Treating PCOS can be incredibly distressing – as you may well know from personal experience.
Symptoms vary from person to person, therefore, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing PCOS symptoms.
Medication can be very helpful in treating PCOS symptoms. But, increasingly, experts are recommending lifestyle modifications (often alongside taking medication) in order to better manage symptoms.
So, what lifestyle changes are worth exploring to help you manage PCOS symptoms? And, importantly, do they even work?
Can lifestyle changes reverse PCOS?
We really hate to be the bearer of bad news but, unfortunately, no. Lifestyle changes cannot reverse PCOS.
There is, as you may well be aware, no cure for PCOS. But, that said, research has found that lifestyle changes can help to manage some symptoms.
Bear in mind that everybody’s experience with PCOS is different, and some experience more or varying symptoms than others. It’s important, therefore, to find treatment options and lifestyle modifications that help you feel your best.
4 lifestyle changes that can help with PCOS management
1. Tweaking your diet
Diet plays a big part in helping manage PCOS symptoms.
As many as 65-70% of people with PCOS have insulin resistance. If you have insulin resistance, your body can’t use insulin as effectively as it should. Your cells can’t accept glucose from your blood as easily, and so your body produces more insulin in an attempt to help transport sugar from the bloodstream to your cells.
Elevated levels of insulin is thought to increase levels of “male” hormones (like testosterone) in people with PCOS, which can exacerbate symptoms and increase the risk of complications.
A balanced diet full of nutritious foods can help to manage PCOS symptoms – and it doesn’t need to be complex, either.
In fact, the Eatwell Guide is a great place to start. Studies have also found that a low glycaemic index (GI) diet, where wholegrains are eaten in place of refined carbohydrates, can be beneficial for people with PCOS, as it could help to reduce insulin resistance and regulate periods. The Mediterranean diet is another good option for people with PCOS.
Be mindful, though, that no one diet will suit everybody, and that the aforementioned diets are simply guides for getting started. It’s also worth noting that people with PCOS tend to be low on certain vitamins and minerals, such as magnesium, zinc, and iron, so be sure to consult your GP or get advice from a dietitian or nutritionist before making any big diet adjustments.
2. Increasing movement
Exercise is invaluable for helping to manage PCOS symptoms.
Why? Well, for starters, research suggests that regular physical activity reduces the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
There’s also some evidence to suggest that it could help to improve ovulation, too. One study which attempted to explore the effects of exercise on people with PCOS found that participants experienced improved ovulation following a period of 12-24 weeks of regular physical activity. And the best bit? There appeared no connection between the type of exercise, duration, or frequency and the improvements.
In addition, physical activity can help to improve your mood and sleep quality, and reduce your risk of developing serious illnesses, too.
The best type of exercise for people with PCOS is exercise that’s enjoyable. So, experiment with different types of movement and see which you like best.
Try steady-state cardio (cycling, walking, rowing, jogging), strength training, yoga, or HIIT (high intensity interval training) to start with.
3. Keeping stress to a minimum
Excessive cortisol doesn’t do anybody any favours, but elevated stress levels are exceptionally unhelpful for people with PCOS, as they can worsen symptoms.
Keep stress levels to a minimum by incorporating calming activities into your daily routine. You could try yoga, meditation, breathwork, journalling, walking, reading, or socialising with friends – anything that helps to ease feelings of stress.
4. Improving sleep quality
Some clinic-based studies suggest that sleep disturbances and disorders, such as sleep apnea and excessive daytime drowsiness, occur more frequently in people who have PCOS than those who don’t.
Why? Well, it's thought that there could be a number of reasons, including insulin resistance, possible changes in cortisol (the primary stress hormone), and melatonin (which influences your sleep pattern), plus behavioural (smoking and drinking alcohol, for example) and psychological factors, too. Anxiety and depression, for instance, are both common in people with PCOS, and are known to affect sleep quality.
Good quality sleep can improve your mood, aid recovery, improve immunity, and reduce your risk of serious illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. It can also help in managing PCOS symptoms.
To improve your sleep quality, get into the habit of following a nighttime routine. Turn devices off an hour or so before bed, get tucked up at the same time every night, and enjoy a calming activity (think: reading, journaling, meditating) before drifting off.
Everyone has different sleep requirements in order to feel their best, but 8 hours a night tends to be a good amount to aim for.