Even in my relatively brief time as a doctor I have witnessed the rise to prominence of previously rare conditions including hyperactivity, autism and chronic fatigue syndrome. Another contemporary condition, and one which I seem to be seeing in increasing numbers in my practice, is the exclusively female affliction known as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). One frequent feature of PCOS is the abnormal sprouting of hair on the face and perhaps other parts of the body. As a result, many women with this condition can find themselves developing an ever-growing reliance on tweezers, depilatory creams, strip-waxing and the like. For sufferers of PCOS, the cosmetic burden of unwanted hirsutism can mean that every day is a bit of a bad hair day.
Hairy moments, however, are not the only feature of PCOS. As its name suggests, the condition is characterised by the presence of multiple cysts in one or both ovaries. Also common in PCOS is a slew of hormone imbalances including an excess of male hormones known as androgens. A surfeit of androgens is believed to be at the root of the excess of hair familiar to many women with PCOS. Hormonal disruption may also give rise to a number of other complications common in the condition including acne, excess weight, menstrual irregularity, problems with ovulation and infertility. While it is now known for sure what causes PCOS, there is mounting evidence that the diet plays more than a bit part here.
The potential role of the diet in the development of PCOS is borne out of the fact androgen secretion is believed to be stimulated by excesses in another hormone – insulin. Insulin is itself produced by the body in response to rises in blood sugar levels induced by the eating of foods rich in sugars and/or starches (carbohydrates). Some have theorised that the rising tide of PCOS seen in modern times is related to an increasing emphasis on carb-based foods such as biscuits, bread, pasta, potatoes, rice and cereals in our diet. There is also some thought that a glut of such foods is also a principle factor in the increasing incidence of diabetes and its precursor known as insulin resistance syndrome. Interestingly, these two conditions are known to be particularly prevalent in sufferers of PCOS.
The best diet for sufferers of PCOS seems to be one based on foods that give controlled release of sugar (and therefore insulin) into the system. Foods that fulfil this criterion include beans, lentils, meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, and most fresh fruits and vegetables such as broccoli, French beans and cabbage. If starchy carbs such as bread, rice and pasta are consumed, these are best had in their unrefined forms and in moderate quantities only. Regular meals, perhaps with snacks such as fruit and nuts in between, may help to keep insulin and androgen levels under control too.
In addition to consuming a blood sugar stabilising diet, the effects of androgens may also be quelled in the long term by taking a supplement of the herb Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). One of the effects of this herb is to slow down the conversion of a major male hormone known as testosterone into its more potent form (dihydrotestosterone). Taking Saw palmetto (at a dose of about 320 mg per day), combined with a diet lower in sugar and starchy carbs, can do much to keep women with PCOS from tearing their hair out.