PCOS is one of the most common concerns shared by my patients when we start talking about hormones and reproductive health. PCOS—or polycystic ovarian syndrome—is one of the most common endocrine disorders, and so it makes sense that so many women have concerns about it. Many of my patients come to me looking for an alternative to the birth control prescription given to them by their OB/GYN. Others have friends or family with a PCOS diagnosis, and are wondering if that’s the reason for their own irregular and/or painful cycles. Some ladies worry if they’ll ever be able to have children, since PCOS has complicated their fertility, and still more patients come to me out of desperation—they’ve already worked with another “natural doctor” who had put them on an extremely restrictive diet and told them to lose weight. I have even heard of PCOS patients being prescribed gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carb, sulfur-free diets. No wonder so many PCOS-sufferers struggle with binge eating!
In this post, we’ll be diving into the details about PCOS: what it is, what it isn’t, how it’s managed by most healthcare providers, alternative treatment strategies, and more. As a starting point, I encourage you to check out my fertility overview post (Female Fertility 101) if you aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of your menstrual cycle. That post lays the groundwork for understanding the status quo of periods, hormones, women’s health, and it’s important to understand these topics before we start talking about with cycles that fall outside of the norm. [Although it’s the most common, it’s not the only period problem faced by women. To learn more about what your period can tell you about your health, check out this post.]
What Is PCOS, and How Is It Diagnosed?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, one of the most common endocrine and metabolic disorders in women of reproductive age. The syndrome is defined by hormonal imbalances and ovarian dysfunction, and it’s diagnosed only after other causes for the patient’s symptoms have been ruled out (such as hypothalamic amenorrhea). Because of this, many women have to go through a frustratingly long and drawn out process in order to get answers for their health struggles.
The name “polycystic ovarian syndrome” is a bit of a misnomer, because although ovarian cysts are common in PCOS patients, they aren’t part of the diagnostic criteria—many women with PCOS don’t have any cysts on their ovaries at all. Rather, a PCOS diagnosis is given when at least two of the three following criteria are met: [Reference]
- Hyperandrogenism (elevated androgen hormones, assessed via lab work)
- Anovulation or oligo-ovulation (absence of ovulation or infrequent ovulation, usually leading to irregular cycle length)
- Polycystic appearance of ovaries (assessed via ultrasound imaging)
The general consensus in the medical community is that a PCOS diagnosis should be given when a woman has either polycystic ovaries and/or irregular cycles in addition to high androgen levels on her blood work. When making the diagnosis, doctors are careful to rule out other causes of high androgens, such as adrenal disorders, thyroid disease, drug-induced androgen excess, and other hormonal disorders, as well as alternative causes for irregular cycles.
PCOS patients typically fall into two different categories: insulin resistant, and non-insulin-resistant types. As is the case with most hormonal disorders, more than one level is out of balance. The vast majority of women who suffer from PCOS also present with insulin resistance, glucose intolerance, dyslipidemia, and elevated levels of inflammation. Part of what makes treating PCOS so complex is that these hormonal imbalances feed off of each other: elevated insulin levels trigger a feedback loop via the HPATG axis that leads to further androgen levels, and vise-versa.
Symptoms of PCOS
The symptoms experienced by women with PCOS vary because not everyone meets the same diagnostic criteria, and the extent of those experiences can vary too. Some women experience only mild elevations in androgens, and symptoms are consequently lesser. Women who have cysts on their ovaries often experience pain related to the formation and/or rupture of cysts, which are symptoms that wouldn’t be experienced by women who do not have cysts. Likewise, symptoms for women who concomitantly deal with insulin resistance face different symptoms than women who do not.
- Symptoms Related to Excess Androgens
- Excessive hair growth (face, chest, back, buttocks)
- Thinning hair
- Oily skin
- Cystic acne
- Symptoms Related to Anovulation/Olig-ovulation
- Long cycles (more than 35 days) or irregular cycle lengths
- Difficulty conceiving or repeated miscarriages
- Abnormal uterine bleeding
- Symptoms Related to Polycystic Ovaries
- Painful periods and/or pelvic pain
- Sudden, intense abdominal pain resulting from ruptured cysts
- Symptoms Related to Insulin Resistance
- High blood pressure and/or high cholesterol
- Fatigue after meals
- Weight gain, especially in the abdominal area
- Dark patches of skin, particularly along neck creases, in groin and under breasts (this is called ancanthosis nigricans)
- Skin tags
Due to the fluctuating hormones, many women also experience generalized symptoms related to hormonal imbalances, which include (but are not limited to): fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, etc.
What Causes PCOS and How Is It Treated?
The root cause isn’t really known. The current understanding is that it’s a mixture of genetic predisposition and environmental triggers, but other theories include nutritional conditions in the uterus, prenatal exposure to androgens, and more [reference]. Because of this, most treatments focus on managing symptoms—painful periods, irregular cycles, insulin resistance, etc. Hormonal contraceptive use also can induce a reversible type of PCOS, but the symptoms can continue for months or even years.
On a physiological level, we know that elevated androgens and insulin resistance result from dysfunction in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-thyroid-gonadal axis. In women with PCOS, the pituitary gland releases higher-than-normal levels of luteinizing hormone (LH), which stimulates the ovaries to produce more testosterone than usual. (Ovaries normally produce some testosterone, but problems result when they produce too much.) This over-stimulation of the ovaries by luteinizing hormone also cancels out the mid-cycle LH surge that typically triggers ovulation. At the same time, the pituitary gland releases lower-than-normal levels of follicle-stimulating-hormone, which prevents eggs from reaching full maturity. When this happens, the follicle does not release the egg (ovulation does not occur, AKA anovulation). The immature egg either dissolves, or remains in the follicle, forming a cyst. Since the follicular remnant after ovulation (called the corpus luteum) is responsible for producing progesterone during the luteal phase, many women experience additional symptoms related to low progesterone levels. (Read more about luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, progesterone, and the luteal phase in this post: Female Fertility 101)
Most OB/GYNs prescribe oral contraceptives as a first line of treatment for PCOS, because the artificial hormones suppress the natural cycling of luteinizing hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. The simulated hormonal environment causes the endometrial lining to develop and shed as it would in a natural period, but it take the ovaries out of the equation: no egg matures, no egg is released, and fertility is not possible. My goal as a functional medicine physician is to promote the natural fertility of my patients, empowering them to have healthy cycles rather than suppress the normal functioning of their bodies. That being said, sometimes the healthiest thing for a patient and her values is to reduce the pain, control the hormonal dysfunction, and reach a place where she feels that her health is manageable. If that means medication, that’s okay—the most important thing is that she is able to manage her wellbeing according to her values.
Another medication used in the treatment of PCOS is spironolactone, which is typically used as a diuretic drug for individuals with cardiovascular disease. However, this drug also has a secondary effect of reducing androgen levels in the body, which can be helpful in controlling irregular bleeding, hair growth, and other symptoms of high androgens in women with PCOS. Like birth control pills, using spironolactone targets hormonal pathways of PCOS without addressing the root cause. But again, sometimes using a pharmaceutical approach is the best option for a woman in the context of her individual life.
The third medication that is used in the management of PCOS is metformin, which is a drug typically given to patients with diabetes. Metformin improves insulin resistance, which can be helpful in the treatment of PCOS because of the amplifying effect that insulin plays in the production of testosterone. When insulin sensitivity improves, often testosterone levels follow suit. You can read more about the use of metformin as a fertility drug (and natural alternatives) in this post.
Alternative Methods for Managing PCOS
Most of my patients come to me because they are looking to avoid the use of prescription drugs in managing their fertility. If that describes you too, keep reading!
- Lifestyle Factors for Balancing Hormones: The #1 thing we can do to support hormonal balance is building a foundation for well-being. This means taking nutrition, rest, exercise, stress management, and psychological/emotional health into account. Neglecting even one of these areas can create huge interruptions in the HPATG axis, making symptoms of PCOS and other hormonal disorders so much worse. These lifestyle factors include eating enough (in terms of calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients) as well as eating frequently enough to keep blood sugar stable. It also involves balancing exercise and rest to prevent elevations in cortisol, the stress hormone, which interrupts the production of sex hormones like progesterone. This is part of the reason why stress management, sleep hygiene, and social support are so important. [For detailed information about using lifestyle methods to build a foundation for hormonal health, check out this post: 5 Ways to Balance your Hormones, Naturally.]
- Eating a Diverse Diet: I am a firm believer that restrictive diets are the antithesis of health. Gut health is a huge topic in the media lately, and research continues to show that the best way to support GI health and microbiological diversity is to eat a varied diet, with many different types of plant foods and fibers. The more restrictive our diet (limiting the types of foods we eat to just a few varieties), the more likely we are to disturb our gut microbiome, which plays a huge role in balancing our hormones. (Did you know that bacteria both produce and metabolize hormones? When we disturb our gut microbiome, it affects our bodies ability to make hormones as well as clean out the old, broken down ones.) Gut health also helps modulate blood sugar control, which is an important consideration in insulin-resistant PCOS. Check out this study to learn more about the relationship between PCOS and the gut microbiome.
- Micronutrient Balance: Research has shown that women with PCOS tend to follow certain patterns of vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin D and B vitamins (especially folic acid). Vitamin D plays an important role in supporting the thickness of the endometrial lining, which is often depleted in women with PCOS due to low progesterone levels. Likewise, B vitamins such as folic acid play an important role in follicular maturation, and supplementing with elvels at 700 μg/day can support successful ovulation. Other nutritional deficiencies have also been identified in the majority of women with PCOS, including calcium, zinc, selenium, and chromium. [Reference] While the best way to prevent nutrient deficiencies such as these is to eat a varied and balanced diet (and avoid restriction of food groups of calories), some women may benefit from using supplements—especially Vitamin D. Studies have also shown that supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in cod liver oil, prevent excess inflammation, help manage dysglycemia, and support hormonal balance in women. [Reference]
- Evidence-Based Supplements:
- Inositol: Inositol is a type of sugar alcohol that has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, lipid synthesis, hormonal signaling, and maturation of oocytes (female eggs) during the follicular phase. Supplementation of inositol in women with PCOS lowers androgen levels, improves insulin sensitivity, and increases rates of ovulation in women with anovulatory cycles. Supplementation is effective when administered in ratios of 40:1 of myo-inositol to D-chiro-inositol, at levels of 4000 mg per day in conjunction with 400 μg of folic acid.
- Alpha-Lipoic Acid: This chemical is a free-radical scavenger, meaning that it prevents premature breakdown of biochemicals and hormones in the blood stream. Studies show that supplementation with alpha-lipoid acid decreases prevalence of ovarian cysts and increases progesterone levels in women with PCOS.
- Melatonin:While this hormone is typically thought of as a supplement for promoting sleep, it is not a sleeping pill, but rather a hormone. (There are many reasons to avoid using melatonin as a sleep aid, but that’s a topic for another post.) When used in women with PCOS, supplementation at night has been shown to improve ovulation rates, corpus luteum formation, progesterone levels, and pregnancy rates for those who are trying to conceive. Melatonin supplementation also decreases hirsutism and androgen levels when used at 10 mg/night.
- Black Cohosh: As described in this post about fertility drugs, research has shown that dosing 20 mg daily of black cohosh at the beginning of the cycle modulates the LH surge during the follicular phase, improving rates of ovulation. This supplement also results in higher progesterone levels during the luteal phase, improving the thickness of the endometrial lining and supporting a luteal phase that is long enough for implantation and pregnancy in women who are trying to conceive.
As if the symptoms of PCOS aren’t difficult enough, the journey towards a diagnosis to explain the symptoms, and finding a treatment strategy that works for you in the context of your own life can add enormous loads of stress to an already challenging life experience. There is a whirlwind of information out there, which only adds to the confusion and frustration of trying to manage your health. It can be a lonely and scary place, but I want you to know that I am here to support you! If you need help navigating the waters of PCOS or another hormonal imbalance, I’m here for you. As always, please feel free to message me or send me an email at any time, and I’ll do my best to help you find answers. You can also check out my natural health services if you think you might benefit from individualized, one-on-one care.