PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder in UK women of childbearing age. It stumps doctors but a recent study by researchers at Texas Tech University found diet changes could help. Chloe Nichols investigates and talks to one woman who cured her symptoms with a raw diet
For any teenage girl, puberty is not an easy ride. We suddenly grow hips and boobs, get spots, cry at any little thing and then get our periods. Puberty hit me like a train and the struggle with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) started when I was just 12 years old. My periods were erratic, lasting as long as a month on some occasions. Some nights I would be so uncomfortable with the pain I would cry myself to sleep. With all the promises of puberty making a girl feel like a woman, I didn’t feel womanly at all. I felt bloated, anaemic, and downtrodden.
I was never a chubby girl until I was around 13 and that’s when the weight gain started, despite eating the same as my slim friends. According to Marilyn Glenville, nutritionist and author of Natural Solutions to PCOS, being overweight is one of the main complaints from women with PCOS.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (RCOG) state that around 50 per cent of women with PCOS are overweight and this can aggravate symptoms even further. Other symptoms include irregular or non-existent periods, reduced fertility, recurrent miscarriage, excess body hair and difficulty losing weight. Not all women have all these symptoms, and some cases can be worse than others. Currently there is no known cause for PCOS, although having a relative with PCOS can increase your chances of having it.
So what exactly are polycystic ovaries? RCOG say its caused by larger than normal ovaries which have twice the number of follicles. Not all women with polycystic ovaries have PCOS but six per cent of women with polycystic ovaries have PCOS. The reason PCOS produces these symptoms is because the hormone levels in the body are not correctly balanced. Testosterone, a hormone naturally produced in the ovaries, is usually elevated in women with the condition, which can cause excess hair growth, usually on the chin, lower stomach and chest.
PCOS is common, affecting around one in ten women in the UK. According to RCOG some women with PCOS are resistant to insulin and this is seen in 10–15 per cent of slim and 20–40 per cent of obese women with PCOS; further aggravating weight issues associated with PCOS.
Marilyn Glenville explains that insulin is a hormone that comes from the pancreas in order to control the way the body stores and uses carbohydrates (sugars), fats and protein. When we eat refined or sugary foods our blood sugar level rises quickly. In response to this, our pancreas releases insulin to take the sugar out of the blood and store it in our cells. Insulin resistance is when insulin doesn’t work properly to remove sugar from the blood, leaving blood sugar high and leaving you at risk for type-2 diabetes and being overweight.
Insulin resistance can increase the risk of the development of Type 2 diabetes, a condition where blood sugar is too high and insulin is too low. Diabetes can lead to strokes and cardiovascular problems, which is why it is important to understand how eating differently can help hormone levels. Dr Glenville says women with PCOS have a harder time losing weight than women without, ‘It doesn’t seem fair because a friend of theirs could eat the same food and not put weight on, but there is a metabolic problem which makes them put on more weight.’
What solutions are out there? Conventional treatment methods can have side effects. The Pill, commonly prescribed for PCOS, can cause breast tenderness, mood swings and weight gain and has also been linked to blood clots and a risk of cervical cancer, although this risk is small. Metformin, an insulin-balancing drug usually used to treat Type-2 diabetes and sometimes prescribed for women with PCOS and insulin resistance can cause side effects such as nausea, loss of appetite and a metallic taste in the mouth.
Experts also suggest improving diet and exercise to help reduce the symptoms associated with PCOS. ‘Getting the diet right and overcoming insulin resistance the key to whether a woman with PCOS is normal weight or overweight,’ says Dr Glenville (who has a phD in nutrition). Eating foods, such as soya, chickpeas and lentils, that contain natural oestrogen’s (phytoestrogens) can be beneficial for women with PCOS, because phytoestrogens help to control levels of testosterone in the blood.
Marilyn advises eating little and often rather than the usual three meals a day. ‘You should never go for more than three waking hours without food to keep your blood-sugar levels balanced. Although in the West we tend to base our day around three square meals, this isn’t the best way to eat if you suffer from PCOS. Try six smaller, well-balanced meals, ideally comprising low- GI foods, a day instead, Dr Glenville suggests, to help keep blood sugar stable. Read more of Marilyn’s advice here
What supplements could help? As long as the contraceptive pill or any hormonal treatments are not being used, oral supplements are a useful and natural option to help alongside diet changes.
Chromium: Chromium can help alleviate insulin resistance and in a study by Louisana State University, it was concluded that the use of chromium can reduce food cravings, which can help balance the diet and control weight. It improves the formation of glucose tolerance factor (GTF) which is a substance released by the liver and required to make insulin more efficient. Chromium can also help with fat and cholesterol levels, which can prevent cardiovascular problems. Marilyn recommends 200 mcg of Chromium a day.
Zinc: Zinc can help with appetite control and lacking zinc can cause a loss of taste according to a study by Tohoku University, creating a need for stronger-tasting foods, including those that are saltier, sugary or spicier. Zinc is also necessary for the correct action of many hormones, including insulin.
Magnesium: Many women with insulin-resistance also lack magnesium, which can contribute to progression to Type 2 diabetes. A study by Tufts University 2013 states that in studies involving pre-diabetics, they found that most had inadequate magnesium intake. Those with the highest magnesium intake reduced their risk for blood sugar and metabolic problems by 71 percent. Women are recommended to take 500mg of Magnesium to help control blood sugar and to manage weight.
Case study: ‘MY PCOS SYMPTOMS DISAPPEARED WITH A RAW DIET’
Stephanie Jeffs, 43, a raw food coach and former City worker, replaced medication with a raw food diet and lost nine stone over the course of six years. Stephanie is the founder of Explore Raw, a raw diet company which has turned her lifestyle change into a career.
‘I can remember years ago when I used to work in a bank, and a colleague and I were talking about PCOS. I was a size 24 or 26 at the time, and we were in the office, and I had just been to pick up my Metformin [diabetes medication] prescription. She said ‘I have that’. She was a very little pretty size 8 girl and in my head I thought ‘No you don’t’. I asked her what tablets she took because my mindset was that if you’ve got a condition, there’s a medication for it, and I asked her if she was on Metformin like myself and she said she was managing PCOS with a low-GI diet – that was the moment it clicked that perhaps diet was the answer for me.
My raw food diet journey started when I visited a juicing retreat in my 30s after feeling unhealthy for a while. I treated the juicing as a detox but I didn’t think for one minute think that I would lose weight and that I would feel so great. I lost more than ten pounds in a week and I remember coming back from that retreat and noticing that my clothes weren’t too tight – so I wanted to do more juicing.
While on my retreat, I met someone who was talking about raw food and I just thought it’s all a bit too far. But my curiosity got the better of me and I really started to investigate what a raw food diet might entail.
I started juicing and eating raw seriously around my 38th birthday. Very quickly my PCOS symptoms began to slow down. I was noticing changes. My periods were becoming manageable and more regular, less painful and my cycle eventually settled. In 2000 (my 40th year) I had my full year of regular cycles.
Now, my raw diet is usually vegan but not essentially vegan. It’s mainly fruit, nuts, seeds and pulses, some pulses and grasses. It is prepared in a multitude of ways. I can dehydrate, dry things out, blend, chop and so on. But as long as each food process doesn’t reach more than a certain temperature, which is different for different foods you can maintain the enzyme activity of the food. When you cook some food, not all food, the enzyme activity in the food is destroyed. You don’t necessarily lose all of the vitamins but you lose enzyme activity and that’s the most important thing about the raw food diet – it’s a living food diet and by not cooking over a certain temperature you preserve essential nutrients and enzymes that aid digestion and the assimilation of vitamins from the food.
Since I attended that first retreat five years ago, I have lost over nine stone (120lbs) and I feel great! My skin is glowing and I look and feel much younger than I have for years. Looking back at old photos I hardly recognise myself.
Stephanie Jeffs set up Explore Raw after finding success with a raw diet. She coaches others in the benefits of raw diet and runs a raw cookery school. Stephanie is also the creator of a raw juice camp, raw summer retreats and is the author of a selection of eBooks available here.