I’m a naturopathic physician, but I’m also a woman who had a hormonal imbalance called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and who comes from a family of women with PCOS. I’ve spent decades learning about this hormonal imbalance and treating women who have it. If women want to really turn PCOS around there are strategies that can improve symptoms, improve fertility, and set them up for better mental and physical health long term. There have been three major breakthroughs in our understanding of PCOS that have come about since I was diagnosed 30 years ago. Naturopathic physicians are leading the way to find real solutions to this issue, which is the number one cause of infertility in North America.
Firstly, I have to say that the name Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is a lousy name. Women with PCOS don’t even have to have cysts on their ovaries to get a diagnosis! A better name being proposed by experts in the field is Anovulatory Androgen Excess, meaning that these women have too many of the “male” hormones, or androgens, which can hijack the menstrual cycle so that it slows or stops, and ovulation is less likely. There are also receptors for androgens in the skin, which can result in acne and excess hair growth on the face and body. Lesser-known symptoms of PCOS are anxiety, depression, brain fog and increased risk for cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.
Secondly, there are several different types of women that can have these symptoms which we call PCOS, depending on what’s driving the issues. In women who may be slim and have inherited the issue the root of the problem is in the pituitary gland. These women tend to have normal blood sugar metabolism. In contrast, for some women, PCOS is very closely related to adult-onset or type 2 diabetes in that they have high insulin levels which drive up testosterone. The good news for these women is that normalizing body weight, eating a low-carb diet, and having regular exercise can make a real difference in their hormones.
The third breakthrough is that we’ve expanded the ideas around treating PCOS. It used to be that the only treatment was oral contraceptives. Yes, “the pill” can help control some symptoms. But it does nothing to restore fertility, reverse dark hair growth or teach women how to balance their hormones in a real and lasting way. My goal in working with women with PCOS is to engage them in a program that can do all those things and set them up for good long-term health. Firstly, I run blood tests to dig deeply into their hormones and blood sugar to see which type of PCOS they may have. Then we create an individualized program with diet, exercise, and stress management at its core. There are also herbs and natural medicines shown in clinical studies to balance hormones, reduce symptoms and help fertility. There are times when pharmaceuticals can help, especially when excess dark hair growth is the issue. When women with PCOS go off “the pill”, their symptoms come back. But with these other medications, the positive effects can remain after the pills have been stopped. I am so grateful that a naturopathic physician helped me get a handle on my PCOS 30 years ago and I have learned so much in helping my own daughter and many other women manage their PCOS with the help of our modern understanding of this complex condition.