading to infertility.
Because a menstrual cycle is largely based around ovulation, PCOS can cause highly irregular or infrequent periods. This is primarily why it contributes to infertility — it’s impossible to conceive with no egg to fertilize.
PCOS can also lead to the development of cysts in the ovaries. Cysts are fluid-filled sacs that form as the ovaries don’t properly mature and release eggs. (2) While PCOS has the word “cyst” in its name, all women with PCOS don’t necessarily develop cysts, and women who don’t have PCOS can also develop cysts for different reasons.
Editor’s Note: A study published in May 2018 suggests that the root cause of PCOS may be found during pregnancy. Lead researcher, Brooke Tata of Lille France, explained that pregnant women with PCOS have elevated levels of the hormones gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) and anti-Müllerian hormone (AMH), so they used mice to test whether this affects the fetus as it’s developing. True to their hypothesis, the excess hormones led to “masculinization of the exposed female fetus and a PCOS-like reproductive and neuroendocrine phenotype in adulthood”. Interestingly, they were able to treat the mice once they were adults, by targetting the elevated GnRH.
Common Signs and Symptoms of PCOS
The cause of PCOS isn’t fully clear, but there seem to be a number of factors in play. Common signs and symptoms of PCOS can include:
- Excess levels of androgen hormones, like testosterone. Women need androgens in small amounts, but in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, androgens can rival estrogen levels, creating conflicting signals for ovulation and reproductive function. Androgen levels should be tested in women who are not having regular periods or who are having trouble conceiving. (3)
- Extra hair growth, also known as hirsutism. The excess androgen hormones can stimulate extra hair growth in unwanted places, like on the face. Women with PCOS often battle this unpleasant symptom. As many as 70 percent of women battling polycystic ovary syndrome are also battling hirsutism. (4)
- Acne. While many different hormone imbalances can contribute to acne, PCOS can cause confusion between estrogen and testosterone, resulting in chronic acne. (5)
- Excess insulin. You don’t have to be diabetic to have insulin problems. Insulin is a hormone, and when hormone imbalances of any kind are present, other hormones can quickly follow suit. Insulin regulates how digested food is spent for energy. Insulin resistance is what happens when cells in the body don’t properly react to the presence of insulin. Because of this, the body produces more insulin, trying to get its message through. This can lead to chronic dysfunction with blood sugar and insulin levels, the same issues that are found with diabetes. (6)
- Overweight or obesity. While it can be considered a potential cause, it can also be a symptom of PCOS. Because of hormone miscommunication, it can be easier to gain weight and harder to lose it, especially thanks to insulin sensitivity issues. Diet and lifestyle, of course, can contribute heavily to weight and insulin function. (7)
- Irregular periods. As mentioned, PCOS can lead to missed periods, super long cycles, and/or anovulatory cycles. It can also lead to shorter and faster cycles (e.g., every 21 days). Some women with PCOS will stop having periods altogether. This is entirely due to the presence of too many androgens that combat estrogen, the instigator of ovulation and healthy menstruation. (8)
Bottom line: PCOS is a hormone-related condition that is a common women’s health issue, affecting 10 percent of women who are of reproductive age. It is a leading cause of infertility.
How Medical Treatments Can Fail PCOS
There is no single test used to diagnose PCOS. When signs or symptoms of PCOS are present, practitioners will often run tests to assess hormone levels and to rule out other causes. Ultrasound may be done to see if cysts are present in the ovaries. Ultrasound may also be done around ovulation time to determine if follicles are actually ripening and ovulation is taking place.
There is no single test used to diagnose PCOS.
Once a diagnosis is given, traditional medical treatments often use a variety of different methods to manage symptoms. (9) The result is the opposite of a holistic approach, since the treatments typically focus on addressing whatever symptoms are making the most noise. Doctors often won’t explore the cause of PCOS since it isn’t well understood, and there isn’t a specific treatment or cure.
Medical treatment for PCOS may include any of the following:
- Birth control pills or other hormones to force regulate a menstrual cycle. These are specifically aimed at increasing estrogen and progesterone levels above androgen levels.
- Insulin-regulating medication like metformin, which is used for diabetes to decrease insulin resistance and reduce insulin levels. It may also help lead to weight loss when diet and exercise are also used.
- Ovulation-stimulating medication, like clomiphene, which helps to ripen follicles and encourage eggs to be released.
- ART, or Advanced Reproductive Technology. If you are trying to conceive using the previously mentioned medical therapies and they don’t work, most doctors will recommend using gonadotropins like FSH and LH to manually stimulate and ripen follicles, produce eggs, and then in some cases fertilize the eggs using IVF (in vitro fertilization), where they are then transferred back to the uterus. With IVF, you bypass many of the roadblocks that may be present in PCOS, but it doesn’t guarantee a pregnancy.
- Medication to slow excessive hair growth (hirsutism). Sometimes this can be birth control to reduce androgens, or another medication known as spironolactone to block effects of androgens on the skin.
While these medications can control some or all of the symptoms of PCOS, they don’t address the root problem, and some of them come with major side effects, like causing birth defects if you become pregnant while taking them. (10)
Bottom line: PCOS doesn’t have a cure, and many in the medical world can only manage symptoms and correct them individually instead of being able to get to the root cause. This can be frustrating for patients and doctors since stopping medication typically means the symptoms will come right back.
4 Natural and Alternative Therapies for PCOS
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While diet can’t improve every aspect of infertility, when it comes to PCOS, diet and lifestyle modifications can be extremely effective.
An infertility diet for PCOS focuses on low carbs to establish sensitivity with insulin and reproductive hormones. Paleo is a perfect food plan for PCOS because it removes refined and processed junk carbs; it instead fills your plate with vegetables, healthy starches (like sweet potatoes and parsnips), and antioxidant fruits while promoting healthy fats that actually help to slow down carb digestion, resulting in steady blood sugar and lower insulin. (11)
For some, Paleo can result in weight loss because of the change from refined carbs and excessive sugar intake, which are linked to obesity problems. (12) You can still enjoy Paleo sweet treats every now and then because Paleo-friendly sugars like coconut sugar are significantly less disruptive to blood glucose than cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Even artificial sweeteners can make PCOS worse, so simply being “sugar-free” isn’t enough. (13)
Not only is diet beneficial for women with PCOS, it’s beneficial for women after they get pregnant, too, since PCOS can lead to an increased risk of gestational diabetes. (14)
Gut health is also an important element to consider for PCOS and fertility. Paleo is a diet that intrinsically supports gut health, and Paleo superfoods like bone broth, kombucha, and sauerkraut should be readily enjoyed on a PCOS food plan. (15)
Because insulin-resistance can be linked to chronic inflammation, working to reduce systemic inflammation levels should also be considered a priority for women with PCOS. (16) Luckily, a diet focusing on gut health that eliminates refined sugar is the best way to reduce inflammatory problems.
Focusing on the gut not only addresses PCOS-specific issues like skin problems and hormone balance, but it’s also generally beneficial for fertility, good digestion, and reduced risk of chronic diseases.
PCOS, like many other conditions, responds well to many forms of movement because being active helps to reduce insulin. Even just walking for 30 minutes daily can produce dramatic results. (17)
Yoga is also a highly effective form of exercise for PCOS. (18) Twelve weeks of yoga can be significantly more effective than other forms of exercise when it comes to reducing testosterone, improving cycle frequency, and even reducing hirsutism.
Yoga can reduce testosterone, improve menstrual cycles and reduce hirsutism.
Since exercise is also beneficial for cutting stress levels, choosing a form of exercise that is enjoyable (and, therefore, sustainable) is also important. It’s critical to stick with a program to see long-term positive results for PCOS.
One of the safest ways to help jump-start ovulation in women who don’t have regular cycles is acupuncture. Unlike the medications used for the same purpose, acupuncture has no side effects. Research has shown acupuncture to be beneficial for reducing ovarian cysts, increasing blood flow to the ovaries, decreasing insulin levels, and assisting in weight loss. (19) Acupuncture directly attacks every problematic symptom from PCOS while also supporting the whole body. Bonus: it reduces anxiety, lowers stress levels, and promotes healthy sleep. (20)
Bottom line: There are natural methods that effectively address PCOS symptoms and correct imbalances that are at the root of the problem. Not only can they reverse PCOS, they’re also perfect for leading to overall wellness and have no pharmaceutical side effects.
7-Day Fertility Diet for PCOS
Not sure what a diet for PCOS looks like in real life? Here’s a sample of what you can enjoy over the course of a week while managing your PCOS symptoms naturally and effortlessly stabilizing insulin output.
- Breakfast: Zucchini Fritters
- Lunch: Shrimp and Avocado Salad with Light Cilantro Dressing
- Dinner: Sheet Pan Portobello Mushroom Fajitas
- Snack: Baked Eggplant Caprese Stacks
- Breakfast: Double Meat Breakfast Burrito
- Lunch: BLT Avocado Stack
- Dinner: Cashew-Crusted Chicken Dinner with Carrot Noodles with Turmeric Pesto
- Dessert: Salted Caramel Chia Seed Pudding
- Breakfast: Keto Breakfast Burger
- Lunch: Chicken Salad
- Dinner: Tuna Patties with Roasted Turmeric Cauliflower
- Snack: Buffalo Bacon Deviled Eggs
- Breakfast: Maple Pecan Granola with Bacon Sprinkles
- Lunch: Crockpot Chicken and Cauliflower Rice Soup
- Dinner: Roasted Lamb Steaks with Sweet Potatoes
- Dessert: Coconut Oil Fat Bombs
- Breakfast: Matcha Smoothie Bowl
- Lunch: Coconut Crusted Chicken Fingers with Sweet Apple Basil Slaw
- Dinner: Tripe, Bacon, Bone Broth Gut Nourishing Stew
- Snack: Turmeric Protein Donuts
- Breakfast: Kale and Mushroom Sausage Patties
- Lunch: Bacon Chicken Salad
- Dinner: Baked Salmon with Beet Noodle Arugula Salad
- Dessert: Chocolate Turmeric Truffles
- Breakfast: Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus
- Lunch: Pesto Shrimp Pasta with Zucchini Noodles
- Dinner: Sweet Potato Sloppy Joe Bowls
- Snack: Paleo Energy Bars
This article is shared with permission from our friends at PaleoHacks.
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