PCOS and insulin resistance – the link

Dr Carmen James educates us on the often heart-breaking mutually destructive relationship between insulin resistance and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)1.


Understanding insulin resistance

Prediabetes is a condition which occurs when your blood glucose levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be diagnosed with actual diabetes.

Prediabetes usually occurs in people who already have some insulin resistance3. Cells in your body use glucose for energy. Glucose in your body is transported into your cells with the help of the hormone insulin.

Insulin resistance is when cells in your muscles, fat, and liver don’t respond well to insulin and can’t easily take up glucose from your blood3. In response, your pancreas releases more insulin and as a result, both insulin and glucose begin to accumulate in the bloodstream1.

What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common reproductive disorder4 that affects as many as 15% of the female population5. It is defined as a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age6.According to statistics, 60-80% of women with PCOS suffer from insulin resistance4.

Mutually destructive relationship 

While many of us might know insulin resistance may be a precursor to diabetes1, 3 and that excess weight and lack of physical activity could be at fault3, how many of us are aware of the relationship between insulin resistance and PCOS?

The relationship between insulin resistance and PCOS can be described as mutually destructive in that PCOS worsens insulin resistance and vice versa1.

Not only are high insulin levels a feature of PCOS, they also fuel the disease. The reason for this is because insulin accumulation reduces ovulation and promotes the production of androgens or male hormones. This results in symptoms, such as a male pattern of hair growth (hirsutism), acne and, in some cases, is associated with difficulties with fertility1.

In fact, 60% of women with PCOS suffer from hair loss, acne and unwanted hair growth and 20% have infertility problems4.

Alarmingly, more than 50% of women with PCOS will develop diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 407.

With so many women affected by PCOS or insulin resistance, or indeed both4, the effect on fertility can be heart-breaking.

How does having insulin resistance affect fertility? 

Ovulation occurs during a normal menstrual cycle where an egg is released from the ovary and passes through the fallopian tubes and into the uterus. If the egg is not fertilised, the egg, together with the uterine lining, will be shed during menstruation1.

Because an accumulation of insulin in the bloodstream elevates androgen levels, the resulting hormone imbalance will negatively affect ovulation. When women do not ovulate, they may menstruate less frequently, have irregular cycles and, in some instances, they may not menstruate at all. If an egg is not released into the uterus, conception will not occur.

PCOS is the most common cause of irregular menstruation that leads to infertility4.

While it is more likely for overweight and obese women to experience insulin resistance1 and PCOS6, women of a normal weight can be affected too. It is important to remember that weight alone is not an absolute representation of health.

Address the underlying root condition

It is recommended that women with PCOS and/or insulin resistance address the underlying root cause drivers of their condition. While we can’t control our genes, we can aim to live a healthy lifestyle to reduce the negative effects of both PCOS and insulin resistance.

Adopt a healthy diet, rich in plant-based foods and low in refined carbohydrates; enjoy regular physical exercise; add supplements, including myo-inositol, curcumin, antioxidants, folate and berberine; manage stress levels and get good quality sleep. These measures will reduce inflammation, improve insulin sensitivity and begin to bring balance to the hormones to support ovulation1.

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MEET THE EXPERT


Dr Carmen James is an integrative medical doctor and holistic health and wellness coach. She has a special interest in women’s hormone health.


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