Nearly everyone will have some mild acne somewhere on their body at some time in their life. Now if you are a woman with more persistent acne and you also have an irregular menstrual cycle or, more likely, a very late period which may only come every couple months, then you may have a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS for short). You wouldn’t be alone though, as upwards of 20% of women around the world, depending on the age group and type, also have it. PCOS is the leading cause of infertility, and so a lot of people are talking about it.
But what is going on, how are my acne and menstrual cycle related?
Women with PCOS tend to have higher amounts of androgens, the so-called male sex hormones, which stimulate the glands in the skin to produce more oil that will eventually clog the pores and cause acne. Higher androgens can also cause head hair loss as well as more facial hair, hence why they call them the male hormones! These same hormones also prevent the ovary from properly ovulating and as such a woman’s menstruation will be delayed (Some women with more stubborn PCOS are lucky to get one menstrual cycle per year!), If you are not ovulating regularly, then it is harder to become pregnant. Sometimes small cysts can be seen on the ovaries, which are eggs that got stuck and were not ovulated (not all women with PCOS have visible cysts, so don’t be confused by the name).
Ok, so higher androgens are to blame for my acne and irregular cycle, but why are they high in the first place?
Many women with PCOS lack the ability to process insulin correctly. Elevated insulin levels raise androgens (again, which causes acne, as well as preventing ovulation). Abdominal fat tends to be the most insulin resistant cells in the body, with about 50% of women with PCOS having a bigger waist to hip ratio (i.e. fat tummy but thinner upper and lower body), giving them more of an apple shape than that of a pear. But don’t be fooled. Even a thin woman may have this bad insulin-resistant fat in your abdomen in the form of visceral fat or fat that collects around the liver and pancreas, causing these organs not to perform correctly (this body type is often called a TOFI, or Thin on the Outside and Fat on the Inside).
Now, this is all informative, but what I can do about it? How do I clear up my acne and regulate my cycle?
I tell all my patients with PCOS to eat like a person with diabetes. They should restrict all sources of sugar coming into their diets, including foods like pasta, bread, roti, cookies, white rice, potatoes, fruit juice and especially pop. Because alcoholic drinks tend to be sweet, it’s nice to limit their intake as well. Eat lots of vegetables and protein at every meal. Nuts as a snack, rather than potato chips, work well. Eat foods which have a lower glycemic index, as they will lessen the spikes in your insulin levels. It is also good to keep your meal sizes smaller. Learn to live on less. Less overall calories in the diet will prevent weight gain, as well as promote weight loss. (For more information on this type of diet, I suggest reading Dr. Mosley’s, ‘The eight-week blood sugar diet’).
Exercise, or just moving around a lot, is also crucial as it helps to burn off fat and lower your insulin levels. Take the stairs, rather than elevator! Every iPhone comes with a step counter, strive to get ten thousand steps per day. Seems like a lot at first, but soon you will become addicted to achieving your goals. You can do it!
Herbal medicines can also help women with PCOS as they can help regulate the hormonal imbalances that are contributing to your condition. A good home remedy to start with is cinnamon, which is well known for improving blood circulation and regulating blood sugar. If your condition is more stubborn and severe, then a custom mix of herbal medicines, which can be prescribed by a qualified Doctor of Chinese medicine, may be needed to work more intensely.
Dr. Erikson is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine who focuses on the natural treatment of skin disease, migraine headaches, digestive issues like IBS, Crohn’s and colitis, as well as seasonal allergies. He may be reached by phone at 778.886.1180, or through his website at drerikson.com.