How To Overcome Your PCOS Genes Like A Boss
By Clare Goodwin
Last updated: September 3, 2020
Is PCOS genetic? The answer to that is yes, at least partly. When I got diagnosed with PCOS I felt relieved. Finally I had an answer for why I kept putting on weight, even though I was eating like a squirrel and going at spin classes like a crazed woman! It wasn’t my fault. I had been doing all of the ‘right’ things after all, but my body had been constantly working against me.
However, my relief was quickly followed by disappointment when I realised that there was no magic pill to fix my problems. Then I started feeling angry. Why? Because I found out that the answer to the question ‘is PCOS genetic?’ was yes.
At that time, I perceived myself as the ‘healthiest’ person I knew. I ran every day for at least an hour and did spin classes and CrossFit. My breakfast muesli was homemade and sugar free, I ate whole grain pasta, consumed beyond my 5-a-day, and never had McDonalds. I felt totally cheated. Here I was, the unlucky recipient of some genes which meant that my hard work was worthless.
If you’re reading this and you know the feeling that I’m describing, like you have no control over your PCOS, then don’t worry. You absolutely do. Years of researching and reversing my own PCOS have taught me that we do have control.
This is called epigenetics (bank that one away for the next ‘word of the day’ game). When the right environmental factors are present, it makes those of us with PCOS genes more susceptible. However, this also means that if we remove these factors then we can reverse our PCOS.
A good way to understand epigenetics is to use the analogy of a film production. DNA is the script. You can have the same script, but external factors, such as the casting and director, can make or break a movie. Imagine if they’d chosen me over Steven Spielberg to direct Jurassic Park. It would almost definitely have been a Jurassic Flop.
In a study of obesity in twins researchers concluded just that: “Difference in living conditions…may have led to different weight gain in identical twins.” This shows just how much influence environmental factors can have on individuals. Even when two people have identical genes, environment wins over. This is great news for PCOS sufferers. It means that if we remove the environmental triggers then we can reverse our PCOS, no matter what our genes say.
What are these ‘environmental triggers’?
Environmental triggers vary wildly. After I reversed my PCOS, I thought that I had the answer for all of my clients. However, I quickly realised that this wasn’t the case. Everyone has a different root cause of PCOS, or rather why their androgen hormones are high. PCOS is essentially an excess of androgen hormones. Androgen hormones include testosterone, DHEAS and androstenedione. They cause havoc in every area of the body, including:
- Stopping ovulation.
- Disrupting hair follicles (causing androgenic alopecia or Hirsutism).
- Disrupting the glands in our skin, causing acne.
Therefore, when I talk about environmental triggers, I’m really talking about the triggers that are causing your androgens to be high. The most common ones that I see are:
- Insulin resistance AND inflammation
- Hormonal birth control ‘post- pill PCOS’.
- Inflammation (without insulin resistance).
- Adrenal (stress-based) PCOS.
- Another hidden cause, often the thyroid.
I’ve written a comprehensive post on the most common causes of PCOS here, so I won’t repeat myself. Instead, I’ll provide a more in-depth look into an environmental trigger that I see very commonly, inflammation. This has been backed up by many studies on PCOS.
Inflammation as an environmental trigger
Inflammation is our immune system’s first line of defence to injury. Injury includes damage caused to our cells, especially those that line our intestines. Like many processes in the body, inflammation is necessary. It protects us from dangerous viruses and bacteria, and aids in the healing process. However, when our bodies are constantly on high alert, inflammation begins to damage our cells. Every cell in our body can be affected by inflammation. In PCOS, this includes inflammation in the cells of the:
- Brain (specifically the hypothalamus): this causes leptin resistance.
- Muscles: causes insulin resistance.
- Lining of the intestinal wall: causes leaky gut.
- Adrenal glands: increases testosterone and cortisol.
- Fat cells: leads to impaired fat metabolism.
It has been repeatedly proven that women with PCOS have increased levels of inflammatory markers. Insulin resistance is often spoken about with PCOS, but inflammation is less discussed. This is interesting because they often go hand in hand. Where there is insulin resistance, there’s usually inflammation. In fact, researchers are now proposing that inflammation may actually be the cause of insulin resistance. Studies have shown that a small protein (TNF-α, a cytokine) released during the inflammatory response can cause insulin resistance.
What causes inflammation?
The most common inflammatory agents that I see in women with PCOS are:
- Inflammatory foods, such as grains, fructose, and industrial seed oils.
- Poor gut health, caused by antibiotic use, the pill, and/or dietary toxins.
- Chronic stress (emotional, psychological, physiological).
- Physical activity (an excess or lack of it).
How do I reduce inflammation?
The first thing that you need to do is to try and deal with the things that cause inflammation in the first place. Try out the following things:
1. Remove foods that cause inflammation
There are two ways that food can cause inflammation:
- It’s difficult to digest, due to poor gut health or genetic predisposition. Examples are grains and dairy.
- It’s been processed in a way that makes it inflammatory. Examples include processed soy, high fructose corn syrup, and seed oils, e.g. corn, canola, and sunflower.
Although I’m opposed to removing entire food groups for no good reason, research supports the decision to do this for inflammatory PCOS. You can read more about how foods are inflammatory here.
2. Heal your gut
Both the contraceptive pill and antibiotics disrupt the bacteria that live in our intestines. This leads to an overgrowth of bad bacteria and insufficient good bacteria, causing issues that lead to inflammation. The cells of our gut lining should be tightly packed together. When there is too much bad bacteria, these tight junctions become loose and let particles through. These particles, such as gluten, cause inflammation.
Support your gut health by making sure you have enough good bacteria. You also need to make sure that you’re feeding that bacteria correctly, especially if you’re on the pill. Here are some suggestions:
- Take a good quality probiotic.
- Consume fermented foods at least once a day, preferably with every meal. Examples include sauerkraut, kimchi, or kombucha.
- Consume resistant starches, such as cooked and cooled white potatoes, taro, green plantains or yukka. You can also use potato starch in smoothies, soups, and stews.
3. Reduce your stress hormones
Cortisol is a long-term stress hormone and can directly cause inflammation. Cortisol is usually elevated when we are under psychological stress. However, raised levels can also be caused by too little sleep, chronic infections, environmental toxins, dieting, and too much coffee.
Elevated cortisol is probably the most common factor that I see stopping women from reversing their PCOS. Even if you’re lying on a sun lounger with a good book, underlying infections, insomnia, and toxins can all increase cortisol. It needs to be taken seriously. To reduce your cortisol levels:
- Ensure you’re getting 8 hours of sleep every night.
- Remove coffee from your diet for 30-45 days to test if you’re sensitive to caffeine. You can add it back in later, but most women I work with find that they feel so much better without it.
- If you are under psychological stress, focus on removing or reducing this.
4. Optimise your exercise and increase your physical activity
When you think about a healthy lifestyle, you probably think of spin classes and 10km runs, right? In my post about exercise, I explained why this medium to high intensity cardio is actually working against you.
Most of the women I treat are actually over-exercising, thereby increasing their cortisol levels. Instead, we need to optimise exercise to make our cells more sensitive to insulin and reduce our cortisol levels. This will lead to reduced inflammation. This means focusing on doing a few short, high intensity workouts a week, whilst maximising low intensity, incidental exercise, like walking and standing. Some ideas include:
- If you have to work at a computer then think about getting a standing desk. Better yet, a treadmill desk.
- Walk at least 10,000 steps per day.
- 2-3 short (15 minute), high intensity workouts per week.
The Bottom Line
This is not a definitive list, by any means. For many of us, reducing inflammation requires many more changes. But getting inflammation under control is absolutely the first step. It took me a long time to work out all the pieces of the puzzle, then an even longer time to fine tune and get everything aligned.
This is why I’m currently developing an intensive programme that will help you to identify your PCOS root cause(s) and give you the knowledge to reverse it. I’m really excited to save you from wasting 6 years of your life working stuff out for yourself, like I did. It’s the kind of programme I wish I could have taken. However, it won’t be for everyone… It will require you to be seriously committed to reversing your PCOS!
If that sounds like you, then fire your email into the box below and I’ll keep you updated. In addition, I’ll sending you a weekly blog with information to help you to reverse your PCOS. You’ll be winning all round, really!