By Mahalia Freed ND
This article highlights a common women’s health concern seen in my practice. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, affects not only reproductive health and fertility, but also cardiovascular health.
Definition and Clinical Consequences
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a label referring to a complex and broad health picture. PCOS is diagnosed by presence of two of the following three things: (i) irregular ovulation or absence of ovulation, (ii) clinical and/or biochemical signs of high testosterone, and/or (iii) polycystic ovaries seen on ultrasound. While presentation varies, the most common clinical manifestations are infertility, male pattern hair growth, obesity, and absent or infrequent menses. However, these concerns represent only the tip of the iceberg with respect to the PCOS picture. Less obvious consequence of PCOS lie below the surface. Women and transgendered men who have PCOS are at risk for hypertension, insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, type II diabetes, and abnormalities in blood lipids such as elevated triglycerides and oxidized cholesterol. Additional complications include increased risk of endometrial (uterine) cancer, an altered (increased) stress response, and difficulty maintaining or attaining desired body weight compared to people who do not have PCOS. Finally, there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Linking Heart Disease and PCOS
Metabolic Syndrome, or Syndrome X, is defined by a constellation of factors including obesity (30-60% of women with PCOS are obese), insulin resistance, hypertension, and the blood lipid abnormalities mentioned above. Each of these items is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and each is commonly found in women and trans men with PCOS.
While biochemically complicated, and clinically variable, PCOS and associated risk factors are well-addressed via the individual, holistic, preventive approach to health care embodied by naturopathic medicine. According to one article published in the US journal Cardiology Review (2006), “the key elements involved in managing… metabolic syndrome are dietary and lifestyle modification”. Diet and lifestyle – the cornerstones naturopathic practice! Additionally, there are a variety of evidence-based naturopathic treatment options available to address an individual’s cardiac risk factors, along with their other presenting concerns.
Depending on the person, naturopathic treatment goals may include decreasing free testosterone, regulating blood sugar, decreasing insulin resistance, inducing regular ovulatory menstrual cycles, changing the profile of blood lipids, and reducing elevated blood pressure. In practice, I address individual risk factors via therapeutic diet plans, lifestyle modifications, and a range of specific herbs and supplements as indicated.
What can you do?
The 2 best things you can do for yourself, whether you have a diagnosis of PCOS or not:
- Exercise: 5 –7 days a week. With PCOS, ideally 30 minutes or more of aerobic exercise per day. Exercising (even 3 days a week) is a well-proven way of reducing your risk of everything from diabetes and heart disease to colon cancer and breast cancer. Exercise improves mood, making it part of the treatment for both PMS and depression. Find something fun, get out there and move your body!
- Eat well: dietary fibre (from whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and ground flax seeds) and dietary antioxidants & other nutrients (from vegetables, fruits, nuts & seeds) are irreplaceably important in regulating blood sugar, maintaining healthy blood vessels, and even in correcting hormone imbalances. Eat more whole foods, try to make a rainbow on your plate at every meal. Need inspiration? Ask for cookbook and recipe suggestions.
Need more individual advice? Ready for a comprehensive preventive treatment plan? Consult with Mahalia Freed for a personalized assessment and treatment protocol.