The Thief of Womanhood. I remember the first time I read that phrase in a research article about PCOS. It stopped me in my tracks. Based on what some of my clients with PCOS told me about what it’s like to have the disease, Thief of Womanhood was a painfully accurate description.
With its myriad symptoms including excess facial hair growth, acne, hair loss, painful and irregular periods, and infertility, many women with PCOS are left feeling less feminine and at odds with their bodies. Fortunately, many of those symptoms can be improved by focusing on one of the underlying forces behind them— insulin resistance.
What is insulin resistance?
Before I answer that, let’s quickly go over what insulin is and what it does.
Insulin is a hormone that controls blood sugar levels. When our blood sugar levels rise (either after eating or when our body releases its own stores of glycogen) insulin is released. Then insulin causes our cells to take in sugar from our blood so our cells can use it for energy. And with the sugar moving into the cells and out of the blood, blood sugar and insulin levels drop back down to normal levels.
With insulin resistance, what I just described doesn’t happen like it’s supposed to. Instead, the cells don’t respond as well to insulin. Which means they don’t take the sugar in from the blood and blood sugar levels end up staying high. To try to get our cells the energy they need and bring blood sugar levels down, our bodies will continue to pump out more insulin, leading to high insulin levels.
Nearly 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance.
How does insulin resistance affect women with PCOS?
Insulin doesn’t only cause sugar to leave the blood and head into our cells. It also signals to the ovaries to produce androgens, the male hormones that are behind so many of the symptoms women with PCOS experience. At normal levels, that’s not a problem but high levels of insulin (like the levels we often see with insulin resistance) can lead to high levels of androgens.
If that weren’t enough, insulin resistance also promotes inflammation and the quick, often unexplained weight gain around the midsection women with PCOS commonly experience.
How can I find out if I have insulin resistance?
If you have PCOS, there’s a really good chance you’re insulin resistant. That’s because nearly 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance.
I encourage you to have a chat with your healthcare provider about testing you for insulin resistance if you have PCOS. They’ll likely check your fasting blood glucose levels, insulin levels, and Hgb A1c. But not all will have you take the oral glucose tolerance test. And, that is a very important test for women with PCOS to take.
There’s some research that suggests it’s a more sensitive and accurate way to test for insulin resistance in women with PCOS than some of the other lab tests. If your provider doesn’t offer it to you, don’t be afraid to ask for it.
If it turns out you are insulin resistant, your doctor may offer you a few tips or medications to improve your insulin sensitivity.
Many symptoms of PCOS can be improved by focusing on one of the underlying forces behind them – insulin resistance.
How can I improve my insulin sensitivity?
The good thing about insulin resistance is it can be reduced and insulin sensitivity can be improved.
There are plenty of pharmaceutical and self-care options to address insulin sensitivity. Below, you’ll find some of the things you can do to address insulin resistance.
Get enough sleep: Rest is one of the most underrated ways to improve health and quality of life. Sleep deprivation is linked to increased insulin resistance and increased cravings for sugary foods. By getting enough sleep, you may be able to counter some of the cravings and improve insulin sensitivity.
Eat well-balanced meals: Not only do balanced meals provide your body with the nutrients it needs to thrive, they also can help keep your blood sugar steady. When you eat a meal or snack that contains fiber, fat, protein, and carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises more gradually than if you were eating carbs alone.
Adopt a yoga practice: For PCOS, yoga might be even better than conventional exercise to improve insulin sensitivity. One hour of yoga a day was found to be more effective at lowering insulin levels, blood glucose levels, and insulin resistance than a one-hour long calisthenics and cardio routine.
Talk to your doctor about oral and injectable medications like metformin and trulicity. These prescription drugs were originally developed to treat type 2 diabetes but are often prescribed to women with insulin resistance associated with PCOS.
With a combo of medical care and self-care, insulin resistance in PCOS can be treated and you can find relief from your PCOS symptoms.
The information provided above is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or a substitute for medical care.