Body Health

PCOS: Is Vitamin D what’s missing?

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I’ve been dealing with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) for well over a decade now. As a teen, I was referred to an endocrinologist – a hormone specialist – due to a combination of high testosterone levels, ovarian cysts, hirsutism, general tiredness, hormonal acne and extra weight gain around the tummy area.

PCOS is always attributed to a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices, resulting in the adrenal glands and/or ovaries typically producing more androgens/male hormones than normal which creates a range of symptoms that can vary with each woman. Doctors often advise to eat healthier and exercise more, but after experiencing it first-hand and also seeing clients and friends battle with ongoing symptoms, I know that treating it involves far more than just food and fitness.

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Vitamins and hormones: What’s missing?

I caught up with a good friend of mine who also has PCOS the other day, and she mentioned she’d been doing her own research into causes and treatments for it. As my symptoms have been in check for so long, I haven’t looked into the latest research for ages. Interestingly, there is now a theory that links Vitamin D deficiency with PCOS. This vitamin deficiency has also been linked with adrenal fatigue, and as PCOS is an illness that also commonly affects the adrenal glands it would be no wonder that some of the symptoms are similar.

The adrenal glands sit on top of each kidney and secrete three hormones which help dictate much of what happens in your body including metabolism, the immune system. Your adrenal glands can also be tied in with the pituitary gland and hypothalamus which are situated in the brain and regulate hormone production. This means that when your adrenals are out of whack, a lot of varied body functions can be affected.

There used to be a theory that Vitamin B12 deficiency was linked to PCOS; as it turns out, this may actually be caused by a lack of Vitamin D. Cells in the stomach have Vitamin D receptors which make ‘intrinsic factor’ – a glycoprotein that is necessary for the absorption of B12. Magnesium supplementation is also sometimes prescribed as a treatment for PCOS and adrenal fatigue, and magnesium is needed to convert Vitamin D into it’s active form in the blood. When Vitamin D levels are low, intrinsic factor production is also low which would lead to the B12 deficiency. There does seem to be a connection between them all.

Whether Vitamin D deficiency contributes to PCOS, or something happens to the stomach cells that reduces their capacity as Vitamin D receptors, or whether PCOS causes Vitamin D deficiency still appears to be unknown.  Regardless, simply taking a Vitamin D supplement doesn’t seem to fix PCOS symptoms. It may also possibly be tied in with gut health and immunity.

Different hormones and the receptors in our body can be so intertwined it may need much more research before this theory has more depth. There are many other factors involved, and every individual case of PCOS has differing symptoms, which means PCOS is far more complex than one simple fix.

What seems to work best

As far as diet and exercise go, what I’ve found is that healthy nutrition with plenty of low-fat protein, good fats, and less (but not completely avoided) carbohydrates that are low-GI seems to yield the best results. Some strength/resistance-based training such as weights or yoga several times a week, and at least 30 mins of decent cardio (preferably an hour – the kind that gets your blood pumping and breath heavy) such as walking, running or aerobics on most days of the week.

In addition to this there has to be an holistic approach to wellness. This means getting a decent 7-8 hours of sleep a night (but not excessive sleep which can cause more tiredness), keeping stress and anxiety levels under control to keep cortisol/stress hormones in check, not over-exercising, and doing things you enjoy for mental wellbeing.

In the past I’ve been on a combination of the pill and spironolactone which helps reduce androgen effects on the skin. The other commonly prescribed medicine is metformin which helps improve insulin resistance as there are more or less two key ‘types’ of PCOS, although everyone’s symptoms can be different.

I’ve never found my medications to help treat all the symptoms at the same time, however consistency with a health and wellness ‘routine’ coupled with a lot of cardio exercise typically helps bring my weight down and there’s a sweet spot where all my PCOS symptoms disappear. If I put on even a few kilos again, it turns into a snowball effect that can be hard to break.

I feel there must be some natural solution that doesn’t involve modern medication to treat PCOS and it can’t just be down to diet and exercise. There’s something in the delicate balance of our endocrine makeup that goes out of whack, but it’s not just down to body weight as some women with PCOS have have no issues with weight at all.

Should women with PCOS be getting more sun?

Contrary to what is often portrayed in the media, we don’t get Vitamin D directly from sun exposure. When our skin comes in contact with the sun, our bodies synthesise Vitamin D.

As for my own experience, looking back at my past, my PCOS has been under control at best when I’ve been outdoors more often. Last summer I had little sun as I had a 6-month-old baby with fair skin and was trying to keep her from getting sunburned. The previous summer I was so tired from being pregnant I spent much of the daylight hours asleep or resting indoors. Since giving birth my PCOS symptoms have been slowly returning. This could be purely coincidence as when I’m outdoors I’m typically being more active; perhaps the increased activity is what has helped.

We can’t keep treating all the individual symptoms of PCOS and expect a permanent solution – there has to be a root cause for it that is in some way treatable. In the mean time, I’ll be getting more sun, increasing my intake of Omega-3 fatty acids with a fish oil supplement (Vitamin D is fat-soluble), and continuing my pursuit of a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle.

Image / FreeDigitalPhotos.net – Ambro

Ange is a personal trainer, yoga teacher, wife, and mother (with second bubba on the way!) based in Auckland, New Zealand.

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