Intro to PCOS: Symptoms, Types & Lifestyle Tips
Whether you’ve been diagnosed already or you’re just researching the condition, this guide acts as an intro to polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
We’ve worked with the team at Parla, who are a virtual support system for women’s wellness offering holistic, personalised care and online courses to create this article. Covering everything from what the condition is to tips on how to manage it, learn all about living with PCOS right here.
What is PCOS?
PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is one of the most common reproductive health conditions that affects women/people with ovaries. Ultimately, it affects how your ovaries work, having an impact on your periods and your male hormone levels. Some people with PCOS develop polycystic ovaries, which is where your ovaries become enlarged due to the follicles (fluid-filled sacs) surrounding the eggs.1 However, despite the name, not everyone with PCOS experiences this.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Since PCOS is classed as a ‘syndrome’, experiencing multiple symptoms is needed for a diagnosis. Generally speaking, PCOS symptoms tend to become apparent when you’re in your 20s.2
Some of the most common symptoms of PCOS include:2
- Irregular periods or no periods
- Difficulty getting pregnant due to irregular ovulation or lack of ovulation
- Excessive hair growth (hirsutism) – typically on the face, chest, back or buttocks Weight gain
- Thinning hair and hair loss from the head
- Oily skin or acne
Other PCOS symptoms that many people experience include:3
- Darkening of skin – usually under arms, breasts or the back of the neck
- Mood swings
- Pelvic discomfort
- Sleep issues
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Sugar cravings – due to blood sugar dysregulation
- High cholesterol
Remember though, everyone’s experience of PCOS can differ and this is sometimes because there are different types of PCOS, which we’ll explore next.
It’s important to arrange a chat with your GP if you are experiencing these symptoms, as they can indicate other conditions too.
Are there different PCOS types?
So, we’ve already stated that there are in fact different types of PCOS. But how many are there? And what are they called?
There are four different types:
This type of PCOS means that you’ll predominantly experience the symptoms associated with high androgen levels (male hormones), including blemishes on the cheeks, jawline and back, oily skin and coarse hair on the jawline, chest and stomach.4
This PCOS type is when the cells in your muscles, fat and liver don’t respond well to insulin and it can’t easily use glucose from your blood for energy.5
This then has a knock-on effect where your body creates more insulin to make up for it, which ends up staying in your blood - causing high blood sugar levels.6
You may find that you have frequent sugar cravings and sudden energy dips with this type of PCOS.
While inflammation can help our bodies to get better when we’re ill, low-level chronic inflammation means that our immune system reacts as if there is a threat – even when there isn’t necessarily one there.
This in turn can damage our cells, raise androgen levels and affect ovulation.7,8,9 Usually, people with this type of PCOS don’t experience insulin resistance but do show high levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) in blood tests, which is a sign of inflammation on the body.10
Coming off the pill can sometimes cause symptoms of PCOS like irregular periods and a rise in androgen levels. But it can also be that you had undiagnosed PCOS prior to going on the pill, but it could not be identified due to having a synthetic menstrual cycle.
To learn more about the different types of PCOS with a certified nutritionist and hormone health expert join Parla’s 6 week nutrition for PCOS programme.
Tips for living with PCOS
There are certain things you can do to try and manage your PCOS. Generally speaking, the most important areas to look at are exercise, nutrition, supplements and lifestyle choices. We’ll explain a bit more about these areas and the changes you can make that may have a positive impact on your health.
First up, exercise. It goes without saying that moving your body is key to a healthy lifestyle. But it may be especially important for people with PCOS.
Interestingly, exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on ovulation frequency and enhanced insulin sensitivity, and potentially help with psychological wellbeing.11,12 Guidelines from the study we just referenced recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week for people with PCOS.
Moderate exercise may be the best for people with PCOS, as high intensity movement may cause a spike in cortisol and adrenaline levels which can then increase insulin levels further.13,14 Think brisk walking, swimming, yoga or resistance training instead.
Another way you can try to manage PCOS is through your diet. It’s important to learn about nutrition to find out which dietary changes can have a positive effect. Try to opt for three nutritionally dense meals a day that all include a source of high-quality protein, fibre, greens and healthy fats. For some healthy meal inspiration, take a look at our recipes to find a range of balanced options.
Studies have shown that reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing protein has the potential to promote weight loss in people with PCOS.15 Additionally, researchers and The Association of British Dietitians have found that high-fibre diets are also beneficial for PCOS, as it could help with chronic inflammation, reproductive health, blood sugar management and gut health.16,17
When it comes to eating your greens, they’re particularly important as a lot of them contain something called DIM (diindolylmethane). This nutrient is believed to have anti-androgenic and estrogenic activity, which means it may help to reduce testosterone levels in people with high androgen PCOS.18 But the case study we’ve referenced also acknowledges that more robust evidence is needed, so it’s worthing bearing this in mind.
There are certain supplements that may be able to help with PCOS. For example, some studies suggest that myo-inositol and folate could help with some instances PCOS – and that when the two are combined, it may be as effective as traditional medication.19,20
Zinc supplements may be beneficial for people with high androgen PCOS, as studies have shown that it can have positive effects on hirsutism and alopecia.21,22 For people with inflammatory PCOS, glutathione, N-acetyl cysteine and ALA (Alpha Lipoic Acid) may be able to help as they’ve been found to possess anti-inflammatory properties, but more studies on people with this type of PCOS are needed to clarify.23,24,25
Smoking is well-known for its effects on our health, but people with PCOS may further benefit from quitting as it has been shown to aggravate insulin resistance and increase testosterone levels.26
Similarly, alcohol consumption can have a negative impact on hormone and blood sugar regulation, which subsequently causes high blood sugar levels.27 This is particularly concerning for people with insulin resistant PCOS.
And our last lifestyle tip for living with PCOS is to prioritise sleep. This is especially important as sleep loss can have a damaging impact on our health as it can raise inflammatory markers, which therefore exacerbates some PCOS symptoms.28,29
To learn more about how nutrition, lifestyle and supplements can help with PCOS symptoms directly from a certified nutritionist and hormone health expert, join Parla’s 6 week nutrition and PCOS programme.
The final say
The key to living with PCOS in a way that benefits your body is to make sure you’re making the right dietary and lifestyle choices to support your wellbeing. From making sure you’re having nutritious meals to prioritising good-quality sleep, we hope you’re feeling more confident about what PCOS is and how to manage it.
For more advice on managing your PCOS symptoms in a healthy and holistic way, join Parla’s programme.