The Short Story About Emotional and Mental Disorders: What You Don’t Know Will Surprise You! We know you’re in a hurry!
How are PCOS and Chronic Stress Related?
Stress is often a factor in the onset of Insulin Resistance-related PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome). This condition is a common endocrine (or hormonal) disorder and is characterized by multiple abnormal cysts in the ovaries. Most women who seek medical help for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome do so because of a number of symptoms, ranging from irregular periods and infertility problems to acne and other skin conditions, excessive hair growth, and male pattern baldness.
PCOS displays many of the same underlying symptoms of metabolic syndrome (Syndrome X), a disorder that can substantially increase the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Symptoms include excess abdominal fat, high LDL ("bad") cholesterol and low HDL ("good") cholesterol, high levels of fatty substances in the blood called triglycerides, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
If neglected, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome can be a precursor to a variety of serious health conditions, including heart disease and liver and kidney disorders and possibly also Alzheimer's Disease and premature aging. While an underlying cause of PCOS is often Insulin Resistance, the disorder is also influenced by such factors as a poor diet, overeating, and a lack of regular exercise.
How does PCOS develop and what causes stress?
Numerous factors are thought to play a role in the development of PCOS. Genetics are thought to play a role because if you have PCOS you might discover your sister, mother, or aunt also has this syndrome. Some other influencing factors of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome are hormone imbalance and a condition called Insulin Resistance. Insulin is an important hormone released by the pancreas. Insulin moves sugar out of the blood and into other cells such as muscle, liver, and fat cells. The sugar is then converted to energy or in some cases stored as fat. When this process is defective it is called Insulin Resistance. When you have insulin resistance your pancreas has to produce ever-increasing amounts of insulin to remove sugar from the blood, which is not good for the body and can produce a staggering array of symptoms. Insulin Resistance is usually present in women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
Interestingly, noradrenalin (the hormone that increases in response to excess levels of insulin in the body) is a stress-related chemical, released under conditions of emotional upset. Furthermore, glucocorticoids (such as cortisol) are also stress-response chemicals in some women, and these hormones are also responsible for increased storing of abdominal fat and raising blood glucose levels. One study demonstrated that individuals with elevated levels of serum cortisol (caused by chronic stress) developed abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, and lipid abnormalities.
But sometimes that doesn’t happen. When you’re insulin resistant, your muscle, fat, and liver cells don’t respond properly to insulin. Your body thinks it needs more insulin to help glucose enter cells. Your pancreas then tries to keep up with this increased demand for insulin by producing more, and eventually your pancreas fails to keep up with your body's need for insulin. When this happens, excess glucose builds up in your bloodstream, setting the stage for conditions like diabetes and PCOS (since it imbalances hormones).9
Stress is a part of life these days and pinpointing the exact cause of your stress can take time and effort. Women with PCOS seem to be more sensitive to stress, so it is doubly important to reduce its effects by managing or removing the possible causes.2 Common life stressors can include work, relationship problems, loneliness, abuse, and persistent worry.
What are the risks of ignoring stress?
The impact of stress on women with PCOS is serious and far-reaching. Some of the possible consequences of unmanaged stress can be:
- Ovarian Cysts: Stress is thought to contribute to the formation of ovarian cysts.
- Emotional Effects: Stress can decrease your quality of life because stress can reduce your serotonin levels. This will create depression, anxiety, and reduce feelings of pleasure.1
- Weight Gain: Insulin Resistance combined with stress-induced cortisol can make you gain weight, especially on the belly. Belly fat is very serious because it can predict future issues with diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Stress also leads to craving sweet or fatty foods, which also contributes to gaining excessive weight. In people who are "stress-eaters," particularly women, the more they eat food that is high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates in response to stress, the more fat they store and the more insulin they secrete. This, in turn, elevates glucose levels and causes even more fat to be stored, thus beginning a vicious cycle that contributes to the development of obesity-linked PCOS.2
- Sexual dysfunction: General responsiveness and sexual desire diminish with stress.
- Fertility: Cortisol (a stress hormone) can cause menstruation issues and increased levels of progesterone which contributes to infertility.1
- Eating Disorders: Anorexia and bulimia are linked to stressful emotional problems.
Our bodies are designed to deal with certain levels of stress every day and our stress response can effectively diffuse any physical response easily with no damage if the stress is not continuous. Chronic stress will eventually cause cell and organ damage, so recognizing the signs of stress is crucial.
Is polycystic ovarian syndrome easy to diagnose?
Unfortunately, the symptoms of PCOS can often be the cause of stress itself because many symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome are devastating to your self perception or selfesteem. The feeling of being less than perfect can be extremely stressful, which exacerbates the symptoms as well as creating a host of symptoms related to stress.6
PCOS symptoms often occur in unique combinations from one case to the next, but they almost always include issues that are embarrassing, painful, or challenging to your identity. With body image being an issue of such central concern in today's culture, the visible symptoms associated with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome have the power to render you very self-conscious.6 Thus, the physically painful symptoms can be an equal drain on your "good mood."
Some of the symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) include:1
- Male pattern baldness
- Excessive hair growth
- Menstrual irregularities
- Ovarian cysts
- Weight gain
- Menstrual pain
- Fluid retention
- Darkening of the skin
- Mood swings
- Acne not associated with puberty
Stress is sometimes considered to be an invisible factor in the severity of these PCOS symptoms but the symptoms of stress are actually quite clear as well as extensive.
Signs of stress include:6
- Sleep disturbances
- Muscle tension and aches
- Nervousness and anxiety
- Overeating or under eating
- Loss of enthusiasm
- Mood changes
- Irritability and depression
- Weight gain (especially around the belly)
- Ovarian cysts
- Muscle tension or pain
- Chest pain
- Decrease in sex drive
- Stomach problems
- Sleep issues
- Lack of motivation
- Excessive drug or alcohol use
- Withdrawal from daily life
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Muscle wasting
- Suppression of the immune system
- Hair loss
Obviously these are serious issues that need to be addressed and when piled on top of the already disruptive symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome any woman can feel overwhelmed. Finding a successful treatment plan for both stress and PCOS can be a huge step toward finding a positive life balance and good health.
Can you successfully treat PCOS and stress?
The foundation of PCOS control is healthy lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise along with nutritional supplements that target insulin resistance and other influencing factors. If you are under stress these therapies might not be effective because stress causes imbalanced hormones which increases the severity of PCOS symptoms. However, many of the natural therapies that reduce stress also mirror those used in PCOS so it is a win-win situation. Effective natural therapies used to manage PCOS as well as stress can be:
- Nutritional Supplements: Many different botanical ingredients can be used for PCOS and stress but some of the more common ones recommended are:
- Licorice: helps your body deal with stress and reduce testosterone.10
- Saw Palmetto: for excess hair or hair loss.10
- False Unicorn Root: improves ovarian function.10
- Dandelion Root: effective liver detoxifier and bile flow stimulant.10
- Chaste Tree Berry Extract: can help balance hormones.10
- White Peony: help stabilize the menstrual cycle.10
- Hops: used to relieve stress.10
- Eat a healthy nutritious diet: Diet is the most important part of any PCOS management plan. Women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome usually also have Insulin Resistance so it is crucial to consume foods that do not create spiking blood sugar. A healthy PCOS diet includes foods low on the glycemic index eaten in six or seven small meals spaced evenly throughout the day.8 This diet features whole grains, lean proteins, fruit, vegetables, healthy fats that all contain plenty of vitamins and minerals. You should also avoid alcohol, processed foods, smoking, and caffeine, and make sure you drink at least eight glasses of water per day. Your goal should also be to lose excess weight if this is an issue because that alone can significantly impact hormone imbalance and reduce the severity of PCOS symptoms. Because stress often causes “stress eating” which can pile on the pounds and create additional physical issues, managing your stress levels should be high on your priority list.
- Exercise: Taking part in regular physical activity can be instrumental for effective weight loss and to help reduce Insulin Resistance. Even 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise can normalize blood sugar levels for hours. Try something you enjoy such as walking, skiing, biking, dancing, or even gardening to get your exercise fix for the day. All these forms of exercise can act as an effective stress reliever to improve your mood, pump up your endorphins, and allow you to forget the irritations in your day.5
Some other stress management therapies can include:
- Behavioral techniques
- Identify trouble areas that cause stress
- Music therapy
- Keep your sense of humor
- Minimize job stress
- Guided imagery
- Create a support network
- Relaxation techniques
Management of stress factors is a critical component to addressing the symptoms of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome,although, no single approach can affect all the components of this widespread syndrome.
What can you do if natural therapies are not effective?
Medications can be used to treat PCOS and address underlying influences such as Insulin Resistance. Some drugs typically recommended for PCOS are:
- Oral Contraceptive Pills: Birth control pills are used to regulate menstruation and help balance hormones.9
- Metformin: This medication designed to treat type 2 diabetes, has been found to be useful for the treatment of PCOS as well. Metformin improves the way insulin regulates glucose which helps reduce the severity of Insulin Resistance.9
- Spironolactone and flutamide: These medications can obstruct the action of male hormones which will help eliminate the hair and skin issues associated with PCOS.9
- Fertility Medication: Clomiphene and Gonadotropins are used to stimulate the ovaries and are sometimes used in conjunction with Metformin.9
There are also other treatment options that can be used to help reduce stress and anxiety which women with PCOS can take as part of a plan. Possible choices include benzodiazepines and barbiturates.7 Benzodiazepines (alprazolam, chlordiazepoxide, clonazepam, and diazepam) alter brain chemistry and barbiturates (phenobarbital, butabartital, butalbital, and amobarbital) provide a tranquilizing or sedative effect. These stress-specific drugs are ordinarily a short-term treatment option due to the fact that they can be addictive long-term. These types of medications should be used only after trying natural therapies because chronic stress can make you completely exhausted and run down, which is a serious risk to your health and quality of life.