Functional medicine approach to PCOS

The Functional Medicine Approach to PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects as many as 5 million women in the USA alone. It’s a condition which is considered to be a leading cause of infertility.

But what is PCOS and how can it be treated? 

Here we look at PCOS, what causes it and why a functional medicine approach can be critical in treating the condition over the long term.

What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

This is a medical condition in which the ovaries produce a larger than normal amount of male hormones or androgens. It affects females typically between the ages of 14 and 44. 

The ovaries are the female reproductive organs and release amounts of estrogen and progesterone. Women in normal health also produce a very small level of male hormones. Ovulation, where the ovaries produce eggs that can then be fertilized by the male sperm, is controlled by a follicle-stimulating hormone which is released by the pituitary gland. 

With PCOS, cysts develop in the ovaries, each of which contains an egg. The presence of higher levels of male hormones prevents these cells from maturing and there is often chronic disruption to the menstrual cycle.

What Causes PCOS?

The exact cause of PCOS is unknown but the high levels of male hormone essentially mean that the individual cannot create healthy eggs. 

Almost 70% of women diagnosed with PCOS will have insulin resistance, generally seen as a precursor to developing type 2 diabetes

Insulin is produced by the pancreas and plays a role in converting sugar to be stored as fat. In overweight and obese people, the body tries to compensate by making more and more insulin. This in turn can lead to the higher production of male hormones in the ovaries. 

Women with PCOS are also more likely to show increased inflammation though this may be a result of being overweight. Inflammation can also cause higher androgen levels.

Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

There are some common symptoms for women suffering from PCOS:

  • Periods may be irregular because there is little or no ovulation. 
  • In some cases, women may suffer periods with heavy bleeding as the uterine lining builds up over a longer period and then sheds. 
  • As many as 70% of women will exhibit more hair growth on the body and face. 
  • Other symptoms include weight gain, headaches, acne and even male pattern baldness.

How is PCOS Diagnosed?

The first step in diagnosis is a physical examination for visible symptoms that may suggest the presence of PCOS. This could include whether a patient has developed acne, has additional hair growth or dark spots on the skin. 

Blood tests and ultrasound scans will reveal more. If cysts are present in the uterus, androgen levels are high and the patient has irregular periods, then PCOS may be diagnosed.

The Functional Medicine Approach to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

A conventional medical approach to a condition such as PCOS is often to treat the symptoms by taking, for example, birth control pills to normalize female hormone levels. Metformin can be used to treat diabetes if present and clomiphene is a fertility drug that is often prescribed if someone is trying to get pregnant. 

Increasingly however, physicians and health care providers take a functional medicine approach. This approach looks to examine the root cause of the condition rather than solely trying to manage the symptoms. In this case, a full medical history of the individual is taken into account. A variety of different tests will be undertaken and a personalized treatment plan will be developed for the patient. 

If the PCOS is caused by insulin resistance or the individual has diabetes, lifestyle changes can make a big difference. This means switching to a healthier diet and losing weight for many women who have been diagnosed as well as getting more exercise. 

There may be other factors that are involved in a condition such as PCOS as it affects multiple systems in the body. Some patients, for example, may suffer from chronic stress which affects their hormone levels and eating habits. Treatment involving meditation or relaxation techniques may help to overcome the stress and live a healthier lifestyle. 

An individual affected by PCOS may even have less than adequate levels of vital nutrients and boosting these can also make a difference. The key aspect of the functional medicine approach is that the patient is seen as an individual and the care they are provided is delivered to meet their unique needs. 

Considering the root cause of the issue and introducing natural lifestyle changes for patients diagnosed with PCOS, rather than only treating the symptoms with medication, can help to manage the condition in a more sustained and effective way.