Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) can be a frustrating and challenging condition but thankfully one that can respond well to natural therapies. In fact, first-line treatment recommended by your GP will often consist of dietary and lifestyle changes. Traditional plant medicine and science also support the use of herbs.
PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder of women of reproductive age, with five to 15 per cent of women affected.
The name itself is misleading, as PCOS is not an ovarian condition. Rather, underlying hormonal and metabolic irregularities affect the ability of the ovaries to produce mature follicles.
The condition takes its name from the under-developed follicles which resemble cysts on ultrasound. Other common and distressing symptoms include weight gain and hair growth on the face, breasts and abdomen driven by an excess of androgens (male sex hormones).
A key area to investigate and address is your body's ability to utilise glucose. The majority of women with PCOS are insulin resistant, meaning the body loses the ability to take up glucose from the bloodstream into the cells. Both insulin and glucose become chronically elevated. High insulin impairs ovulation and stimulates your ovaries to make too much testosterone, leading to PCOS.
While genetic factors increase susceptibility to PCOS, we know that certain lifestyle factors also contribute:
- Poor diet, especially the overconsumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Being overweight, particularly upper abdominal obesity
- Lack of exercise
Natural solutions for PCOS
Dietary changes combined with regular exercise may be the key strategy that is required for most women to experience significant improvements in PCOS. There are also a number of well-known plant medicines that may support improvements.
Plant medicine: Science supports the use of plant medicine for PCOS. The plants below can be regularly consumed as a medicinal tea to help regulate blood glucose levels and support ovulation:
- Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) helps to regulate blood glucose levels, reduce sugar cravings and improve insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS
- Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for improving fertility and is frequently combined with Peony (Paeonia lactiflora). The combination is found to increase pregnancy rates in women with PCOS
- Spearmint (Mentha crispa) is showing promising effects in early clinical trials - a spearmint herbal tea was found to significantly reduce testosterone levels in women with PCOS experiencing excessive hair growth
- Chaste tree berries (Vitex agnus-castus) have been shown to support the hormones involved with ovulation such as progesterone and may be beneficial for some women
Diet: Focus on eating more real foods and avoiding processed and packaged food. These tend to have higher quantities of refined carbohydrates that disrupt blood glucose control.
Turn your emphasise to plenty of fresh vegetables and good quality protein sources such as free range meat and eggs, fish, and healthy fats such as those from nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and oily fish. Deficiencies in magnesium, chromium and omega-3 fats have been found to influence the progression of insulin resistance.
Exercise: Moderate exercise has been shown to improve the regularity of menstrual cycles and reduce androgens that contribute to excess hair growth. If exercise is new for you, begin gently with a daily 15 minute walk and increase the duration and intensity as your fitness improves. Enlist the help of a fitness professional if you don't know where to start.
Improvement in blood glucose regulation and the associated hormonal imbalance tends to be slow and gradual over six to nine months using lifestyle-based strategies. This is a complex condition and understanding the underlying drivers unique to you can make all the difference to natural treatment outcomes.
As with all ongoing medical conditions, please consult your leading healthcare professional regarding any lifestyle changes.