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Olwen Anderson's Blog

How anaemia and hypothyroid are connected

Saturday, August 20, 2016
fatigue can come from anaemia and hypothyroid“I’m so tired” – it’s a comment I often hear from women. There’s tiredness that’s relieved by a good sleep. Then there’s a different kind of fatigue, that won’t ease no matter how many hours you spend with your eyes closed.

Women seem particularly vulnerable to this kind of exhaustion thanks to our tendency to anaemia (iron deficiency) and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland). But one influences the other: did you know that anaemia can be what’s behind your under-functioning thyroid? Here’s how each of them works:

Your thyroid largely determines how much energy your cells will generate, but it’s a complex process through producing thyroid prohormone T4, converting it to the active T3, and ensuring not too much reverse rT3 thyroid hormone is produced. Then there’s the input from your endocrine system supervisors, the hypothalamus and pituitary, which decide, based on feedback, how hard to push your thyroid gland to work. 

Iron is the mineral we all need to enable blood cells to absorb and transport oxygen. But iron plays a big part in other body processes too - including thyroid hormone production. Scientists discovered this through a novel experiment that I’m glad I didn’t participate in. University students were recruited and lowered into a warm bath, which was then cooled down. The participants spent enough time in that cold water to watch a movie the scientists thoughtfully provided to keep them entertained. Imagine spending your afternoon immersed in a cold bath, while researchers periodically check your temperature and draw blood. Ah, the things we’ll do for science.

Their study concluded that being deficient in iron does affect your thyroid hormones. There’s an iron-reliant enzyme that converts the prohormone T4 to the active thyroid hormone T3. Insufficient iron stores means the larger quantity of thyroid hormone needed when things get cold just isn’t available because the raw materials aren’t on hand to create it.

Curiously, it’s the ferretin form of iron that impacts thyroid hormone production. There are two different types of iron in your body – serum iron, which is what’s available for immediate use; and ferretin, which is stored iron which has to be converted to serum iron to be useful. A blood test reveals how much of each you have. 

So if you’ve got an underactive thyroid acting like a ball and chain on your energy, it might be advisable to check your iron levels as well.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy reading my free e-book "The Empowered Hypothyroid" 

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Staying on top of your health challenges

Saturday, August 13, 2016
Take action to help manage your health challengeSome health problems are minor: like catching a cold, for instance. You know it will pass with time, and you can obtain tools to help it pass faster. Some health challenges, though, are unlikely to depart of their own accord. These are the chronic health issues you know have to be managed; they can’t be cured. Despite being intractable, there are still things you can do to ease the burden.

One of the researchers who’s been working out who copes better with health challenges and who doesn’t is Susan Folkman, a scientist and clinician who devoted her work life to helping discover what promotes coping when people are faced with sometimes awful situations. She’s now retired, but in 2000 she wrote a paper on how people maintain their psychological well-being during serious illness. Her observations make interesting reading for anyone facing a serious problem; because she may have uncovered how we can cope better (psychologically) in these circumstances.

Professor Folkman found there were basically two forms of coping: Passive, where you don’t feel you can influence the situation.  This apparently leads to withdrawal from people, self-pity, feeling bad. Or there are and active approaches, where your mind takes you on a journey promoting positive emotions and effective coping. It doesn’t necessarily fix the problem, but you’re likely to feel better, in stages. 

The first stage we go through is appraising the new situation, perhaps when you get the official diagnosis: Just how bad is this? Are there any obvious opportunities here? Of course, most of us also feel resentful about what’s happened; that’s human. 

The second stage is assessing how much you can control or change the situation, and here’s where your sense of self-efficacy empowers you. The greater your sense of control with this challenge, the better you’ll feel. Examples of active coping strategies with a health problem are researching information about your disorder, joining a support group, seeking out medical specialists. Doing.

On the other hand, a passive coping strategy (withdrawal, self-pity) has been shown to promote depression. And anxiety. And reduced quality of life.  Follow this path and you get to feel bad psychologically as well as physically.
So, it seems that understanding there’s something you can do, no matter how small, and believing that you have the ability to do it, creates positive emotions. Working on a health challenge, it seems, helps us be happier despite our difficulties.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Remembering Your Strengths in Tough Times' here.

Paper:  Folkman, S Greer, S;  Promoting psychological well-being in the face of serious illness; when theory, research and practice inform each other Psycho-Oncology 9: 11-19 (2000)

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Heart health nutrition: Change is happening

Saturday, August 06, 2016
heart health nutrition now favors low carbohydrate dietsEight years ago I wrote a booklet advising how to lower cholesterol levels naturally. If you still have your copy, I’d like to you turn to the diet advice pages and gently rip them out – because what I wrote then simply isn’t of use any more. 

Since those words were printed our knowledge about nutrition has evolved considerably. A growing band of scientists and writers are pointing out that our earlier paradigms around cardiovascular wellness were mistaken.

Let’s go back a few decades, when heart disease and what could cause it was a growing concern. At that stage our understanding of its nutritional cause could be summarised as this: “Eating cholesterol and fat causes our body’s cholesterol levels to rise. Fat clogs up your arteries and causes heart disease.  Therefore fatty foods, and cholesterol, are bad for you.” 

This hypothesis made its way into nutrition recommendations. Everyone keen on health became focused on minimising fat and cholesterol, and ate more carbohydrate instead. But what transpired wasn’t the expected blossoming of improved health across the population. Instead, levels of obesity and diabetes began to skyrocket. Today’s researchers believe this over-focus on carbohydrate foods and reduced fat consumption is what’s behind the soaring rates of obesity and diabetes. 

It seems that the prior research on fats was a little too selective, and all too readily supported. Fat was erroneously tagged as ‘bad for you’. But our lived experience of low fat eating is suggesting we need to reconsider.
You may despair that “they’ve changed the rules again”. But It’s normal for nutritional recommendations to keep changing. It’s a good thing actually, because it means that science is continually challenging beliefs, researching more, generating new findings.  Scientists publish their findings expecting them to be challenged by future scientists. 

The new paradigm is that fat isn’t the cause of heart disease, it’s about inflammation, which is sparked by…wait for it….too much carbohydrate and sugars in your diet. 

Some of the backlash against low fat high carb eating has been extreme, with some proponents advocating excluding carbohydrates altogether in favour of extremely high fat intakes.  The more balanced approach, perhaps, could be to check that you aren’t overdoing the carbohydrates or the fats. Focus on eating real, unprocessed foods – like our great grandparents did. They weren’t so obsessive about it all.

And the book? No need to toss it out; the advice on exercise and stress management is still useful.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'The Trap of the Low Fat Diet' 

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Why you shouldn't drink tea WITH your meals

Saturday, July 30, 2016
Isn’t a cuppa comforting? Whether it’s traditional black tea or herbal tea, the act of wrapping your hands around a warm mug is not only soothing, we often use it as a way to punctuate the day with a short break. Yet like so many things that are good for us, tea in excess can cause problems.

I’m all for taking restorative breaks – and yet if you’re focused on extracting the maxiumum nutrition from your food then there’s an aspect of tea drinking you should be aware of.

If you’ve ever read ‘Eating on the Wild Side’ by Jo Robinson, you’ll understand how much we need to focus on nutrient dense foods these days. That’s because what we eat now contrasts poorly with what we used to eat more of. Before modern high density agricultural practices became more popular than home farming and foraging, or gleaning wild foods.  Also, remember, our ability to absorb nutrients from food declines as we age, making the quest for nutrients more urgent and important. 

You may not realise how much that comforting cuppa could be interfering with your nutrient uptake. Blame it on the tannin content, a natural constituent of plants that imparts a dry, refreshing flavour. Tannin molecules love to grab hold of protein and mineral molecules, keeping them in their grip all the way through your body. As a result, those nutrients aren’t absorbed. You lose.

That’s not such a problem if you have a cuppa away from meals; but if you have tea with your meals, some of the protein and minerals like iron, zinc, iodine and the like aren’t going to make it from your food to your cells; the tannins in the tea will grab them first. Who wants to spend their hard-earned dollars on good quality food, only to have the tannins steal the nutrients.  All your effort went to waste.

Many popular teas contain tannins, including black tea, green tea, even herb teas like peppermint, cinnamon and sage. Should you give up tea? No need; as with many aspects of nutrition you don’t have to get extreme with this and pack your favourite tea pot away for good. Apart from not drinking tannin-rich teas with meals, there’s another way to help: Adding a little milk to your tea actually enables the tannins to grab the protein and calcium molecules in the milk.. Gives those tannins something to grab hold of besides the nutrients in your food.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy "How to avoid the tea & toast syndrome as you age'

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Flooding heavy periods; what they mean

Monday, July 25, 2016
It’s usual for your period to be a little heavier on some days; but it’s not normal when your period is so heavy you feel uncertain about leaving home; or if you get sudden floods of flow that come out in a gush; again, potentially overwhelming whatever sanitary protection you have in place.

Flooding or over-heavy periods can signal a serious problem that calls for medical attention; so in some cases your naturopath will suggest medical investigations also take place to support your natural treatment. 

First, let’s look at what’s supposed to happen:
The lining of your uterus should build up gradually in the first two weeks of your cycle, under the direction of oestrogen. Then, after ovulation, increasing progesterone prompts your uterine lining to mature, to a point where it could well look after any fertilised egg that embeds in it. But if the egg isn’t fertilised your hormone levels drop and, without those ongoing directives from oestrogen and progesterone, the lining is shed. The total amount? Less than 80mls (but who measures??) You would think this loss would happen in a tidy fashion, like an ice block melting; but instead the lining is shed in a piecemeal fashion; a clump here, a clump there, until it’s all shed. 

That’s what’s supposed to happen; but for many women that’s not what happens. Here are some of the causes, then I’ll set out some of the naturopathic treatments.

1. An imbalance between oestrogen and progesterone can create an excessively thick or poorly formed lining that sheds in an equally untidy fashion. Remember that oestrogen promotes growth, progesterone promotes maturing of the lining. So if you have too much oestrogen in comparison to progesterone you can over-grow an untidy, poorly structured endometrial lining.

2. A body that’s inflamed creates higher levels of prostaglandins. Inflammation promotes dilation of blood vessels and affects blood clotting too.

3. Fibroids, or leiomyomas, are benign growths that can develop within the uterus and sometimes cause heavy periods. They can grow so big they affect your bladder function. Often hormone imbalances, stress and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to their development. Your doctor can arrange ultrasound to confirm whether you have fibroids, and monitor their size.

4. Uterine polyps are abnormal growths that can develop when cell building and breakdown isn’t happening in a tidy fashion. Because they behave differently to healthy cells, they can cause flooding. Like intestinal polyps, they’re regarded as potentially unsafe, a sign that cells are unhealthy. 

5. Endometriosis or adenomyosis are the technical terms for growth of endometrial cells outside the uterus or within the uterus muscle wall rather than on the inside surface of the womb. If you have endometriosis or adenomyosis you’ll know – the pain is excruciating.

6. Pelvic inflammation due to infection can produce flooding. Where there’s inflammation, there’s prostaglandins, which means changes to blood clotting and often pain too.

7. An IUD (or mirena coil) can produce heavy bleeding; but if you have this device installed you really should see your medical doctor for investigation (as the device may have slipped out of place).

8. Having your ‘tubes tied’, or a tubal ligation (where your fallopian tubes are surgically blocked) shouldn’t change your menstrual pattern, including to promote flooding. But my clinical experience has been that sometimes, it does. Whether it changes hormones or whether it’s from the trauma of surgery, I don’t know. 

9. Blood clotting disorders can cause menstrual flooding. 

10. An under-active thyroid gland (called hypothyroidism) can bring on heavy periods. Sorting out whether the cause of your heavy/flooding periods is hypothyroidism rather than oestrogen dominance is something your practitioner can help define.

11. If you have diabetes and are obese you might develop heavy periods (fat cells and insulin resistance affect your hormones). This is often the case in PCOS, where metabolic dysfunction and hormone imbalance collaborate to produce some really ugly symptoms.

12. Poor liver function can influence your periods, because your liver is where excess hormones are cleared from your bloodstream. Often you’ll notice your blood tests show a low level of SHBG (sex hormone binding globulin). 
So, what can your naturopath do to help heavy or flooding periods?

Your naturopath’s first task will be to locate the underlying cause – examining your hormone balance as well as assessing for the presence of inflammation, stress, excess fat cells, insulin resistance, thyroid problems, sluggish liver function, inadequate diet – in other words, looking at your health in a holistic way.

Herbs are my preferred tool for managing heavy or flooding periods. We may use a liquid herbal mixture, or tablets combining herbs and nutrients. Sometimes I prefer to use homoeopathic remedies. Which herbs or homoeopathics we use will depend on the severity of your symptoms and what is evident as the underlying cause. Expect some directives about altering your diet, fitness training or stress management if they’re contributing.

How long will it take to resolve? My rule-of-thumb for addressing hormonal problems is to anticipate a reasonable response within three months – although your symptoms are likely to improve in the first cycle. If your presenting symptoms are so severe that I don’t think herbs will be enough; or if I suspect something more serious is behind it all, expect to be directed to see your doctor also. (Usually I will write a written referral to your doctor to provide background that gives them a head start).

Now you know what can cause flooding or heavy periods, and what can be done about them, don’t wait for another difficult cycle to happen – reach out for help.

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'Why Your Hormones Can Misbehave In Perimenopause'

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How to assess your gut function

Monday, July 25, 2016
What’s normal for gut function? Most people confine their discussions about what their intestines are doing only to their closest confidants. But without being able to compare what’s happening with your gut to what is regarded as normal or healthy, you can struggle along for months and years, quietly suffering. Wondering if anyone else is experiencing the same discomfort and embarrassment you are. 

At what point do you reach out for professional help? After all, talking this over with a practitioner is going to take time you don’t have as well as money that you’d probably rather spend elsewhere. So knowing what you can fix yourself and at what point you really need to reach out for assistance is helpful. Also, you don’t want to feel embarrassed, sitting down with a practitioner about your problematic bowels only to have them tell you there’s nothing wrong. That’s irksome.

First, here are clues that all is well with your gut: This is how a healthy length of intestines functions:

1. You have a regular (i.e daily) bowel motion. It might be twice a day rather than once; but certainly not five or six a day, and you don’t regularly miss more than a day or so without sitting down to do the deed.

2. If you have more than one bowel motion a day, it isn’t in quick succession (i.e one bowel motion, then you have to return in 30 minutes or so to finish off the job).

3. The form and colour of your faeces is fairly consistent, and varies with what you eat. (You can use the Bristol Stool chart to help)

4. You have a satisfying feeling of ‘job complete’ after a bowel motion.

5. You can’t identify what you ate through looking at your faeces; the presence of undigested food particles flags incomplete digestion.

6. No-one is complaining about your flatulence. Everyone farts, that’s normal; but not so much that it’s embarrassing.

7. Your waistband doesn’t become increasingly tight as the day progresses; i.e you don’t feel like your abdomen blows up like a balloon, leaving your tummy tight and round by evening then deflated again by morning.

Secondly, here are clues you need professional investigation of your gut function sooner rather than later:

1. You have the location of every public toilet within a 20km radius of your home memorised, because you often have to utilise them, and often urgently.

2. You’re experiencing abdominal pain, regularly. 

3. The form of your bowel motions changes within a week from hard little pellets to watery diarrhoea. What comes out each day is unpredictable.

4. You see blood in the toilet bowel after a bowel motion.

If you feel that something’s not quite right with your gut function but can’t precisely put your finger on what it is, I suggest you keep a bowel diary for two weeks. A small notebook can help.

Some other helpful tools:
- ‘A layman’s guide to IBS and diverticulitis’ a free e-book download, is available from this web site.

- The Bristol stool chart can help you define more clearly what your faeces look like. Especially useful for describing what’s been happening to a practitioner.

- A squat stool to relieve the pressure on your puborectalis muscle. (Find out more about this in this article)

Having decided that yes, you really do need to talk this over with a professional, how do you find the right practitioner?

- Locate a naturopath that particularly likes to work with gut disorders (tip: They’ll have articles and free resources available on their web site.) Google ‘naturopath your town name’ to locate qualified and accredited naturopaths in your area.

- Take your gut diary with you to the consultation. If you haven’t kept a diary, make some notes on what’s concerning you before you go. (It’s easy to forget when you get to the consultation). 

If you enjoyed this article you might also enjoy 'nine bowel signs you shouldn't ignore'

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What offal can offer

Saturday, July 23, 2016
offal for nutritionMany of us living in this beautiful valley have a solid focus on nutrition for health: So we’ll seek out fresher locally grown and organic produce. Drive the extra mile to access grass-fed meats and wild caught seafood. We’ll even take the time to create stock from scratch. But one super-nutritious food with a repellent reputation is easily overlooked in our wealthy modern culture.

When it comes to meat, our ancestors ate more of the animal than we do, including the organs. Nose-to-tail eating was the norm, unlike today, when it’s sometimes regarded as a quirkier way to eat. But like many old nutrition practices, the inclusion of offal in the weekly meal plan offers a lot. 

Offal may be healthy, but it’s certainly earned the ‘ew yuk’ reputation. The texture is certainly different, even when you’ve been able to get past mental pictures of the role those organs had. As an antidote, our ancestors developed fancy terms like ‘lambs fry’ or ‘tripe’ to conceal the reality of what was on the plate. The only offal with a glamorous reputation these days is chicken liver pate.

You can see how you could easily skim past the organ meats for sale in favour of the muscle meats we’re more familiar with. But offal actually has a lot to offer you when it comes to nutrition, and certainly for the budget-savvy. It has the same protein content as muscle meat, and also the fat-soluble vitamins A D and E as well as B group vitamins, iron, plus zinc. And it usually costs less. Bonus.

The range of nutrients in offal is impressive: Vitamin A to boost skin and eye health. Vitamin D, with an important role in bone health. And E, too, the skin vitamin. Abundant quantities of B group vitamins, essential for the health of your nervous system. B12 is especially rich in liver, a nutrient needed more as you age as the ability of your stomach to extract it from food declines. The iron content is needed for energy, and zinc for immunity as well as skin health. Clearly, offal is good for you. 

What most of us are missing, though, is knowledge: how to prepare offal to make it more appetising. You can locate that through old-time recipes like steak-and-kidney pie or liverwurst. Perhaps lambs fry & bacon.  Your grandmother’s recipe collection or directions from the new wave of nose-to-tail chef bloggers could be a good resource.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy this recipe for lambs liver with a sharp sauce.

Image credit: Holstein Face by LadyHeart via MorgueFile

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6 mistakes that block PCOS recovery

Monday, July 18, 2016

Serious about your PCOS treatment? Check that you aren't making any of these fundamental errors that can hinder your recovery:

Wishing your PCOS would just go away1. Wishing it would just go away

It’s a natural human tendency to do nothing, and sometimes this approach is actually exactly what you need to do. When a health problem emerges our first impulse is to wait and see if it goes away - and sometimes it does. That’s why when you visit your doctor with a health problem, he or she might prescribe nothing and ask you to come back in two weeks. They know that in some cases your symptoms may have emerged from sudden stress, a passing bug, or be something that will resolve itself in time. 

Bodies naturally and automatically work constantly to remain at certain set-points, called allostasis. For instance, if your temperature rises your body will start sweating to cause evaporation that cools you down again. Once your temperature has returned to normal, the sweating process is switched off. 

When you have a complex disorder like PCOS it’s tempting at first to wait to see if things get better. Your next period might be easier.  Maybe you’ll lose weight if you work out harder at the gym. Maybe making the final split from a dysfunctional relationship will change your mood for the better. Your head can start to recite a long list of justifications like this for doing nothing; even more so when life is busy. But when it comes to PCOS, the problem won’t go away on its own.

Hormones tend to fall out of balance in slow motion
, so it’s unlikely you’ll wake up one morning to find you’ve suddenly developed PCOS. One week passes, then another. Some good weeks, some awful weeks. You wish these problems would just go away, but they’re simply reflecting the growing imbalance in your hormones. The longer you put off taking action, the more dysfunctional your hormones are likely to become. The more amplified your symptoms become, the more treatment it will take to restore your hormonal health.

In the meantime, significant relationships can be permanently damaged by your sudden mood shifts, or you might lose your job because your boss is fed up with your mood swings impacting on your work. Your skin may become increasingly scarred from acne and now you have to shop for ‘plus size’ clothes. Your periods, if they happen at all, are more eventful each time with flooding, clots and pain. 

It's natural to feel overwhelmed at this point.

There’s no getting around it. You have a big job ahead of you to treat your PCOS and this is why having the right team around you can make a difference. PCOS is a ‘heterogeneous’ disorder, which means there are many possible contributors and many ways the symptoms can present. Like the causes, there are many changes needed to overcome the problems. At first this can seem overwhelming. You’ve visited several practitioners, both medical and alternative, and been given different explanations for the cause of your PCOS. You’ve been prodded, stuck with needles, had blood drawn, maybe had a glucose tolerance test done, or even been put under anaesthetic for exploratory surgery. By the time you get to the official diagnosis you’re probably emotionally exhausted. But after all that you then have to choose the best treatment for you from the smorgasbord available and make what seems like a multitude of changes to your diet and lifestyle. At this point you may feel like a rabbit in headlights, unsure which way to jump. It’s tempting to do nothing and wish it would all go away, but that won’t make you better. 

The way out of this sense of overwhelm
is to sit down with the practitioner you feel most comfortable with and, together, lay all the information on the table. Your practitioner is accustomed to sorting out what seems like a mountain of information and identifying patterns, then discerning the treatment needed to get results. A good practitioner will be happy to spend as much time as you need explaining what all your information means, and summarising it for you.

Take a deep breath and resolve to do whatever it takes to get your PCOS under control. Life will be more fun when you do!

Don't buy supplements without professional guidance2. Buying supplements without professional guidance

The internet is a wonderful, wonderful invention. We have all the world’s information at our fingertips. Unfortunately, we have the world’s dis-information at our fingertips too, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. A multitude of diagnostic health sites are out there waiting for you to type in your symptoms and produce the instant answer. However, a common pattern emerges when you rely completely on the internet for your health care: Firstly, you could plug your symptom details into a medical diagnosis and ten minutes later you’re convinced what you have is fatal. Or, you get sucked into buying an expensive range of supplements from overseas, or you succumb to the emotive language of a web site promoting an extreme diet as the answer to all health problems. Despite these traps the internet also contains much reliable and credible information you can digest before you visit a practitioner for assistance. 

The reaction you can get from your health professional to your investigative work will vary. Some practitioners may be threatened by your initiative and dismiss your research efforts. If this happens, perhaps you should re-assess your relationship with your practitioner. A practitioner who is comfortable with your research, and the questions that come from it, will be interested to hear what you found. He or she will discuss with you how your research could fit into your treatment. This way your treatment becomes a collaboration, which is even more powerful than traditional practitioner-patient relationships and your results will be even better.

It’s important to become adept at critical analysis when you’re searching the internet for health information. Let’s say you type ‘PCOS treatment’ into the search engine. You’ll be offered several million options. How do you choose what site is worth visiting, what’s worth reading and what’s invalid? First, check the credentials of the web site. Is it a government agency? A PCOS support association? A health writer? An online store? The more reliable the source, the more reliable the information may be - but not always. If what you’re reading doesn’t make sense, just move on. There will be plenty of other sites providing more reliable information. 

Next, form an opinion on why the web site was created. Was it to genuinely provide information and guidance? (Government and association web sites often fall into this category). If there are products for sale, you can reliably conclude that the web site was created to sell you products, so move on. Be very wary if the language of the web site is emotional. Scientific facts and valid information can be presented in an interesting way without having to resort to emotive language that may  distort the facts. As you visit more sites you’ll develop a keen sense of what sounds right and which sites make you feel the web site isn’t for you.

Get a support team behind you for PCOS treatment3. Trying to fix this all by yourself

Solving a problem feels great. You can feel yourself glow with a sense of achievement. Like when something you’re cooking turns out perfectly, or you have a ‘good hair’ day or you make your budget stretch successfully. But when it comes to a complex problem like treating PCOS, you will get better results when you enlist the right help. If you work on this problem alone you have to learn all about PCOS, devise an effective treatment plan and monitor your progress. It’s going to take a lot of time, effort and possibly quite a few failed treatment experiments. Besides, if you go it alone you miss out on the emotional support of having a practitioner behind you. Becoming well informed about PCOS can give you a real sense of empowerment and knowing about PCOS and the treatments available may enable you to select the treatment approach that’s right for you. But while you’re doing that you need to engage the help of a practitioner who is experienced in treating PCOS who understands the human body and your symptoms.

Choice in PCOS treatment4. Not considering other treatments

There are many different treatments available for PCOS, all with the same aim - to get you back to your real self, and reduce the likelihood of developing long term chronic disorders from uncontrolled PCOS. Generally, there are two approaches to PCOS treatment: orthodox and alternative, and sometimes they can work together. When you talk to your doctor about your PCOS, they will think about what they know to help treat you effectively. This can include medication or surgery, but also diet and lifestyle considerations. 

When you talk to your naturopath they work from what they know as well.
It will be a different treatment from the doctor’s because naturopaths use some different tools. Instead of medications or surgery they will consider herbal remedies, homoeopathy and nutrients. Just like the doctor, they consider diet and lifestyle changes as an important part of your treatment.  Sometimes though, when you’ve chosen one style of treatment you can’t apply the other as well. For example, if you choose to utilise the oral contraceptive pill to manage your hormones, your naturopath will not be able to use some of their herbal remedies. If they did the two treatments could clash, bringing on unpleasant and possibly dangerous side effects.

What’s important to realise is that you have a choice about which treatment best suits you. When you’re sitting in a practitioner’s office it’s easy to feel intimidated, or that you have to go along with what they suggest. You don’t. There’s no need to make a decision about the type of PCOS treatment you want until you have the different treatment plans to consider. If you feel intimidated or pressured by your practitioner (whether orthodox or alternative) or feel they disapprove of the choice you make, it’s time to seek out a new practitioner. After all, your treatment is going to be a long term project. You want to feel comfortable and supported with every member of your health care team.

When you have chosen your preferred treatment (orthodox, alternative, or a combination), you can expect plenty of unsolicited advice from other people. Comments like “my sister’s friend’s cousin tried that and it didn’t work” or “that therapy doesn’t work” or “you’re being sucked into their system”. “My friend read on the internet about this great product that cured her”. Really unhelpful stuff and especially discouraging if you are feeling nervous about your choice of treatment anyway. The people who make these comments mean well but keep in mind that it’s your body and your decision about how you get better.

PCOS and sugar dont mix5. Refusing to change what you eat

Here’s one of the trade secrets: what naturopaths do to assess the motivation level of a client. When considering diet changes your practitioner may suggest you drop a particular food from your diet to see what effect this has on your health. If the response is “but I love my [insert name of food]” then your practitioner knows you have very little motivation to make real change in your diet and that your treatment progress will be hindered by your reluctance to change. It’s going to be tough, sure, but you’ll have good support backing you up.

Human bodies are incredibly resilient and adaptive. Consider that throughout the world there are many different countries with different diets that reflect their culture and geographic location. A Mediterranean meal looks different to a Japanese meal, or a central African meal, and western meals are different again. And yet our bodies manage to grow and thrive despite different food inputs.

Women with PCOS are more susceptible to the influence of certain nutritional components than the rest of the population. They generally don’t handle sugar well, or fast-release (high GI) carbohydrate foods like white bread. They need to check dietary fibre intake regularly. In practical terms, that means if you have PCOS and you’re eating mostly take-away, soft drinks and sweets, you can expect your body to develop unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms in return. But if you nourish your body with high quality protein, vegetables, fruit, legumes and nuts, you can expect your PCOS symptoms will recede. What you choose to put in your mouth makes a difference, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat fun foods ever again.

Making changes to what you eat can be easier than you think and you don’t have to spend the rest of your life deprived of treats. After assessing how motivated you are for change and your food preferences your practitioner will design meal plans that move you closer to your goal of eradicating PCOS and its symptoms. If despite talking with your practitioner you’re still feeling resistant to changing what you eat, take time to ponder what you would gain from changing your diet and what you would lose. Then ask yourself if it’s worth the change.

PCOS fitness exercise6. Believing you don’t have to exercise

From time to time you’ll come across diets or supplements that promise amazing weight loss results without exercise. Indeed, they pledge to make you lose numbers on the scale without exercising but what will happen is exactly what you don’t want to happen. 

There are two types of weight loss: losing muscle and losing fat. Losing muscle is what sets you up to regain the weight, plus a little more, when you stop dieting. You want to lose fat instead, because muscle cells and fat cells behave differently and have different appetites. Muscle cells are active cells. They use energy 24/7, even when you’re not moving, and use even more energy when you are moving. The right amount of muscle cells gives you a toned, healthy look and keeps your metabolism ticking over nicely. Fat cells, however, behave differently. They’re lazy and don’t do much except store fat – rather like that cupboard under the stairs filled with stuff you haven’t looked at for years. Fat cells don’t use any energy, they just sit around. In excess, too many fat cells give you a blobby look. Worse, fat cells emit chemical messengers and hormones that perpetuate the fat accumulation cycle.

When you embark on one of these magic ‘no-exercise-needed’ diets, what you want to happen doesn’t always happen. Instead of reaching for the excess fat cells to make up the calorie deficit, your body will burn up muscle cells instead. The numbers on the scale will go down, certainly, but when you return to a normal diet, or go on a food splurge, the weight can bounce back on plus more. Your metabolism is now running slower because you have fewer muscle cells, so you don’t need as many calories to maintain your body. The extra fuel just gets shoved into fat cells, making you look flabby as well as fat.

This is why exercise is an important aspect of your treatment. It builds muscle cells and these speed up your metabolism, improve your sensitivity to insulin, and burn off stress hormones.

So - what has been holding YOU back in your PCOS treatment?

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Olwen Anderson @olwenanderson


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