Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine disorder that affects 1 in 10 women. It is a leading cause of infertility, and in fact, many women discover that they have PCOS when trying to conceive. Besides infertility, it’s important to understand the lifelong health implications of PCOS. In this article, we discuss one of the most common side effects of PCOS: heart disease.
Regardless of whether they are overweight or not, women with PCOS are at higher risk at an earlier age for atherosclerosis (plaque buildup inside the arteries), high blood pressure (hypertension), and heart attack.
Fortunately, managing PCOS and heart disease with diet and lifestyle changes can be the first line of defense. If you have PCOS and/or heart disease, work with your healthcare provider to develop a well-rounded health maintenance plan.
Connecting Insulin Resistance and Heart Disease
Insulin is a hormone that controls blood sugar levels. Up to 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells are resistant to insulin and do not efficiently absorb glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream. Therefore, an insulin resistant person produces more insulin to help process glucose. This high level of insulin in the blood is called hyperinsulinemia. Hyperinsulinemia is associated with type 2 diabetes and can lead to other serious health concerns such as heart disease.
Managing PCOS and Heart Disease with Exercise
The buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries, known as atherosclerosis, leads to clogged arteries. Regular exercise can help fend off atherosclerosis. Studies show that exercise helps endothelial function, and poor endothelial functioning is what can is what can lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
Exercise also encourages your cells to use insulin more efficiently, decreasing the excess insulin that may be circulating in your system. PCOS fitness expert, Erika Volk, recommends strength training as the best type of exercise for those with PCOS.
Start slowly. Ask a friend to go on walks with you. Also, scour the internet to check out exercise programs that interest you, and then try a class for the activities you find exciting. Experts recommend making a plan for putting exercise in your schedule, that way you’ll follow through. It may sound obvious, but choose exercises that you like, you’ll be more likely to keep doing them!
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
Eating a heart-healthy diet can play an important part in reducing your risk for heart disease. A heart-healthy diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, lean meats, healthy fats and whole grains. It is low in saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium and trans fats. Omega-3 fatty acids also play a very important role in your heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential polyunsaturated fats. A nutrient is “essential” when your body does not make it on its own. You must consume it through food. Three types of omega-3s include ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The benefits of EPA and DHA are in the news often, and these omega-3 fatty acids are linked to a reduction in risk of heart disease.
Get the omega-3 fatty acids you need by eating fatty fish more than twice a week. Some good fatty fish choices are salmon, herring, sardines, tuna, trout, and mackerel. If you’re concerned about mercury level or sustainability, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch site is a great place to do some research on the type of fish you plan to eat.
Sticking to a heart-healthy diet may also help you manage your weight. Losing weight can be a struggle though, especially for women with PCOS. A registered dietitian or nutritionist who is trained in PCOS management can personalize a weight loss plan for you, your food preferences and your lifestyle. Search here to find a nutrition professional.
If you have PCOS there are plenty of things you can do to decrease your risk for heart disease. Eating a heart-healthy diet that includes fish and exercising are the best ways to protect your heart. If you’re overweight, consider working with a nutrition professional to help you manage your weight.
For more tips on how you can help your heart health see this blog by PCOS Nutrition expert, Angela Grassi, MS, RDN, LDN.
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