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It’s quite likely you’ve been told Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (aka PCOS) is in your genes. This is a common reason why women are incorrectly advised, ‘there is nothing you can do’. I’ve often heard this comment myself; it makes me cringe! So, is PCOS genetic?
The answer is more complicated and infinitely more empowering than it might first seem. First though, let me start with a personal story.
My Dad is not medically trained, but he has oodles of common sense and insight. If you look only at the woeful health of our family tree, one would think us genetically doomed to a nasty death before the end of our 50’s. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating. For as long as I can remember, my Mom and Dad have been health conscious. My Dad has talked about their health choices ‘rewriting a new family tree’. Their chosen habits over a lifespan have shown a genetic understanding that many experts would do well to take note of. And these habits have borne resulting fruits of good health.
A gene is the basic unit of heredity. Genes act as instructions to make molecules called proteins. These proteins act as messengers, enabling communication between one part of the body and another (our hormones, for example). These proteins act as antibodies to aid in protection; as enzymes, essential for thousands of the chemical reactions needed for us to function; for structure and support (in the lining of your knee joint, for example); and in transportation. While our genes are critical, their expression is equally so.
There has been a rising interest in the past decade on whether PCOS is genetic. While research points toward likely familial factors, no genes have been identified that are universally accepted as responsible for developing PCOS.
Our genetic makeup has not markedly changed over the past 40,000 years, yet the incidence of PCOS continues to steadily increase. The simple answer to the complicated question is, our living conditions and lifestyles have changed dramatically over this period.
I have often heard from women that PCOS tends to run in their family. That sisters, aunts, and cousins have also been diagnosed. There is certainly research to support this. Which, combined with my parents’ insights on heredity, piqued my interest many years ago.
If there are family reasons for ill health, but the genetic argument does not stack up, what is the link?
I want you to understand that each of the cells in your body has the same genetic information. Yet each tissue is structurally and functionally very different. In one location, we develop bone, in another muscle, in another brain or breast or gut. The surrounding cells − and the environment they are in − determine which part of the genetic code is expressed, and which tissue they become. Although we have the same genetic material in each cell, a gene can be turned on or turned off, expressed or not.
So, the next question begs − how can the expression of a gene be turned on or off?
I love the field of epigenetics! Why? Because it’s so darn empowering!
PCOS is a complicated syndrome, and while our evidence-base is growing, our understanding really only grazes the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Saying that, we now know that PCOS arises and advances due to a complex relationship between genetic and epigenetic factors.
Epigenetics means above genetics. It is the study of what causes a gene to be turned on, or turned off. Epigenetic factors do not change the structure of the genes; but they significantly change whether genes are, or are not, expressed.
Think of a gene like a home blueprint.
The blueprint can be astonishingly beautiful and well thought out. But the expression, or the build, of the actual house depends on the skills of the tradesmen, the composition and stability of the site, the materials used in its construction, the infrastructure connecting to it, like the water hosing, electrical cables, gas pipes, and sewer. Using this analogy, we can see that even the best blueprint can result in disaster if these other elements are subpar.
Epigenetic factors like lifestyle choices, including our regular food habits, environmental factors like the air we breathe and the water we drink, our stress levels, if we choose to smoke, drink or use recreational drugs, affect the way our genes express themselves, for better or for worse.
As my parents have innately known, lifestyle impacts on genetic expression in a significant way.
The thrilling part is that – because this is so – we have a great deal of control. There is much we can do!
By choosing an optimal lifestyle, we promote healthy genetic expression and can powerfully transform our wellbeing. On the flip side, if we have not been educated about ideal PCOS lifestyle approaches, we may unknowingly promote ill health. Helping you to choose well is why I do what I do and what this article aims to give you: initial, yet potent, insights to improve your genetic expression and understand is PCOS genetic or not.
Now, to the fun stuff…
As our genes respond to the environment we supply them, let’s look at some simple steps you can take to improve the health of your gene expression and reduce, even potentially eliminate, your PCOS signs and symptoms accordingly.
Our food plan plays a key role in our health and our hormones. Insulin resistance, inflammation, and a sluggish thyroid are all common challenges in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. The right PCOS diet is an important step to address these.
These 5 simple rules will help guide you:
Regular movement has been shown to alter genetic expression in wonderful ways. Benefits of movement include enhanced hormonal function, supercharged fat loss, lowered LDL cholesterol oxidation (often thought of as ‘the bad cholesterol’) and improved fertility.
Aerobic exercise can boost your fat breakdown, improve insulin sensitivity, reduce inflammation and improve cardiovascular fitness.
Exercise, in general, encourages normal genetic expression.
A little aerobics, jazzercise, swimming or cycling might be the kickstart your genes need!
Reduced sleep results in increased insulin resistance, even after one night. And this is only one PCOS-related change. One study showed insufficient zzzz’s altered the activity of a staggering 711 genes, and that this worsened as sleep deprivation continued.
With this in mind, it is time to:
Ah, stress. This is a biggy! One review found that, “meditation and related MBIs [Mind Body Interventions], have overall found down-regulation of NF-κB-targeted genes, which can be understood as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress.”
What this means is, mind-body therapies and practices that aim to reduce stress, like Yoga, acupressure, and meditation may reverse the genes expressed in chronic stress.
Time for an Ohm anyone?
Ok, so this is the same as stress reduction… almost. See, many of us take on stress reduction as a required activity much like a chore, and chores can create more stress. We, humans, are funny creatures!
As part of your gene switching strategy, sprinkle a little play into your life. Laugh ’til your belly hurts, write a children’s book for the fun of it, play Twister because it’s silly. Get in touch with your long lost 5-year old self and say ‘hi’ regularly.
While PCOS can be a scary diagnosis and a tough syndrome to bear, I want to put the spring back in your step and release the ‘no hope’ pressure from your soul. PCOS is reversible with the right diet and lifestyle. With approaches like those above, we can wrest back our health, take charge of our heredity and live a healthier, happier life.