Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, also commonly referred to as PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects as many as 5 million women of reproductive age in the U.S.—though it can occur at any age post-puberty. According to the CDC, PCOS is one of the most common causes of female infertility, and includes symptoms like irregular periods, excess androgen, polycystic ovaries and more.
Food, unsurprisingly, plays a huge part in how we feel and manage certain symptoms related to our overall health. PCOS is no exception! To learn more about how PCOS is connected to the food we eat, we sat down with Erica Armstrong, MD, IFMCP, Founder and CEO of Root Functional Medicine—a team of professionals who use food as medicine in their clinical programs and through their take-home meal service, Root Farmacy.
According to Dr. Armstrong, PCOS has a few different root causes, the most common being insulin resistance.
"Insulin's job is to take sugar from the blood and drive it into the cells that need it for energy. With insulin resistance, it takes more insulin to do the same job," Dr. Armstrong said. "Insulin levels in the blood are then higher, leading to weight gain, and sugar doesn't enter cells as efficiently, leading to sugar cravings."
Dr. Armstrong explained that women with PCOS are more likely to have certain nutrient deficiencies (think magnesium, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids). So it makes sense that having a nutrient-rich diet is vital for energy, regular hormone cycles, and in treating symptoms of PCOS like unwanted facial hair and acne. It can even help with insulin resistance, Dr. Armstrong said.
"We recommend balanced meals that contain protein, healthy fat and fiber," she said. "We also include foods that are anti-inflammatory, because PCOS nearly always has inflammation as a root cause. Inflammation can be coming from many factors, including lifestyle and gut health, as the majority of the immune system that produces inflammation is in the lining of the gut. Foods that are anti-inflammatory contain phytonutrients, which possess antioxidant properties and help to neutralize inflammation in the body."
Dr. Armstrong recommends fish, lean grass-fed animal proteins and fibrous foods as great anti-inflammatory options. And when asked about what foods those with PCOS should avoid, Dr. Armstrong is quick to share that the team at Root tries to focus more on the foods you should include, like making half of your plate non-starchy veggies. She recognizes, however, there are food sensitivities to be aware of.
"Especially in those with both PCOS and hypothyroidism, we tend to find gluten sensitivity, even if people don't have a diagnosis of celiac disease," said Dr. Armstrong, who recently wrote The PCOS Thyroid Connection, the first book published in the U.S. on the strong correlation between PCOS and hypothyroidism.
"The other most common sensitivity we see is dairy," she continued. "If there are unresolved symptoms, or suspicions for food sensitivity due to symptoms like brain fog, aches and pains or bloating after eating, we often will do a trial period with our members of removing gluten and dairy while assessing for symptom improvements."
Advice often given to women with PCOS is to try unsustainable diets that set them up for restriction—something Dr. Armstrong is passionate about changing.
"The most common one we see is the Keto diet. This tends to be very unsustainable for women with PCOS and leads to the restrict-binge cycle," Dr. Armstrong said. "Women with PCOS who have insulin resistance are prone to more food cravings because their cells are 'starving' for sugar, since the sugar is not getting into the cell as well. There are also delicate hormone balance issues that may be affected by the stress the Keto diet puts on the body. We work with women to create a long term sustainable diet, instead of the Keto diet."
You can learn more about Dr. Armstrong and the team at Root Functional Medicine by visiting rootfunctionalmedicine.com.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sep '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.