Another health condition that is heavily impacted by sugar consumption is PCOS. Sugar contributes to this condition via a few different mechanisms, and a healthy lifestyle that is free from added sugars can help to manage PCOS symptoms.
What Is PCOS?
PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is a common condition (6-12% of US women of childbearing age have it) that is characterized by irregular menstrual cycles, excess androgen hormones, or polycystic ovaries. Common symptoms include long or irregular cycles, lack of ovulation, excess facial or body hair, acne, infertility, weight gain, skin tags, and dark patches of skin. The exact causes of PCOS are unknown, but if left untreated, complications include:
- Metabolic Syndrome
- Fatty Liver Disease
- Prediabetes or type 2 diabetes
- Sleep apnea
- Uterine cancer
- Heart disease
As you can see, these health complications can have very serious consequences, so understanding how to manage PCOS is essential for health and longevity.
How Does Sugar Impact PCOS?
One major factor in the management of PCOS is sugar consumption.
Insulin resistance seems to play a role in the production of excess androgen/male hormones. When blood sugar levels rise, insulin is produced so cells can take in and use glucose from the blood. Over time, cells can become insulin resistant, causing accumulation of both sugar and insulin in the blood. This extra insulin can cause extra male hormones to be produced, contributing to PCOS and ovulation problems. It also works in the other direction – the presence of high levels of testosterone can stimulate insulin production and eventually cause insulin resistance. Essentially, insulin resistance increases the risk of PCOS and vice versa.
Additionally, sugar can exacerbate or contribute to PCOS via inflammation. Sugar consumption can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, and inflammation can stimulate ovaries to produce androgens. This can worsen PCOS symptoms and even cause damage to the cardiovascular system.
Sugar cravings are a common complaint from women with PCOS, even though sugar is exactly what you shouldn’t be eating if you suffer from the disorder. Because of the excess insulin in the system, these cravings are worsened, creating a difficult cycle of cravings and worsening symptoms.
PCOS and Obesity
One of the hallmarks of PCOS is weight gain. Obesity often goes hand in hand with PCOS and can worsen symptoms and complications of the disease. One study found that over 80% of women with PCOS in the US will suffer from obesity at some point. This is another tricky cycle, with PCOS predisposing women to obesity and obesity worsening PCOS symptoms. Since high-sugar diets contribute to the prevalence of obesity in the US, keeping sugar consumption to a minimum can be helpful on both fronts.
PCOS and Diabetes
There is also a lot of overlap between PCOS and diabetes. In fact, more than half of women diagnosed with PCOS will develop type 2 diabetes by age 40. Obviously, the insulin resistance mechanism causes this overlap, and sugar consumption and unhealthy lifestyle choices can contribute to this lack of insulin sensitivity (and resulting health conditions). Controlling blood sugar is an effective way to manage PCOS symptoms and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes.
For the management of PCOS, doctors recommend:
- A healthy diet low in refined sugar
- Smaller meals throughout the day for more consistent blood sugar levels
- Physical activity for weight and symptom management
- Medications (including birth control pills, ovulation stimulating meds if trying for pregnancy, diabetes medications, or meds to treat symptoms like acne)
Like with many common health conditions in this day and age, choosing a healthy lifestyle that is high in nutritious foods and low in added sugars is an essential component of PCOS management. By making healthy choices and fueling your body in a natural and healthy way, you can prevent and manage a variety of health problems.