September 08, 2022 | By Heather Frame, BSN, RN
It’s certainly not breaking news that diet plays a huge role in impacting overall health. For women, what we eat has a significant impact on hormones and reproductive health.
This is especially true for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Since PCOS is driven by a hormonal imbalance and often associated with insulin resistance, a nourishing diet can have a positive impact on reducing symptoms as well as optimizing fertility.
How PCOS is affected by diet
Altering diet can not only make you feel better, but can improve various symptoms of PCOS, insulin sensitivity, hormone regulation, and fertility!
Women with PCOS often experience insulin resistance, meaning the body cannot efficiently regulate blood sugar levels. This inefficiency leads to increased levels of insulin within the body in an attempt to achieve blood sugar regulation following meals, ultimately storing more fat and leading to weight gain.
In addition to weight gain, high levels of insulin can also contribute to higher levels of male hormones, or androgens. The imbalance of male and female-dominant hormones can alter reproductive hormonal cycling which may lead to irregular ovulation and issues with menstrual cycles.
A significantly higher than average BMI (body mass index) has been shown to exacerbate PCOS symptoms, particularly insulin resistance, and negatively impact fertility. Around 60% of women who carry this diagnosis are overweight or obese. However, insulin resistance does not only affect women who are overweight – 75% of women with a lower BMI and 95% of women with a high BMI are affected by PCOS.
Diet to improve PCOS symptoms, fertility, and treatment success
Every woman is different and no one dietary strategy works for everyone – but choosing low glycemic index foods have been shown to improve fertility and decrease insulin resistance in women with PCOS. The digestive system breaks down these foods more slowly which allows for a gradual release of insulin which keeps you feeling full longer.
Include some of the following in your rotation of meals:
- Omega-3 fats such as salmon, tuna, trout, tofu, walnuts, flaxseed, and chia seeds
- Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils, and chickpeas
- Anti-inflammatory foods like kale, spinach, tomatoes, almonds, and walnuts
Increase antioxidants with the use of fresh herbs and spices while making food taste incredible
Limit or avoid:
Refined carbohydrates can cause inflammation and exacerbate insulin resistance, so opt for complex carbohydrates instead! If you are someone who can’t get your day started without caffeine – like most of us –, swap your current caffeine source for green tea – it has been shown to assist with weight loss and decreases BMI (body mass index), insulin resistance, and testosterone levels in women with PCOS.
Ditch those sodas and infuse your water with fresh fruits and a squeeze of lemon to stay hydrated as much as possible. If you’re missing the carbonation, sparkling water may satisfy that craving – there are many options to experiment with and still prioritize your health.
Remember, altering your diet doesn’t have to be restrictive and miserable. If your breakfast normally includes toasted white bread with butter, try swapping for whole-grain wheat toast topped with a smashed avocado and everything-but-the-bagel seasoning!
Studies have shown that following a low glycemic index diet improves regular ovulation in women with insulin resistance by 18% within just three months – imagine the difference when diet is combined with other lifestyle changes!
In addition to nourishing foods, one particular supplement, myo-inositol, has been studied at length in women with PCOS. It has shown to improve ovarian function and egg quality. This promising supplement works best when used over a long period of time in association with dietary changes and is definitely worth chatting with your doctor about.
Studies have shown that the use of metformin to treat PCOS in conjunction with proper diet increases efficacy. This aids in reducing PCOS symptoms, increasing weight loss, and likelihood of conceiving.
Other lifestyle changes to improve PCOS symptoms and fertility
There are so many aspects of our daily lives that impact hormones. Besides diet, other lifestyle changes also improve your PCOS symptoms.
Improve PCOS symptoms and fertility by:
- Maintaining a BMI between 20-25 for optimal fertility
- Getting at least 7 hours of sleep each night
- Managing stress in relaxing ways such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, or a favorite hobby
- Refraining from smoking and using drugs or THC-containing products
Lifestyle changes associated with a healthy diet can make PCOS more manageable while also making you feel better overall!
Living with PCOS
Change doesn’t happen overnight so please use our suggestions as a guide to optimizing your fertility with PCOS. Make a few changes at a time and experiment with new foods – have fun with it! Feeling overwhelmed? We are here to support you and help you achieve the pregnancy you are dreaming of! Schedule a virtual consultation with someone from our medical team to discuss any concerns you may have about navigating your fertility journey with PCOS in our Premom app.
Heather Frame is a compassionate Women's Health nurse. She specializes in obstetrics, postpartum, newborn care, and lactation counseling. She is committed to providing women the support they need to achieve pregnancy and thereafter. As a personal user of Premom, she can attest to how important charting your cycles is in conjunction with achieving pregnancy. She would love to help you navigate your fertility journey. Schedule a consultation with Nurse Heather right through your Premom app!
Effect of Long-Term Treatment with Metformin Added to Hypocaloric Diet on Body Composition, Fat Distribution, and Androgen and Insulin Levels in Abdominally Obese Women with and without the Polycystic Ovary Syndrome | The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism | Oxford Academic (oup.com)