Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or “multiple ovarian cysts” affect many teenage girls and adult women. PCOS often begins shortly after puberty and can persist for years. It can be a frustrating, and sometimes painful condition. It can also make becoming pregnant difficult. However, there are natural treatment options available that are safe and effective even for teenaged girls.
What are ovarian cysts?
Ovarian cysts are formed when ovulation doesn’t occur as it is supposed to. Within each ovary there are sacs called follicles that contain eggs. Normally, one or more eggs are released during each menstrual cycle – this is ovulation. In PCOS the eggs within the follicles do not mature and are not released from the ovaries. Instead, they form small cysts in the ovary – ovarian cysts.
How do I know if I have PCOS?
Having ovarian cysts is not enough for a diagnosis of polycystic ovaries. You also must have other symptoms of PCOS. Typically a combination of the following symptoms is present:
- Ovarian cysts
- No menstrual cycle, irregular or infrequent menstrual cycles
- No ovulation
- Hair growth on the upper lip or chin
- Hair loss from the head
- Body fat around the waistline
- Dark skin under the armpits, neck, groin or breasts
If you have symptoms of PCOS there are laboratory tests and ultrasound studies that should be done before a diagnosis of PCOS is made.
What causes PCOS?
PCOS is caused by hormonal imbalances. An imbalance in a number of different hormones can lead to symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome. Imbalances in the pituitary, ovaries, pancreatic and adrenal hormones have all been linked to PCOS. Insulin resistance (a lack of responsiveness to insulin in the cells of your body) is an important factor in the development of PCOS. Hormone testing should be done to identify your personal imbalances.
PCOS also has a genetic component – if a family member has it (your mother, aunt or grandmother) then you are more likely to develop it.
What treatments are available for PCOS?
With proper diagnosis and treatment, most PCOS symptoms can be effectively managed or eliminated. The goals for PCOS treatment are to balance hormone levels, decrease insulin resistance and maintain a healthy body weight.
Most Medical Doctors will prescribe a daily birth control pill to manage PCOS. This approach uses synthetic hormones to artificially ‘balance’ the body’s hormones. Naturopathic Doctors use diet, vitamins, minerals, herbs and natural supplements to correct the body’s balance and teach it how to maintain balance without using drugs.
Because of the association between being overweight and having PCOS it is important to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Losing as little as 5% of body weight can correct insulin resistance and decrease elevated hormone levels (specifically testosterone).
Select foods that are low on the glycemic index and high in fiber to decrease insulin resistance. Daily exercise is also important for insulin resistance. A daily fiber supplement can help some people meet their daily fiber goals. Look for a fiber made from psyllium, guar gum or pectin.
Consider taking an omega 3 supplement (either fish oil or flax seed oil) and avoid consuming saturated fats. For more information on omega 3 fatty acids read the article here.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamin B6 can help balance prolactin levels, which are often elevated in PCOS. B vitamins are also necessary for dopamine synthesis and adrenal hormone production.
Chromium is necessary for proper blood sugar regulation. Taking chromium increases the uptake of glucose into cells, decreasing insulin resistance.
Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) is a very effective hormone balancer for PCOS. Saw palmetto decreases the conversion of testosterone to its more biologically active form (dihydroxytestosterone or DHT). This results in lower levels of circulating testosterone. Saw palmetto is effective in addressing symptoms of acne, hair loss, and facial hair growth.
Chasteberry (Vitex agnus-castus) is another herb used for PCOS. Chasteberry inhibits prolactin synthesis and raises progesterone levels restoring balance to two important hormones involved in the menstrual cycle. Low progesterone levels are very common during puberty and are known to contribute to the formation of ovarian cysts.
Additional natural supplements may be prescribed by your Naturopathic Doctor to address your individual imbalances. One natural supplement that is often used for PCOS is inositol (d-chiro-inositol). A deficiency of inositol is often seen in women with PCOS. Inositol has many benefits for PCOS – it decreases insulin and insulin resistance, decreases testosterone levels and can help promote regular ovulation.
Natural treatment of PCOS can take some time, and a focused effort. A minimum of three menstrual cycles is usually needed to allow for the hormones to become balanced. Your Naturopathic Doctor will provide you with support and can modify your treatment plan as needed based on your symptoms. Remember to inform your Naturopathic Doctor if you begin taking any prescription or over-the-counter medications during your treatment because there can be significant interactions between natural supplements and drugs.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.