Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is the leading cause of female infertility. The founder of PCOS Club India says going vegan can help manage the condition.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex hormonal disorder affecting one in ten women. Nidhi Singh, founder of India’s biggest PCOS community, outlines the implications of veganism on women’s health and PCOS.
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
PCOS is a common hormonal health condition that affects around 10 million women of child-bearing age worldwide. It is the leading cause of female infertility and is responsible for several symptoms that affect the body physically and emotionally. Despite the name, PCOS doesn’t necessarily mean having cysts on their ovaries, it also manifests in other ways such as high levels of male androgens and/or irregular menstruation.
The symptoms range from acne, hair growth and dark skin patches to fatigue, weight gain and headaches. However, the severity of symptoms varies from person to person. The cause of PCOS remains contested, but it is usually attributed to genetic and environmental factors.
While symptoms of PCOS may begin shortly after puberty, they often go unnoticed and the condition tends to go undiagnosed. 50% of women suffering from PCOS only learn about it either while trying to conceive or not at all. This could be because of the relatively benign nature of the symptoms or the lack of coherent information regarding the disorder and its treatment, even within the medical community.
It is evident, however, that the deficit in women suffering from PCOS and those who get diagnosed speaks to the larger issue of disregard for and the stigma attached to women’s menstrual health. Many efforts are now being made to raise awareness about PCOS globally.
No physical symptoms, or don’t want kids? Should you still care?
While the physical symptoms might seem fairly manageable and having children might not be on everyone’s radar, unfortunately, PCOS doesn’t just end with its reproductive concerns. As a matter of fact, it never ends. Not only is it incurable but also serves as a precursor to several other health concerns, like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, major depressive disorder, and even endometrial cancer.
This is because 70% of PCOS patients also suffer from insulin resistance, 80% are overweight or obese, and many experience chronic inflammation. The lack of knowledge about the subject also makes it common for PCOS patients to experience medical gaslighting and fatphobia on top of all their symptoms, which can significantly deter mental health.
So, what’s the cure?
Put simply, there is no one-size-fits-all cure to PCOS yet. But that isn’t to say it cannot be treated. With the right approach, PCOS can absolutely be managed and controlled, and a lot of women even go on to have children after procuring the right treatment. The approaches to the treatment for PCOS range from simple lifestyle changes to prescribed hormonal medication. It is important to note that everyone’s medical profile is extremely unique and so it is important to consult a medical professional before self-diagnosing or self-medicating.
That being said, as someone who suffers from PCOS, dietary changes are perhaps the most commonly recommended lifestyle change to PCOS patients. Diets from keto, paleo, Mediterranean — you name it — I’ve heard it all. But more recently, ‘vegan’ has become a frequent buzzword propping up in the PCOS community. To find out why vegan food might be linked to better health outcomes, The Vegan Review spoke to Nidhi Singh, founder of PCOS Club India, India’s first and largest PCOS forum providing women with PCOS support, resources and access to top health practitioners.
With a degree in global banking from the University of Birmingham, Singh’s foray into the PCOS world began when she realised that there was an information deficit about the issue. Motivated by her own experience with PCOS, Singh started PCOS Club India to spread awareness about the condition, build a community and advocate for natural healing.
After nine years of working as an advisory consultant for firms Ernst and Young and Deloitte, she changed course and jumped into the study of holistic nutrition. A big believer in the power of plant-based eating, Singh runs a buzzing Instagram account through which she reaches thousands of women in need of guidance.
How does a vegan diet help treat PCOS?
Advocates for natural PCOS healing believe that oral contraceptives and hormones, although a popular and possibly effective treatment for PCOS, come with adverse side effects that are often neglected by doctors and medical professionals. Along with its hormonal implications, it must be remembered that PCOS is also a metabolic disorder and hence can slowly be kept in check naturally by adopting holistic lifestyle changes, especially with regards to food.
PCOS is a pro-inflammatory syndrome linked to nutritional deficiencies, high cholesterol, and poor gut health. “A well planned plant-based diet is naturally high in fibre, packed with essential nutrients such as vitamins B and C, folate, and magnesium, which are crucial in lowering LDL and cholesterol levels, both of which seem to be high in women with PCOS,” notes Singh.
The PCOS expert also adds that a vegan diet is easy on the digestive system, thus helping health gut flora to flourish. Additionally, eliminating meat that is high in saturated fats can drastically help reduce inflammation, balance hormones, and control insulin resistance.
In terms of dairy, Singh says the sheer stress endured by the animals as well as the injected hormones and antibiotics used in the dairy industry result in high levels of oestrogen and cortisol hormones in commercial dairy products. “Imagine all those elevated hormones from the cow’s milk making its way into the body of someone that is already struggling to keep up with their haywire hormones,” she points out.
Moreover, today’s sedentary lifestyle makes it even harder to digest cow’s milk. Singh also notes that although we are taught at an early age that a glass of cow’s milk is the optimal source of calcium, it can easily be sourced from dark leafy greens, pulses, nuts, and whole grains.
Low-carb vs vegan: who wins?
Perhaps the most commonly recommended diet for PCOS is the controversial low-carb diet. Eating fewer carbohydrates is known to consistently and reliably lower insulin levels and therefore combat insulin resistance. Vegan diets, as we know, tend to be quite high in carbs as most non-meat protein sources are also significantly carbohydrate-dense.
But are carbohydrates the real problem?
“Carbs are fuel for the body. The problem lies in the choice of carbs,” Singh remarks. Complex carbohydrates — whole grains, lentils, vegetables — are those that are low on the glycemic index and keep you satiated for longer. These cause a gradual spike in blood sugar, resulting in a steady stream of insulin production, as opposed to simple carbs (sugar, white rice, refined flour), which turn into fuel rapidly.
Unfortunately, not all carbs are created equal. But the good news is you don’t have to cut them out in your PCOS healing journey. If your unique health profile does, however, require you to limit carbs, that should be done under the strict guidance of a health practitioner as limiting entire macronutrient food groups can be severely damaging to overall health and functioning.
What should I be eating to control my PCOS?
Singh has compiled a list of food tips to ease your transition to a plant-based diet:
- Vegetables, legumes and whole grains: These are your holy trinity. They’re great for reducing inflammation, promoting insulin sensitivity and good gut health while taking care of all your fibre and vitamin needs. Make your plate as colourful as you can.
- Nuts and seeds: They are great sources of plant-based fats and omega-3. Swapping your refined cooking oils for coconut or olive oil and switching to plant-based fat sources such as natural nut butters will take you a long way.
- Limit soy: Soy and soy-based products should be moderated, especially in the initial stages of PCOS healing. Research has shown that this common meat-replacer has a tendency to mimic oestrogen in the body and it might be worthwhile to test your body’s tolerance to soy products gradually.
- Test your gluten intolerance: Many women with PCOS are also gluten-intolerant. Limiting your consumption of wheat and all-purpose flour, and switching to high-fibre millets like amaranth, finger millets and sorghum can help expedite your hormone-healing process.
- Whole foods: Pick whole over processed foods. While it might sound tempting to go full-on junk vegan, choose your food sources wisely. Stick to what the earth offers and save your packaged food for the occasional treat-day, and your hormones will most definitely reward you. Most importantly, educate yourself on how to read food labels and don’t be fooled by fads and gimmicky marketing.
From diet to lifestyle
While going vegan may help you as with PCOS, switching your eating habits can be overwhelming. Here are some ways Singh suggests that can help you stomach this change sustainably:
- Meal Prep: Prepping your meals in advance can really up that clean-eating game. Meal prep also helps you plan your plant-based groceries well.
- Focus on the do’s: Having a positive approach by shifting focus towards what you can eat instead of what you cannot helps broaden your universe of food choices.
- Open dialogue with family: Having an open dialogue with your partner on your new food choices can help make the journey feel less intimidating. “I love planning my meals with my husband and looking up interesting vegan recipes together so that I don’t have to cook separate meals, and we both can enjoy those delicious plant-based meals,” says Singh.
- Give your body time: Start slow. Don’t quit anything cold-turkey. If you are used to a standard animal-based diet, try giving yourself daily or even weekly targets. Try cutting out red meats for a week and then slowly making your way towards cutting out other meats week-by-week. Or, for instance, trying to limit your dairy intake from every day to every other day to once a week and eventually eliminating it. This way, your body gets time to recognise the changes and make necessary adjustments.
- Seek professional help: It’s okay to reach out for help if you do not know where to begin. Educate yourself with the right resources and always consult a health practitioner regarding your unique health profile before you begin making bigger changes to your life.