Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a very common condition, affecting around 35 000 Australian women. It is an extremely common yet largely unnoticed condition. Many women with PCOS only find out they have it when they fail to get pregnant.

PCOS is due to a hormonal imbalance or insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is linked to both genetic and lifestyle factors. When the body’s insulin is not as effective because of this insulin resistance, the body compensates by making more and it’s this high level of insulin that compounds the problem. High insulin causes an increase in male hormones, such as testosterone, and also disrupts normal ovulation, causing small cysts to accumulate within the ovary.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of PCOS?

Although having multiple cysts on your ovaries is common, not everyone with cysts has PCOS and not everyone with PCOS has the same set of symptoms. If you have PCOS you may have:

  • Periods that are irregular, infrequent or heavy
  • Difficulty becoming pregnant
  • Immature ovarian eggs that do not ovulate, forming small follicles
  • Increase of fat in your upper body
  • Excessive facial hair
  • Acne on both the face and the body
  • Pre-diabetes or diabetes
  • Higher levels of blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides

Women with increased body weight have worsening symptoms

Up to 25% of the reproductive aged women have small cysts on the ovary. These women can have some, or all, of the above symptoms, but as many as 75% have no other symptoms. Those with cysts alone are described as having polycystic ovaries (disease), but no the polycystic ovarian syndrome.

The Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health and Monash University have confirmed that women with PCOS have higher levels of insulin, higher cholesterol levels and evidence of early blood vessel damage. Furthermore, women with PCOS have an up to a seven-fold increase in diabetes risk.

Women with PCOS should be regularly monitored by their GPs for pre-diabetes and diabetes. This involves an oral glucose tolerance test because a fasting blood glucose test may not be definitive in women with PCOS. Reference: The Jean Hailes Foundation for Women’s Health (Winter 2006).

Treatment for PCOS

You may have heard about or been told by your health professional to eat a low GI diet, but why exactly is this necessary?

Eat low GI – Low GI foods raise your blood sugar levels more slowly than high GI foods.

When you have polycystic ovary syndrome, it is vital to eat foods with a low GI. Because sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly with low GI foods, less insulin needs to be produced. Lower insulin is desirable because too much insulin can stimulate the production of testosterone, the male hormone that is responsible for many of the symptoms of PCOS such as acne, excess hair, scalp hair loss, and menstrual irregularities. It also has the effect of ‘switching off’ fat burning in cells, making it harder to lose weight.

Low GI eating can help to reduce your insulin levels and balance hormones, keep your energy levels stable for longer, and reduce sweet cravings. Try eating wholegrain breads, oats, apples, basmati rice, and sweet potato instead of potato. You can find out more about the GI by visiting www.glycemicindex.com.

Eat low GL – An advanced strategy is to also eat foods with a low GL, which is a low glycemic ‘load’. This takes into account both the GI of the food, plus the amount of carbohydrate (sugar) in the food. A low GL food is one that is 10 or below. You can calculate the GL by this formula;

(GI value x carbohydrates per serving) ÷ 100

(Formula courtesy of the book: ‘The new glucose revolution – Shopper’s guide to GI Values’, by Jennie Brand-Miller & Kaye Foster-Powell).