Gut Health and PCOS

I have been hesitant to write about PCOS because quite honestly it is something I still struggle with. I haven’t found a solution yet but I am getting close, thanks to my nutritionist/lifestyle coach/brilliant wellness guru Rob Yang. Before I launch into the deets, you might be wondering what even is PCOS?

PCOS – or Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome – is a hormone disorder characterized by abnormal periods, excess androgens (male hormones), and cystic ovaries. Excess androgens are linked to higher rates of insulin resistance, which can lead to stubborn weight especially in the abdomen. Symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, hirsutism, acne, weight gain or difficulty losing weight, thinning hair, darkening of skin and skin tags. It is important to note that it is possible to have PCOS with only some of these manifestations.

I suffered from excess weight in my midsection, some hormonal acne, and irregular periods, and was ultimately diagnosed with PCOS after having an ultrasound that revealed cystic ovaries. (Cystic ovaries in PCOS resemble a string of pearls and are not to be confused with an ovarian cyst – although I had one of those too!) Every doctor I saw in search of a solution for my PCOS offered the same treatment: birth control. I tried this briefly but the side effects (hello, psycho) were too much for me to handle, so I decided artificial hormones weren’t for me. For the most part my symptoms were manageable, especially with a healthy diet and exercise, but this year things took a turn for the worse.

I started to feel like I was having really bad PMS almost all the time. Fatigue, nausea, bloating, headaches, irritability, anxiety, and insomnia were among my main symptoms. I went to my OBGYN, gastroenterologist, and GP who all took blood tests and confirmed I was in perfect health. Feeling completely defeated and hopeless I went to Rob Yang who approached my situation from a completely different angle: gut health.

The connection from gut to brain to hormones is fascinating and instead of trying to explain it myself I’m going to quote Rob directly. He says:

The gut is home to 100,000,000,000,00(that’s 100 trillion) microorganisms. Australian researchers state the human gut has 10 times more bacteria than there are cells in the entire body! There’s a balance of “good guys and bad guys”. An imbalance is referred to as dysbiosis. This can lead to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating and farts. There are non-digestive symptoms that can be affected too. Skin conditions such as eczema can be a symptom of bacteria imbalance. There’s a connection of brain health as well. Serotonin is the “feel good” hormone that is thought to be produced only in the brain. However, the first place it was discovered was in the gut! In fact, 98% of serotonin is produced in the gut. Therefore, if a client has a serotonin issue, the first place I look is the gut.

There’s a significant connection between gut health and your hormones. More specifically, gut health affects the adrenal glands and the adrenal glands affect sex hormones. When there’s an imbalance of bacteria or the body is dealing with an overgrowth of bad guys, this is stress to your body. The adrenal glands produce a hormone called cortisol. It’s designed to help you deal with stress. Stress physiology is the same whether it’s a bear chasing you or your boss yelling at you. Stress can be in the form of mental, emotional and physical stress. The difference between gut stress and other forms of stress is that you never get a break from gut stress.

Whether it’s mental, emotional or physical stress, your body gets a break from it when you sleep. You get a break from your boss, kids, family, job, etc. But your digestive system is not off the hook! A dysfunctional gut becomes a 24 hour, 7 day a week stress. The body is actively trying to fix the gut. Even when you’re sleeping, the gut is working to get rid of the bad guys. Therefore it produces cortisol when you sleep. This creates a hormonal nightmare (literally) because cortisol should be low at night. However, the elevated cortisol inhibits melatonin. The lack of melatonin disrupts sleep, thus adversely affects growth hormone output (aka fat burner) too. It gets worse! To give you an idea of how gut health affects sex hormone output, I need to explain how the brain factors into this.

A dysfunctional gut is like being chased by a bear all day long, your body is not safe. There’s a part of the brain called the limbic system. One of the many functions of the limbic system is the mechanism to keep us safe. If you’re constantly stressed (i.e not safe) the brain thinks that survival and safety is of utmost priority. Think of a rabbit in nature. The priority of the rabbit is to be safe first and not be eaten. The second priority is sustenance: food. The last thing on it’s mind is to procreate (i.e have sex). As humans our limbic system is much the same. If you’re stressed all day (not safe) and eat inappropriately (no sustenance) then the body thinks that sex is the last priority. The production of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone are not produced in physiological amounts. The body doesn’t have the capacity to produce them. Thus you have females suffering with PCOS, PMS, menopausal symptoms, etc. Males suffer too. There are low T clinics all over the place. The resolution to the hormone issue is to assess the gut first then to look at the stress level of the individual. If gut health is established and stress levels are managed, sex hormones bounce back and many hormonal symptoms disappear.

AMAZING, right? So back to my story, Rob ordered some tests and sure enough they came back from the lab positive for three different bacterial overgrowths – and a separate test showed that I have some food intolerances. Rob put together a two month plan to heal the acute trauma to my gut during which I take supplements twice a day and avoid foods I’m sensitive to. Through examining weeks of daily food diaries he also helped identify foods that may cause reactions in my body – even though I am not “sensitive” to them on paper – so I am avoiding those too (ie eggs). Once my gut is in better health we will begin to address my hormones.

Rob and I talked about the fact that this process may take a couple of years but thanks to my experience with my own wellness journey so far, that doesn’t discourage or scare me. I know things don’t happen overnight and I’m not looking for the quick fix. Instead, I want to truly heal my body and be at optimal health, whatever that looks like for me. If you have a hormonal imbalance or digestive issue or suspect you might have one, traditional western medicine might be the route to take on your own journey, but I really encourage you to look into the root cause rather than treating the symptoms!

I will keep you posted and answer questions in the comment section! So, what do you think – more Rob on this blog?! xo