How to Prioritize Self-Care When Living with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

February 8, 2024
A women with an image of the uterus and ovaries overlying her abdomen

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex hormonal disorder that affects between 6% and 12% of women of reproductive age.1 It is the leading cause of anovulatory infertility in women.

Living with PCOS can be challenging, both physically and emotionally. This is why it is important to prioritize PCOS self-care. There is currently no cure for PCOS; however, lifestyle changes can improve symptoms.

Understanding PCOS and its Impact on Women’s Health

PCOS is characterized by hormonal imbalances (increased androgens) and cysts on the ovaries, along with irregular menstrual cycles. High androgen levels can prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg each month (anovulatory), causing infertility. High androgen levels can lead to unwanted facial hair growth and severe acne.

Researchers have not identified the cause of PCOS, but it is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.2 Several genes have been linked to PCOS.3  

Symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Excessive hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen, and upper thighs
  • Severe acne
  • Acanthosis nigricans (patches of thickened, velvety, darkened skin)

Weight gain, insulin resistance, and mood changes are also associated with having PCOS.

The Importance of PCOS Self-Care

When managing PCOS, it is important to consider changes in menstrual cycles, elevated androgen levels, difficulties with fertility, and metabolic risk factors. The top priorities for women with this condition are usually to establish normal ovulatory cycles and lower their metabolic risks. Lifestyle interventions are usually the initial approach to addressing these two health priorities for most people with PCOS.

If you are living with PCOS, you are likely aware of the significance of prioritizing healthy habits. Consider the following and see if there are any areas where you can improve your PCOS self-care.

Healthy foods

1. Consume a nutritious, well-balanced diet

Eating a balanced and nutrient-rich diet is essential for managing PCOS symptoms. Focus on incorporating whole foods, such as fruits, non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats, into your meals.4

Choose complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, to help regulate your blood sugar. These foods with a low glycemic index are more slowly digested and help your body avoid insulin spikes, followed by blood sugar drops. Fiber-rich foods support a diverse microbiome, help with digestive health, increase satiety, and stabilize blood sugar levels.

  • High-glycemic foods (70–100) cause higher spikes in blood glucose more quickly
  • Medium-glycemic foods (50–69) cause lower spikes
  • Low-glycemic foods (20–49) cause the lowest spikes or none at all

Avoid processed foods, sugary drinks, and high-fat foods that can exacerbate inflammation and insulin resistance.

2. Prioritize regular physical activity and exercise

Engaging in regular physical activity can help regulate hormone levels, improve insulin sensitivity, and support weight management. Incorporate movement throughout your day. Those steps add up!

Increased physical activity throughout the day can help improve your5

  • Weight management
  • Fasting insulin level
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Mood
  • Blood pressure
  • Sleep quality
  • Reproductive function

Experts recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense exercise each week, along with two strength-building sessions each week. Increase this to about 300 minutes per week for increased calorie burn.

Consistent exercise in moderation is best. Overexercise can increase stress and negatively affect ovulation and reproductive health.

3. Practice stress management techniques

Chronic stress can exacerbate PCOS symptoms, so incorporating stress management techniques into your daily routine is essential. Deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness are some relaxation techniques to try. Engaging in enjoyable activities and practicing self-care rituals can also help reduce stress.

Incorporating stress management techniques into your daily routine can help regulate your cortisol levels and promote emotional well-being as part of your PCOS self-care plan.

4. Get quality sleep

Prioritize getting enough sleep each night to support healthy hormone regulation and overall well-being. If you wake frequently through the night or snore, ask your doctor about sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is more common in people with PCOS. Regardless of body mass index or age, a longitudinal study showed that sleep apnea is more common in people with PCOS than in people without.6 Hypersomnia and insomnia are also more common in people with PCOS. The prevalence of sleep disorders may be up to 20% higher in women with PCOS compared to women without PCOS.7

Establish a bedtime routine, create a sleep-friendly environment, and limit exposure to electronic devices before bed. Aim for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Woman living with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) who practices stress management as part of her PCOS self-care plan.

5. Seek support from healthcare professionals

Working with healthcare professionals who specialize in PCOS can provide invaluable guidance and support. They can assist you in developing a personalized treatment plan that includes medication options, dietary recommendations, and lifestyle changes tailored to your specific requirements. They can also provide advice on helpful PCOS self-care strategies.

6. Practice mindful eating

We have all probably had the experience of sitting down to eat a meal, and before we know it, the food is gone. We ate it without tasting or savoring it. Whether we were distracted by technology or a stressful situation that occupied our minds, we consumed an entire meal and were left unsatisfied.

Mindful eating entails being present in the eating experience and paying attention to your body’s hunger and fullness cues. Slow down, savor each bite, and choose foods that will nourish your body and help you achieve your health goals. Avoid emotional eating by practicing portion control.

7. Stop any unhealthy habits

If you smoke or consume alcohol in excess, seek help to quit. Medications, support groups, and therapy are all available to support you while you quit.

The PCOS International guidelines highlight the importance of assessing alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking to improve fertility in women with PCOS.7

Three women talking after yoga

8. Stay connected with support networks

Building a support network of family, friends, and other women with PCOS can provide emotional support and a sense of community. Join online support groups, attend local events, or seek out counseling to connect with others who understand your experiences. Learn how other women incorporate PCOS self-care throughout their day.

9. Educate yourself about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Take the time to educate yourself about PCOS and its impact on your body. Understanding the condition can help you make informed decisions about your health and treatment options. Stay up-to-date with the latest research and seek reliable sources of information.

10. Consider Supplements

Supplements such as myoinositol and vitamin D have some research support. They may improve insulin sensitivity, which can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Lipotropics and vitamin B12 can improve how your body handles glucose and metabolizes fat for energy.

Self-care is an essential component of managing PCOS and improving overall quality of life. By prioritizing healthy habits, seeking support, and practicing self-compassion, women with PCOS can find balance, resilience, and empowerment in their journey toward health and well-being. Take the time to prioritize PCOS self-care when planning your daily schedule.

How to Prioritize Self-Care When Living with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

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Frequently Asked Questions

How can I live a healthy lifestyle with PCOS?

Living a healthy lifestyle with PCOS involves maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, managing stress through relaxation techniques, ensuring adequate sleep, staying hydrated, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and working closely with healthcare providers to address PCOS symptoms and complications.

What are coping skills for PCOS?

Coping skills for PCOS include educating oneself about the condition, seeking support from healthcare professionals and support groups, setting realistic goals for symptom management, practicing stress-reduction techniques such as meditation or yoga, and adhering to a personalized treatment plan developed with a healthcare provider. Developing coping skills and PCOS self-care are both important if you live with PCOS>

Can you live a normal life with PCOS?

Yes, individuals with PCOS can lead normal lives by effectively managing their symptoms and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. PCOS is a manageable condition, and with proper treatment and lifestyle modifications, many people with PCOS can achieve good health and well-being.

What are the four stages of PCOS?

PCOS does not have distinct stages in the same way that some medical conditions do. It is characterized by various symptoms and features that may change over time. Common features of PCOS include irregular periods, high levels of androgens (male hormones), and small cysts on the ovaries. The severity and combination of these features can vary among individuals with PCOS.

Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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