We hear it time and time again, “exercise, eat healthfully, and don’t stress,” and as a Reproductive Endocrinologist, it’s a way of life I want for all my patients. Primarily, however, for the many patients that struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), these lifestyle changes can be more than just a smart way of living, they can be symptom-freeing. PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects among women of reproductive age. Those with PCOS may have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or excess male hormone (androgen) levels. The ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid (follicles) and fail to regularly release eggs.
Up to 15% of women will receive a PCOS diagnosis. PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder for women of reproductive age and causes an imbalance of hormones, potentially causing a multitude of symptoms like weight gain, acne, hirsutism, inflammation, and even insulin resistance. After an initial diagnosis, the information may seem overwhelming, but most often, simple lifestyle changes can improve symptoms. Therefore, as a first line of treatment, dietary changes, exercise, and stress management are recommended.
The following lifestyle tips, when practiced consistently, will help ease and manage symptoms associated with PCOS:
Don’t skip meals.
Since PCOS can often cause weight gain, people tend to skip meals to make up for weight gain. However, skipping meals can be counter-productive and destructive to the body. Eating regular, well-balanced meals will help keep your hormones in balance, a necessity for those with PCOS. A great way to manage blood sugar levels and weight gain is to build a plate that serves up a combination of food types – vegetables, protein, and whole grains. Another easy tip is to plan ahead, carry a mobile pantry, and focus on meal prep. When it’s time to eat it will feel less like a chore and you will have something healthy to satisfy your hunger.
Moderation is key.
PCOS can often lead to an increase in androgens, or male hormones, which can contribute to weight gain. In addition, many women who have PCOS also have insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes. To maintain a healthy weight and keep your body in balance, it is important to avoid extremes, whether it’s food, alcohol, or activity. Moderation is key to maintaining wellbeing.
Make exercise part of your daily routine. Exercise increases your body’s sensitivity to insulin, which will in turn reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Simple exercises like swimming, jogging, or brisk walking are all great activities that can help manage your PCOS. Schedule physical activity throughout every day. On the days you feel less active, try morning stretches, an evening walk, or perhaps a virtual exercise yoga class. Remember, consistency is key!
Reduce your stress.
Folks with PCOS are at increased risk of anxiety and depression. Do what works for you to reduce stress levels, whether it’s yoga, meditation, seeking a counselor, or getting a massage. Also consider solutions you may not have tried before. For example, acupuncture can increase fertility by lowering stress and anxiety, increasing blood flow to the reproductive organs, and balancing the endocrine system. It can also increase a couple’s chances of conceiving by helping to keep the normal flow of energy unblocked.
Ask for help.
PCOS is one of the most common, but treatable, causes of infertility in women. While most who have PCOS become pregnant, they often take longer to become pregnant and are more likely to need fertility treatments. In addition to making the necessary lifestyle changes, stay in touch with your doctor and ask for help as you manage your symptoms.
Managing PCOS, especially when trying to conceive, is a critical step to maintaining a balanced, healthy mind and body. By making these lifestyle changes, even just one at a time, and by seeking proper care, you will be on the right path towards controlling the diagnosis and, one day, building your family.
Dr. Ilana Ressler is a Reproductive Endocrinologist and board-certified in both Obstetrics and Gynecology and in Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.