Over the years, I’ve seen countless women at their end of their rope with a constellation of seemingly unrelated symptoms — irregular periods, skin issues, excess abdominal fat, hair growing in places it shouldn’t and falling out in the places it should grow abundantly. They had been to doctor after doctor, and no one could tell them what was going on. It left them dejected and frustrated, and their doctors scratching their heads.
Turns out, all these symptoms are the result of one condition. And it’s one that has gone almost completely unrecognized for years. The good news is, it’s finally getting a bit more attention. But, unfortunately, it’s still being looked at only through a very narrow lens.
I’m talking about polycystic ovarian syndrome — or PCOS, for short.
One of the biggest problems with PCOS is that it’s typically only recognized as a problem in women of childbearing age. This misconception occurs because some of the hallmark symptoms of PCOS go away when a woman reaches menopause and fertility and menstrual issues are no longer a concern. But the fact is, the condition itself is still there — and it’s still wreaking havoc.
The issues that PCOS causes in later life may be different, but they are just as concerning. In fact, some of the impacts PCOS has on older women are even more alarming than the ones women face earlier in life.
I’ll tell you more about why PCOS is a serious concern for women past childbearing age in just a moment, but first let me give you a little background on what we know about this often-overlooked condition.
What is PCOS?
The name of the condition — polycystic (meaning “many cysts”) ovarian syndrome gives you a clue to one of its typical presentations. Many women who have PCOS, though not all, have a number of small, noncancerous cysts on their ovaries.
But more and more experts are realizing that those cysts aren’t the main hallmark of the condition. Instead, the wide array of problems caused by PCOS all come from a different root cause: hormonal imbalance. And we’re not just talking about one hormone, either.
Women with PCOS condition tend to have high levels of “male” hormones, such as testosterone. In addition, it’s often accompanied by insulin resistance.
The excess male hormones cause some of the more visible symptoms of PCOS, such as hair growth on the face and body, thinning hair, skin issues, and irregular periods. Some women with PCOS will go many months without a period; others don’t menstruate at all.
Those women who have PCOS with insulin resistance are likely to struggle with their weight — especially around the middle. Cravings for carbs, as well as episodes of low blood sugar, are also common.
Despite these seemingly obvious symptoms, a lot of women go years — or even their whole lives — not realizing they have PCOS. In fact, if they do get an official diagnosis, it’s usually not until they decide to try to start a family. PCOS sufferers often have a very hard time getting pregnant, if they’re able to get pregnant at all.
But as I mentioned above, PCOS has only recently gained attention by mainstream medicine. So more women in their childbearing years are getting diagnosed. But where does that leave women who are past their childbearing years? These women may have had PCOS their entire lives and never received an official diagnosis.
I have had many patients come into my practice with similar stories. They had trouble conceiving. Many had few (if any) children, despite years of trying. Now, as they get older, they’re having a harder time losing weight. They suffer from bloating, gas, headaches, and brain fog. When I examine them, I usually discover excess hair growth they’ve probably forgotten about — say on the stomach — or they admit they have hair that they pluck from their chin regularly.
And right away, I know that they have PCOS. And that we need to do something about it.
Risks beyond the reproductive years
It’s a shame that PCOS goes largely ignored later in life, because that’s when it really starts to become dangerous. The years of hormonal dysfunction and insulin resistance begin to take their toll, and suddenly women find themselves at increased risk for a number of truly concerning diagnoses. That’s why it’s so important to treat the root cause of PCOS — regardless of a woman’s age.
Here are just a few of the health issues that have been linked to PCOS in later years.
Type 2 diabetes. Middle-aged women with PCOS are almost 7 times as likely as the general population to develop type 2 diabetes. Those with greater waist circumference or BMI and those with a family history of diabetes are at the highest risk. What’s more, the evolution from impaired glucose tolerance to full-blown diabetes is faster in women with PCOS. If you have PCOS, be sure to get checked early and often for impaired glucose tolerance. And if your scores aren’t where they should be, take the steps necessary to get your PCOS in check. I’ll tell you how in just a bit.
Heart disease. Among women over the age of 65, heart attack and chest pain prevalence are 2.6 times higher in those with PCOS. In fact, when it’s paired with chronic inflammation (another commonly overlooked condition), PCOS is downright deadly. Risk of death from cardiovascular disease or a heart attack is more than 12 times higher for women with both PCOS and elevated levels of inflammation than PCOS sufferers with lower levels of inflammation. (Many of the recommendations for combatting PCOS will also help curb inflammation. But for more on this topic, see the article on page X, or the June 2012 issue. You can download and view this issue for free by logging in to the Subscriber area of my website, www.drpescatore.com, with your username and password.)
Alzheimer’s disease. The link between PCOS and Alzheimer’s is less clear, but both conditions share some underlying features. For example, PCOS sufferers tend to have low levels of the hormone adiponectin. Studies have proven time and again that adiponectin is essential in protecting the brain as it ages. So if your levels are low, as they commonly are with PCOS, your brain is left unguarded.
My “whole-person” plan for reversing PCOS
The good news about PCOS is that it’s largely controllable with diet, lifestyle, and a few safe and effective medications and supplements. Here’s what I recommend to any woman who suffers from PCOS.
Weight loss is one of the most well-researched ways to address PCOS. And I’m not talking huge amounts of weight loss. Just dropping 5 to 10 percent of body weight has been shown to improve the metabolic issues associated with PCOS. That means if you weigh 160 pounds, you would just need to lose 8 to 16 pounds to see a difference. A challenge? Sure. But not an insurmountable one, if you know how to eat right.
I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but it’s super important, especially for PCOS: Your first step needs to be to cut sugar. A low-glycemic index diet has been proven effective in PCOS — both for shedding pounds and improving insulin sensitivity.
Step two: Eat more protein. Even without cutting calories, you’ll lose weight and body fat if you just allocate more of your calories to protein.
Step three: Focus on anti-inflammatory foods. As I mentioned, inflammation and PCOS are a deadly combination. Eat more vegetables and omega-3 fats, both of which are good for squelching inflammation.
For a comprehensive guide that will lead you through the healthy-diet/weight-loss process, step-by-step, check out my new book The A-List Diet. It comes out later this month (on April 25th), but you can pre-order a copy now by visiting www.AListDietBook.com.
Exercise helps in numerous ways to combat the damaging effects of PCOS. Obviously it helps with maintaining a healthy weight. But regular exercise also improves insulin sensitivity on its own, with or without weight loss. Plus, it’s been shown to reduce chronic inflammation.
In addition to exercise, be sure to manage stress, avoid toxins (which are well-known to disrupt hormones), and get enough sleep. These are practices that will not only help with your PCOS, but will keep you in better health overall.
Believe it or not, there are some good drugs for PCOS. I know, I know, it sounds strange to hear me advocating pharmaceuticals, but there are cases in which they’re useful and safe. This is one of them. I don’t hesitate to recommend the two drugs commonly used for PCOS — metformin (500 mg twice daily) and the diuretic spironolactone (2 tablets twice daily).
But unlike a lot of other doctors, I don’t rely on pharmaceuticals alone. There are also a number of natural supplements that have a proven track record for PCOS.
For instance, a double-blind trial showed that coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) “resulted in lower glucose, insulin, insulin resistance, and total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in those who received the supplement compared with a placebo group.” I recommend 100 mg of CoQ10 twice a day.
Taurine is another nutrient offers enormous benefit to women struggling with PCOS. Research on PCOS patients shows supplementing with taurine lowers blood pressure, raises HDL (good) cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, and boosts metabolism. I recommend 1,000 mg of taurine twice a day.
Another one of my go-to recommendations for PCOS is carnitine. Studies have reported that women with PCOS have much lower levels of this critical amino acid. And one recent clinical trial of 60 overweight PCOS patients showed that those who took 250 mg of carnitine for 12 weeks had significant drops in weight, BMI, and waist and hip measurements. Which would be impressive by itself. But carnitine also lowered fasting blood sugar and insulin levels significantly compared with placebo.
Of course, I also recommend taking a good quality blood sugar support formula. You can read about my top choice in this category in the April 2015 issue of Logical Health Alternatives (you can download and view this issue for free by logging in to the Subscriber area of www.drpescatore.com with your username and password).
Remember, if you have any symptoms of PCOS — stubborn weight gain, a history of fertility issues or irregular periods, thinning hair (as well as hairs that you need to pluck) — you should see a doctor. Even if you’re past the point of family planning. The effects of unchecked PCOS are simply too severe to be ignored, and that’s true for women of any age.
But the good news is that this is one of those conditions that really can be controlled. You can reduce your risks of diabetes, heart disease, and more — and all without risky medications.
Six simple steps that will help you sideline PCOS for good
As I said, the best way to combat PCOS is to take a whole-body approach. Here are six simple steps that will help you do that:
- Lose weight by following a healthy, low-carb, high-protein diet. (For step-by-step advice on how to put the newest weight-loss science to work for you, be sure to read my new book The A-List Diet when it comes out later this month!)
- Exercise. Start with a simple 15 or 20 minute walk every day. Once again, every little bit counts!
- Avoid toxins. And keep your body as “clean” as possible with regular detoxes. For my simple detox program, refer back to the September 2013 issue.
- Get the right amount of quality sleep. If insomnia or other sleep disturbances are a recurring problem for you, don’t ignore it! In fact, sleep is such a critical component of optimal health that I’ve put together an in-depth protocol that will help you solve any sleep issues you might be struggling with — once and for all. You can learn more about my Perfect Sleep Protocol (or enroll today) by clicking here or by calling (866)747-9421 and asking for order code EOV3T402.
- Don’t be afraid to take medications. Unlike a lot of drugs, the pharmaceuticals prescribed for PCOS are safe and effective. I often recommend metformin and spironolactone to my PCOS patients.
- Support your efforts with the right supplements. My PCOS regimen includes:
- CoQ10 — 500 mg twice a day
- Taurine — 1,000 mg twice a day
- Carnitine — 2,000 mg twice a day
- A high-quality blood sugar support formula. (For my top pick, see the April 2015 issue.)