Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects more than 200,000 women in the U.S. a year, yet many know little about the condition. PCOS is a chronic hormonal condition in which the ovaries produce excessive androgens — male sex hormones, which are generally present in small amounts in women. While birth control is a treatment for PCOS, the disorder also requires many lifestyle changes for women to be healthy and safe in their bodies.
Dr. Danielle Desroche, an Atlanta-based women’s health and hormones specialist spoke about how PCOS affects one in every 10 women.
“Many women begin to exhibit symptoms as teenagers, and the standard treatment is to put them on the pill,” Desroche says. “PCOS is more than just an excess of androgens in women; it also includes issues with fertility, depression, anxiety, high cholesterol and disordered eating.”
Desroche and San Antonio-based nutritionist Amber Fischer, CNS, LDN both recommend that women who need to change their workout routine because of PCOS do strength training to improve insulin resistance or exercises like pilates or yoga, which lower testosterone levels.
Desroche highlights fiber being a crucial nutrient for those with PCOS as it helps regulate blood sugar, promotes bowel movement and lowers cholesterol. In addition, high-quality proteins, such as fish and chicken, as well as high-quality red meat, should be included on a plate’s protein portion. Healthy fats are also required in the form of avocados, olive oil and fatty fish.
“The goal is to eliminate inflammatory foods,” Desroche says.
When indulging in foods that are not the best for those with PCOS, Fischer says that simple starches like sugar and white bread or pasta are the most important foods to cut back on.
“This doesn’t mean we can’t have them, only that we need to keep in mind when and how we consume them,” Fischer suggests.
Desroche also recommends following the 80-20 rule, which states that you should eat whole foods 80 percent of the time and indulge in gluten or dairy products 20 percent of the time.
Along with nutrition, Desroche recommends women with PCOS engage in stress management for wellness and self-care. She notes, however, that mental health looks different for everyone, and therapy may or may not prove helpful for those with PCOS.
Sometimes wellness can look like going for a long walk, doing yoga, limiting social media or phone time, and meditating. Stress management is undervalued in PCOS, but simply putting yourself first at the end of the day is sufficient.
Both Desrcoche and Fischer suggest using the Environment Working Group’s “Healthy Living” mobile application to scan products to determine which are non-toxic, noting that environmental toxins play a significant role in wellness. Although the EWG assigns a rating of one to 10 to products based on their safety, Desroche suggests selecting products with a rating of four or less.
Odett Ochoa, a first-year graduate student, was diagnosed with PCOS at 18, but she realized it wasn’t the worst diagnosis she could receive.
“I’ve always been able to maintain a pretty good diet,” Ochoa says. “It’s been pretty easy to cut down on my gluten and dairy intake.”
Furthermore, despite having participated in various sports her entire life, Ochoa changed her workout routine due to the fatigue she felt after a lot of cardio. As a full-time student at the Bill Munday School of Business, she now chooses pilates to help her stay fit and healthy after the diagnosis. As a result, despite having PCOS, she can now live her fullest and healthiest life as an adult.
Another student, Alyssa Light, who is a senior at St. Edward’s University, also experiences PCOS. She notes that while she doesn’t suffer the full extent of symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles and cystic acne, she doesn’t let the diagnosis dictate her life.
“I take (it) day by day,” Light says. “Sometimes I do enjoy my plates full of veggies and protein and other days I enjoy a good pizza.”
In addition, Light says she enjoys dancing as a workout because it doesn’t feel it exhausts her like other exercises usually do.
On the other hand, 63-year-old Olivia Solis has lived with PCOS since before enough knowledge existed to understand the condition. Solis, who was diagnosed at the age of 20 and shortly after having her first child, explains that she had to make many changes to her life when she was diagnosed. As a result, she gave up alcohol, dairy and gluten because of her severe symptoms of heavy menstrual cycles, depression and weight gain. In addition, she grew her garden and cooked the majority of her meals at home. As a result, her lifestyle has completely transformed so she can live a long and healthy life and her choices allowed her to have two more children while also lessening her symptoms throughout her life.
Sustaining a healthy lifestyle with PCOS necessitates the coordination of numerous factors such as well-being, avoiding inflammatory foods and strength training. Nonetheless, each woman is unique and may experience milder or more severe symptoms. Despite the challenges of the diagnosis, there are ways to take care of your body while living with PCOS by focusing on health, wellness and exercise.