Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “First, do no harm”. It’s a phrase used in medicine, and it refers to the physicians duty to consider first how any interventions or treatments may cause unnecessary harm when treating a patient.
When it comes to living with PCOS, I think that before we start trying to add new and helpful things into our diet or routine or supplement regimen, we first need to take a look at anything that needs to go. As helpful as improving our nutrition or anything else may be, if we are still clinging to things that are counter-productive, we may find that the results of our efforts are slower or less than we might hope for.
The list in this post may seem random at first glance, but these are all pieces of the puzzle, and unfortunately, balancing hormones is a fairly complex puzzle as anyone who has tried will attest to. The exciting thing, though, is that the pieces do start to come together and make incremental differences that will build upon each other and ultimately bring about real change and improvement!
To start us off, here are the first five of ten items I want to address, in no particular order:
In a very brief nutshell, here is the main issue with soy as it relates to PCOS:
- Soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the potential
to cause infertility and to promote breast cancer in adult women.
To read a fairly short and simple but helpful article on the effects of soy, including on hormones, see Soy: Is it Healthy or Harmful. As well, this Soy Alert! index at the Weston Price site (where the above statement was taken from) is a goldmine of articles addressing all of the various concerns with soy. I can’t say it strongly enough, but soy is NOT the health food that it is promoted to be! In my personal experience, I have previously been told to try using soy for my hormone issues, and it is evident within days that it is doing nothing but throwing me even further off balance, as I grow more irritable, tired, and begin to break out. Soy is a definite no-no, in my books!
2) Refined sugars and grains
I have only addressed it briefly so far, but a large part of the underlying problem in most women with PCOS is the way their body handles blood sugar and their insulin balance. Clearly eating more sugar only exacerbates this problem (particularly refined, white sugar, rather than whole food sweeteners such as fruits or even honey, which are lower on the Glycemic Index than white sugar). Eating foods high on the Glycemic Index (which are usually refined and/or sugary), causes your blood sugar to spike quickly, and then drop, influencing not only your hormones, but also your weight, mood, energy and more.
As for refined grains (source),
We know that eating too much sugar can lead to blood sugar imbalances.
Since white flour breaks down into sugar, it too can lead to blood
I often work with people suffering from blood sugar problems who try to defend
their diet by claiming that they don’t eat any sugar. Yet they have
a bagel for breakfast, pasta for lunch, pizza for dinner, and snack on pretzels
all day long–not realizing that even though those foods don’t
taste sweet, they quickly turn into sugar! As far as your blood sugar is
concerned, your body doesn’t know the difference between a teaspoon
of sugar and a slice of white bread!
Of interest: Replacing White Flour with Whole Grains in Four Simple Steps, Adjusting your Taste Buds Part 1, and Part 2, and Traditional Diets (an excellent overview of Weston Price’s findings and dietary suggestions)
3) Environmental Estrogens
These are chemicals (usually toxic) which act similarly to estrogen in our bodies. Technically, these environmental estrogens are called “xenoestrogens”, and they are a major problem because they mimic and disrupt hormones, and can actually trick the body into thinking that it has too many or not enough hormones, and can seriously mess with our delicate hormonal balance. Many of us have bodies that are on a bit of an estrogen overload, or have “estrogen dominance” as it is often referred to. Here is a great article which explains this concept.
A few specific places to avoid these xenoestrogens: pesticides, herbicides, conventional meat (given growth hormones), plastics (BPA, PCV, dioxin, etc.), fabric softener and dryer sheets, soy, beauty products (pthalates and petroleum-derived chemicals like parabens)
Some of the information out there is a bit sketchy, but these are some of the better lists that I was able to find of environmental estrogens and how to avoid them: Environmental Estrogens and Xenoestrogens Interfere with your Normal Hormones, and Health and Xenoestrogens (note- I don’t know much about either site, so be discerning- I’m recommending these sites/articles solely for their lists and info on what to avoid, nothing else). As well, here’s a good article from EWG on Nine Ways to Avoid Household Toxins. I know this is a lot of information and links, but take what you can from it and don’t stress out about the rest! You can always come back to look at it again later.
4) The Pill
Upon diagnosis of PCOS, most doctors will quickly pull out their prescription pad and suggest using the birth control pill to “regulate or establish regular menstrual cycles”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Though the Pill gives the appearance of a regular cycle, in actuality it is suppressing the natural hormones that cause a woman’s cycle to occur, and the bleeding that comes about at the end of the month is a false, withdrawal bleed, not the result of a completed menstrual cycle. This completely undermines our efforts against PCOS, as it suppresses and upsets the hormonal balance that we are trying so hard to re-establish. What we want to do, as I will discuss more in future posts, are things that will support a normal hormonal balance and thus a naturally occurring menstrual cycle, rather than one controlled by drugs!
In addition, the Pill has these (among many, many other) effects, that also fight against those of us with PCOS:
In Solved: The Riddle of Illness, Dr. Stephen Langer writes
that “the Pill. . . can cause severe bodily damage in hypothyroidism.” Oral contraceptives may aggravate insulin resistance and longterm
risk of diabetes and heart disease… Many women taking the Pill have reported weight gain–a sign
of estrogen dominance and/or insulin resistance–as well as depression
and even psychosis.
Excellent information on this topic in the article Rethinking Reproductive Health, and Just Say “No” to Birth Control Pills (and no, I’m not trying to give my opinion on what method of birth control to use, if anything, but am only trying to highlight some of the dangers of using the Pill specifically).
Forgetting for the moment all of the other reasons you know that coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) are bad for you, let’s focus on a few that may have a direct impact on PCOS:
- Coffee and other stimulants increase insulin levels, a definite negative for those struggling to control insulin and blood sugar levels
- In general, caffeine intake has been linked to lowered fertility rates (this is somewhat debated- there are stats on both sides of the debate)
- Caffeine contributes to acidity in the body (rather than neutral or slightly on the alkaline side as they should be). This acidity can impact hormonal balance.
- At the very least, caffeine minimizes absorption of important minerals and other nutrients, and can even cause our body to excrete (get rid of) excess nutrients through our urine. When trying to build a healthy body with a healthy hormonal balance, we want to keep every nutrient we take in!
Next week, I’ll cover the next 5 things to avoid, and then I’ll move on to some of the things that we want to add in to our diets, as well as lifestyle changes and supplements that can help!
For what it’s worth, to those who may be looking at this list and feeling discouraged, I don’t do it all perfectly. Out of these five and the next five, the two that I really struggle with the most are sugar and caffeine. I’ve mentioned before that I grew up eating a lot of junk, and with a real addiction to sugar and coffee. Old habits die hard. Though I have gone through long seasons (since working on my health) where I have been completely caffeine and/or sugar free, I have not managed to do either one continuously. At home, I find it easy to avoid sugar, but when out with friends, I struggle with saying no and feeling left out. When it comes to coffee, I find I can give it up pretty easily, but then when I move into seasons of extra stress and tiredness, I pick it back up as a comfort food and a way to cope with fatigue.
I am currently working to seriously cut both refined sugar and caffeine completely out of my diet once again, as I know full well the effects they have on my body. I hope it’s helpful to know that I’m not some sort of wonderwoman who finds this all to be a piece of cake. It’s natural to struggle to give some of these things up, but I want to encourage you (and myself) to keep pressing on and doing the best we can to steward our bodies and our health, for His glory!
6) Vegetarianism/ Low-Fat Diets
There are a few really good reasons to keep up your intake of both animal products and good fat sources in order to promote a healthy reproductive system:
- Being underweight can seriously compromise your cycle and fertility (and eating both vegetarian or low-fat can both contribute to having a BMI that is too low)
- There is growing evidence that low-fat dairy and diets in general contribute to decreased fertility
- Vitamin A is an incredibly important nutrient when it comes to healthy fertility and pregnancy (more on this to come), but despite all the hype about receiving it adequately through plant sources, it’s most usable form is found in (you guessed it) animal products and full fat dairy! Check out this Diet for Pregnant and Nursing Mothers, put together based on the traditional, cultural diets for women during their child-bearing years. These would be great suggestions to take to heart!
- These diets include insufficient (but absolutely necessary) dietary components such as good cholesterol, Vitamin D and essential fatty acids (all important for reproduction). See this article for more on how diet affects women’s reproductive health.
7) Conventional Tampons and Pads
Many women may have heard of more natural or reusable (cloth) products for women, but the reason is most often either for environmental concern, frugality, or comfort. What is unknown to many women is that both tampons and pads contain chemicals that are harmful to our bodies, including to our reproductive systems and also our level of fertility.
I mentioned last time that we need to be aware of environmental estrogens and do our best to avoid them, many of which are harmful chemicals found in food, beauty products and household products. So let’s just add tampons and pads to the list of products containing unwanted toxins, which is particularly concerning when you consider the close and prolonged contact these products have with vulnerable parts of our body. Most (except for the natural brands) contain high levels of chlorine, from bleaching. As well,
Chemicals in tampons include dioxin caused by bleached rayon, aluminium, alcohol, and additives which also produce dioxin. (source)
Dioxin is a particularly toxic chemical, quite possibly one of the most toxic out there, and any amount introduced to our bodies may be harmful. For a really good overview and a wealth of links on the topic, see this site. As well, there are links to reproductive and hormonal disorders specifically, such as this article on Tampons and Endometriosis, and this one on Dioxin and Male Sterility, and this EWG article which mentions the possible link between chemicals and reproductive system disruptions..
For more on the topic of women’s products and alternatives, as well as some more links to safety and health issues, see this previous post of mine.
8) Trans Fatty Acids
I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard that we should avoid trans fatty acids. So why should those with PCOS avoid them in particular? Two basic reasons:
- They’ve been connected to a decrease in the response of blood cells to insulin, which is not good news for those with diabetes or any other insulin related disorder. I mentioned last time that those with PCOS struggle to balance blood sugar and maintain correct insulin levels, so eating trans fats will only exacerbate this problem. (Sources- Here, here, and here)
- They also interfere with the conversion of omega 3 fatty acids, and can promote further deficiency of these all important fats, which most of us already struggle with as it is. As I mentioned above, EFA’s are important for a healthy reproductive system, as are all good fats. (Again, you can find more about this topic deep in the midst of this detailed interview of fats expert, Mary Enig, PhD).
As trans fat labeling laws are not yet ideal yet, don’t rely on the packaging to tell you whether or not they are present in a food. Look in the ingredients for the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” or even “shortening” before deciding to indulge.
9) Toxins in Food
Lastly, there is yet another area of toxic chemical exposure to examine, and that is sadly in our food. Here are a few ways that food additives, pesticides and contaminating chemicals have an effect on PCOS and hormone balance:
MSG/Aspartame– MSG is found is the great majority of packaged foods (see this list of names it goes by), and Aspartame is in chewing gum (nearly every brand!), diet sodas and other beverages, “sugar-free” treats, some candies, and more. “What causes PCOS… Excess intake of substances such as excitatory amino
acids, found in many food additives like MSG, aspartame,
glutamate, etc. that affect the pituitary regulation of
the ovary cycles” (source). As well, MSG intake greatly reduces the success of achieving pregnancy (source).
Pesticides– Many (DDT,
vinclozolin, endosulfan, toxaphene, dieldrin, and DBCP, to name a few) have hormone-like activity (source). Pesticides in general are thought to be endocrine disrupters (disrupting the work of the thyroid gland, which governs hormones), including Monsanto’s Roundup in particular (a very common pesticide). One study of 3 common farm fertilizers specifically showed endocrine/thyroid disruption. See my post on knowing what to buy organic, and also on washing your produce.
Where to go from here
Now that we’ve looked at some of the Don’ts of living with PCOS, I’m eager to move on to the Do’s! In the upcoming weeks, I’ll begin to take a look at important dietary changes and improvements to make, supplements to consider, as well as lifestyle tools that can have a positive impact.
For those who have been following this series so far, I hope that you’re beginning to be excited (and not discouraged) as we look at the information that is out there. Though there is work to be done, and things to be changed, I think it is hopeful to realize that improved health is not beyond our grasp. I don’t know about you, but I love to learn that there are actually things that I can do, and that I don’t have to live in passive acceptance of the status quo when it comes to my health!
Which things do you find the hardest to avoid? What do you think about these suggestions? Thoughts and/or suggestions from those who are already trying to put these things into practice?
What are your thoughts on these first five items? Which is most difficult for you? What strategies do you use for avoiding any of these items?