Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome: You're Not Alone

POSTED: 11:40 a.m. EST January 23, 2002

Terri Watson Brownlee, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N.

You've had trouble shedding those extra pounds, struggle with acne and your menstrual cycle is sporadic.

These are just a few of the multiple symptoms associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal imbalance that effects 3-10 percent of premenopausal women. The jury is still out on the exact cause, but researchers do know that women with PCOS do not respond normally to insulin.

After eating, insulin usually works to move glucose into the cells for energy, but with PCOS, glucose remains in circulation, causing the body to produce more insulin in order to normalize the blood glucose level. Many researchers feel this excess insulin stimulates overproduction of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone.

If untreated, women with PCOS are at a higher risk for infertility as well as longer-term complications such as diabetes or heart disease according to Dr. Samuel Thatcher, expert on the topic and author of PCOS, "The Hidden Epidemic."

Once diagnosed by your physician, the best treatment for PCOS is a multi-pronged approach that involves nutritional changes to promote weight loss as well as exercise and/or use of diabetic medications to help lessen the body's resistance to insulin. Weight loss is difficult, but not impossible, for women with PCOS and thus lies one of the biggest controversy in treating PCOS: which diet is best?

Popular diet books such as Atkins, Protein Power and The Carbohydrate Addicts Diet claim carbohydrate foods, such as breads, pastas and potatoes, cause excess insulin production and should be avoided in people with diabetes, obesity and now PCOS.

The truth according to Dr. Thatcher is composition of the diet "really might not matter." The trick is to find a nutrition plan that reduces calories without hunger. While a slight reduction in carbohydrate might be useful in reducing calories, elimination of these foods will not produce a sustainable way to eat and manage PCOS. In addition, these very low-carbohydrate diets cause the body to be in ketosis, which may be harmful if you are successful in becoming pregnant as the PCOS improves with weight loss.

So, the best advice is to work with your physician and dietitian. For a registered dietitian in your area, contact your local health care provider or use the locator service on the American Dietetic Association Web site, eatright.org.

The bottom line: If you have PCOS, you need specific dietary advice to meet your individual needs for calories, balance and a livable meal plan to control this syndrome for life!

Additional information is available from the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association Web site, PCOSupport.org/