Posted on: June 19, 2020 at 3:32 pm
Last updated: June 25, 2020 at 8:34 pm

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects women of reproductive age, resulting is disrupted menstrual cycles that can be either prolonged or infrequent. This is due to the growth of follicles on the ovaries which results in irregular release of eggs. PCOS is believed to be caused by endocrine dysfunction that causes an imbalance of sex hormones.

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What are the first signs of PCOS?

Typical symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Infrequent and prolonged periods
  • Weight gain
  • Decreased fertility
  • Acne and/or oily skin
  • Facial hair growth

Sugar and the modern world

Our brains have allowed our species to quickly climb to the top of the food chain. By the 2nd millennium A.D., we’ve mastered our environment (mostly to our benefit) and soon enough, we’ll be colonizing other worlds (at least, we hope). Despite amazing human advancements, we’ve yet to completely eliminate diet-induced diseases, such as type II diabetes or hypertension. The way that food interacts with our cognition is part of the problem.

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What’s more, pre-packaged and highly-processed food items continue to thrive in the market economy of today. Unfortunately, science shows us that processed sugar (the kind you’d find in sugar-sweetened beverages or breakfast cereals) is associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke [1].

Glucose is fuel for your brain

The fact that we’re biologically built to like and consume carbohydrates does not help our position. Up to a quarter of the human body’s energy requirement is consumed by our brain. Had it not been for readily available starches from root vegetables, fruit, and nuts, our brains may not have developed to their magnificent, current size [2]. It also doesn’t help that our tongues immediately detect sweets and starches [3]

Some 80,000 years ago, in an environment with only wild food sources and no agriculture, these biological mechanisms certainly made sense. This is distinctly different from current times when most of the world lives in close vicinity of a supermarket. However, our body doesn’t know that, so it keeps directing us towards the forbidden fruit. It appears that our taste-buds can’t tell the difference between healthy, natural, whole-foods, and highly- or ultra-processed ones. That is, unless the government creates legislation to issue a health warning on the appropriate food labels.

For women in particular, processed sugar seems to have a significant impact when it comes to reproductive hormones and ovarian function. For example, two out of three women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) have insulin resistance [4], as shown by a study conducted at the University of Virginia. A higher-than-normal blood sugar appears to be a crucial factor in maintaining the hormonal imbalance associated with the condition, namely excess androgen hormone production. When PCOS patients were administered a drug intended for controlling high blood sugar (Metformin, usually prescribed for type 2 diabetes), their ovarian function improved, their androgen levels were reduced, and their insulin resistance was significantly lowered.

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Read: 10 All-Natural Hormone-Balancing Foods

Processed Sugar Disrupts Hormones and Behaviors’

Processed sugar ends up damaging your reproductive organs through the endocrine system. This is no longer a hypothesis, but a proven fact. Medical research has determined that both follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) enable insulin to have a direct influence on ovarian function [5]. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that if you consistently spike insulin, a lot of biology connected to it, consequently goes wrong. As it turns out one of these things is your ovaries.

A series of hormones including reproductive ones are negatively affected by the overflow of insulin that is triggered when eating or drinking highly-processed food items, such as sugar-sweetened beverages. For example, studies performed on rats have shown that a high-fat, high-sugar diet disrupts our major chemical messengers [6], including testosterone and progesterone. Additionally, research that studied over 250 women for a period of two years, found a significant association between elevated estradiol and LH levels and the consumption of beverages with added sugar [7].

But it doesn’t just stop there, with your ovaries, sugar also has a profound impact on body fat. In fact, astoundingly, drinking just one extra can of coke per day could lead to a weight gain of 15.6 lbs in a single year.

Consequently, counting calories will do nothing to improve your ovaries’ health, because calorie counts do not consider the effect that a nutrient or food has on your hormones and well-being. I mean, eating a bowl of high sugar corn flakes is not the same as eating a bowl of organic oats, even if the latter has the same number of calories or even more, for that matter. 

When consuming high-fat, high-sugar diets, we trigger a vicious circle. For example, the more we overload our bodies with insulin, the less effective it becomes in lowering our blood sugar. In the meantime, this becomes an addiction. Highly processed foods are known to trigger our pleasure-seeking pathways [8] in an analogous manner to chewing cocaine or tobacco leaves. As such, the overarching goal must be to increase the quality of our food by weaning off anything that has added sugar, as well as by severely restricting the consumption of processed food altogether. Gradually, your body will start to heal itself and, in the process, you’ll lose some excess fat mass.

Read: “We Don’t Need to Bleed” Why many women are giving up on periods

Tips to Help You Treat PCOS by Ditching Sugar

Even in women without polycystic ovary syndrome, hormonal imbalance due to processed sugar can be readily observed. Symptoms such as mood swings, fatigue, or depression are often linked to such dietary habits. The fact that junk food is so affordable and omnipresent doesn’t help our case one bit. There are things we can do about it, though:

Drinking Calories – if your poison of choice is sugar-sweetened beverages, the simplest way to fight against it is to drink water. It won’t give you the same pleasure, nor the same buzz, but it will quench your body’s natural thirst for liquids. The best way to get to love water? Exercise. All of my clients who exercise on a regular basis find themselves preferring water over soda. 

Nothing compares to the sweet delight of a cup full of water after 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity. Also, set alarms to drink periodically throughout the day. When you find yourself craving a mouthful of soda from someone around you, jump to a full glass of water. It is surprising how effective this can be.

Eating Calories – this is more difficult, but since we’re discussing your quality of life, it’s important. Cook for yourself instead of eating out at fast-foods. This doesn’t mean ready-made frozen meals, although frozen veggies are OK provided nothing is added to them. The Internet is full of 30-, 45-, or 60-minute delicious and nutritious recipes based on whole-foods. 

Plants and whole grains are a healthy addition to any diet because they provide essential minerals and are rich in fiber, which will help you feel satiated for longer periods of time. 

Cravings – Whether in the form of a candy bar or sugar-laden pancakes, we all have that one ridiculous craving from time to time. Some of us have a multitude of smaller ones, which can be equally difficult to deal with. Fruits are the best gateway to avoid these. Use the same substitution as with the glass of soda; when you feel like having some candy, munch on some fresh fruits (always the go-to choice) or dried ones.  

Apples, bananas, oranges, any-type-of-berry, apricots, melon, grapes, dates, prunes, uh, you get the point. Seasonal produce is usually cheaper, but dried fruits are readily available when there’s a shortage.

If you’re like me and you want to have your sweet with a bit of salt, raw and/or toasted nuts and seeds will do the trick. Just pay attention not to buy anything that has too high a content of salt (if added). If it has any added sugar, find something else. It’s not worth it.

Supplement with Chromium Picolinate – Reducing insulin means reducing your consumption of sugar, but also and importantly improving insulin metabolism is also crucial. Chromium can help reduce insulin resistance and consequently decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes [9]. Simply taking a supplemental dose of 200 micrograms (mcg) every day, after food, can be beneficial. Improving insulin metabolism and regulating blood glucose should also help reduce cravings.

Read: The Most Nutritious Sources of Proteins (According To Science)

A Conclusion on PCOS and sugar consumption

The younger you are when processed sugar becomes a staple of your diet, the more harmful and widespread are its effects on your ovarian function (PCOS), the reproductive system, and overall health. With time and perseverance, you’ll be able to defeat any sugar addiction/cravings and nurture healthy eating habits. Needless to say you’ll reap the benefits of achieving proper and healthy fertility and achieve a regular menstrual cycle.

It won’t be a smooth ride, as your brain will keep asking for more sugar, as well as for the habits that provided them, but it’s for your own good. As is the case with women, sugar also has a widespread destructive effect in men, among the most prominent ones being lower testosterone. Sugar doesn’t discriminate based on biological sex. I’ve witnessed many people struggle with a sugar addiction, especially in my teenage years. And if they were able to overcome this damaging desire, so can you.

Keep Reading: How to Lose Weight Even If You Have PCOS: 8 Science-Backed Tips

  1. Food based dietary patterns and chronic disease prevention. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2396
  2. Carbohydrates and the Brain: Roles and Impact https://www.intechopen.com/books/feed-your-mind-how-does-nutrition-modulate-brain-function-throughout-life-/carbohydrates-and-the-brain-roles-and-impact
  3. Humans Can Taste Glucose Oligomers Independent of the hT1R2/hT1R3 Sweet Taste Receptor https://academic.oup.com/chemse/article/41/9/755/2366019
  4. All Women With PCOS Should Be Treated For Insulin Resistance https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3277302/
  5. Insulin signalling and glucose transport in the ovary and ovarian function during the ovarian cycle https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4888492/#!po=1.61290
  6. High-Fat, High-Sugar Diet Disrupts the Preovulatory Hormone Surge and Induces Cystic Ovaries in Cycling Female Rats. https://academic.oup.com/jes/article/1/12/1488/4587525
  7. Energy-containing beverages: reproductive hormones and ovarian function in the BioCycle Stud. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/97/3/621/4571522
  8. Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6234835/ 
  9. A scientific review: the role of chromium in insulin resistance.
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Paul Jenkins, MSc
Supplement Expert, Nutritionist & Sports Coach
Having been involved in competitive sports from an early age, Paul loved to train hard and test himself in competition; he is an ex junior national level sprinter & national level bodybuilder. Paul is also an advocate of creating and maintaining health through nutrition and believes that we all should, as the great Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food”.

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