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PCOS Self-Care: 4 Lifestyle Changes To Make To Improve Symptoms

Molly Downey, RDN, LDN

Published in Women's Health

6 min read

August 23, 2021
August 31, 2023
a woman holding her stomach
a woman holding her stomach

PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome is an endocrine health condition commonly affecting women of reproductive age, and it can have a number of frustrating symptoms. From irregular periods to excessive hair growth, weight gain, and even infertility, PCOS can have a significant impact on your well-being.

This condition is linked to high androgen levels, or male hormones in the body, which cause fluid-filled follicles (known as cysts) to form on your ovaries and/or other symptoms mentioned above.  Fortunately, there are certain dietary adjustments you can make that have been found to be beneficial for some people experiencing PCOS symptoms.

While a balanced diet is a crucial part of any healthcare management plan, there are also many non-dietary lifestyle changes that can be effective for anyone dealing with a PCOS diagnosis. Read on to learn about five self-care lifestyle changes you can make today that can help you if you are dealing with this hormonal disorder.

Why Self-Care Can Be Effective for PCOS

a woman touching her stomach

While “self-care” might imply taking care of yourself without the support of others, what we really mean here is prioritizing your health needs and making proactive improvements to your habits. People who have PCOS may be at a higher risk of health conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea, and in some cases, endometrial cancer.

A diagnosis of PCOS can be difficult to face, but as we’ll explain in this article, there are many lifestyle changes you can make to help combat some of the symptoms.

1) Optimize Your Diet

a veggie wrap and a drink

Nutrition plays an pivotal role when it comes to PCOS treatment. Working with a qualified nutritionist to craft a diet full of anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy, glucose-supportive, and fiber-rich foods can have a significant impact on hormonal imbalances that come as a result of PCOS.

Making sure you’re following a healthy diet can also help you improve your overall metabolic health, and may even support healthy weight loss. Foods like fatty fish and other lean protein, olive oil, whole grains, sources of antioxidants, legumes, and avocados are just a few examples of the best foods to include in your PCOS diet. Of course, your diet should ideally be further customized to your personal response beyond general recommendations for the best results. 

Polycystic ovarian syndrome is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, but staying on top of your diet to keep your blood sugar stable can improve your insulin sensitivity and support weight management. Take a look at some more nutrition strategies for PCOS recommended by the Nutrisense nutrition team that may help you improve your diet and hold yourself accountable.

2) Get Appropriate Exercise

a woman lifting dumbbells

Getting appropriate amounts of physical activity is important. What does “appropriate” mean? It means tailoring activity type and amount to your unique needs and tolerance, including your current health conditions and overall physical conditioning level. The goal is to hit a sweet spot where you are supporting your health without over-stressing your body. 

Not only is an appropriate amount of physical activity good for your physical health, it can also support better mental health. Generally, a mix of moderate-intensity aerobic or cardiovascular exercise and light to moderate strength training could be a good place to start. If you are struggling with chronic fatigue, however, you may need to start at a much slower and gentler place guided by your medical team. 

For people with PCOS, exercise can feel frustrating because they can exercise and not see any results, or only slow effects disproportionate to the amount of exercise they do. At the same time, if you over-exercise, this can increase stress hormone levels in the body and exacerbate the other symptoms of PCOS.

A modified basic regimen of workouts, three to five workouts per week may be ideal for some adults depending on your fitness level.

3) Reduce Stress Levels

a woman in a yoga pose

As we mentioned above, exercise in amounts not appropriate for your body may add more stress. However, when applied in the right context, lower intensity exercises such as zone 2 training or other forms of movement can be a valuable form of stress management. There are many types of stressors and strategies for coping with them. 

Psychosocial stressors are what most people think of when they think of sources of stress. However, nutrient imbalances, food or supplement intolerances, or even medication intolerances and environmental exposures may also be significant sources of stress and contribute to other women’s health conditions. 

Stress hormones levels may be elevated in people with PCOS. According to family nurse practitioner Dr. Tara Brandner, "Stress management is paramount for individuals with PCOS. Chronic stress can worsen hormonal imbalances and exacerbate symptoms due to cortisol." Some stress reduction tips include:

  • Working with a nutrition professional to ensure your nutritional needs are being met, including helping to assess any potential food intolerances or supplement dosage concerns
  • Reducing caffeine intake, especially if you are sensitive to it
  • Including breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing that may help lower stress hormones
  • Meditation, which can be helpful as a longer-term reset when practiced regularly
  • Improve your sleep hygiene
  • Seek social support

4) Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

a woman laying in bed asleep

Poor sleep is a source of stress, so we mention it above as well! But it’s so important, we want to give it its own category. Many hormones influence the sleep/wake cycle, so PCOS is unfortunately and unsurprisingly associated with sleep disturbances. These disturbances may include sleep apnea, excessive daytime sleepiness, and various forms of insomnia like difficulty getting to sleep, difficulty staying asleep, or waking earlier than intended.

PCOS is associated with higher testosterone levels and lower progesterone levels. In women, low progesterone is also associated with sleep irregularities. So, both stress hormones and sex hormones likely have a role to play here. Dr. Brandner says, "Sleep deprivation can disrupt hormone regulation, making PCOS symptoms more challenging to manage. Stress and poor sleep can create a vicious cycle in PCOS."

Likewise, poor sleep quality is associated with insulin resistance and obesity even in people without PCOS. Sleeplessness can lead to increased stress, which can, in turn, lead to higher blood glucose levels.

Here are some sleep hygiene tips to try out:

  • Consciously wind down your day before trying to sleep
  • Create a relaxing, dark space to help you sleep better
  • Avoid a high-carb meal before bedtime
  • Make sure your sleep is free from interruptions like notifications or work obligations
  • Properly time your food and coffee intake to not interfere with sleep
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Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.

With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.

When you join the Nutrisense CGM program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.

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