6 things that you need to know about PCOS
It is one of the largest catalysts in my health and wellbeing journey and yet I have barely shared it with you guys. Crazy!!
This topic is massive, the list of symptoms never-ending and most of all I feel that there is a whole lot of negativity attached to the condition (so not my style)! However that negativity will not be found here….
What am I talking about? What is this condition that turned my lifestyle on its’ head and triggered so much awesome change?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or PCOS.
I have talked about PCOS in regards to soy which you can read about here though the how I found out I had PCOS, the issues I had in managing the condition and how I healed; haven’t been shared… until now. To be sure that I could offer you the utmost benefit and valuable information on this subject, I decided to do something different and co-create the post with a fellow PCOS survivor; the gorgeous Zoe Tattersall from ZOMT – fitness and health.
This post is designed to give you the information needed to understand and manage PCOS.
Broken down into 6 crucial Q&A sections offering you insight into our unique experiences with PCOS, you can read my responses in green and Zoe’s in orange. Bring your fears, concerns, desires and open heart to the table; enjoy learning more about a condition that need not control your life…
1. How were you initially diagnosed with PCOS and were there symptoms that triggered it?
I had suffered with extreme period pain (to the point of being bed-ridden) and cystic acne since the age of 12. It was only after continually seeking further answers for this troubling and untreated situation that led me to an endocrinologist; doctor who specialises in hormones; and my PCOS diagnosis. Blood testing, medical history and an internal ultrasound revealed that 41 cysts were present on my ovaries and had been so since the age of 9. Insulin resistance was not picked up until later on in 2010 at the age of 24 and this was through a somewhat unsuccessful focus on losing body fat.
I actually semi-self diagnosed myself in early 2012 with the help of Dr Google a few months before I was able to get any doctor to confirm it finally in March that same year. I hadn’t had a period since it stopped on the Pill (Norimin) that I had been taking since my teens. I decided to stop taking the Pill, because I was concerned about not having a regular cycle (amazingly the doctor I saw said it was perfectly fine!). However, it had been 18 months and still no sign of a period. As time went on, it turned out that the Pill had been masking a number of other unpleasant symptoms such as night sweats, hot flushes throughout the day (thought I had early menopause for a while!), dizziness, my skin started breaking out and dandruff. I was also struggling with bloating and gut issues that were exacerbated by my hormonal imbalance. So I did what any control freak/perfectionist does; researching and trying to figure out what was wrong with me!
I knew deep down that something fairly significant was not right in my body, but the doctors I saw were not very helpful and just kept telling me it would take up to a year for my cycle to come back (it took about 4 years in the end). I researched each symptom one by one and they all connected back to hormones and the endocrine system in general. I had never even heard of PCOS before, but from all my research I had done, I was fairly sure that was what was wrong. Somewhere along the way, I eventually managed to get a gynaecologist to refer me for a pelvic ultrasound after some intial blood tests showed my hormones were a bit out of whack. I can still distinctly remember the nurse that did the ultrasound saying offhandedly that I had some cysts on my ovaries and it may be Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. I actually cried in the bathroom after that because I still didn’t really know what it was and my first thought was I wouldn’t be able to have kids (not that I was ready to do that anytime soon, but I wanted the option of course).
I have seen many doctors, a gynaecologist, a very expensive endocrinologist, a naturopath and homeopath … with varying levels of success, but all were a part of a journey of trial and error I guess.
2. What have you struggled with the most in regards to your PCOS?
- Cystic acne
- Body fat specific to hormonal spots in the body so namely my arms (this is insulin resistance). No matter how low my body fat goes (and it has been very low) and no matter my training or eating methods, my arms see little compositional change and this is linked to the triceps as a known estrogen zone in the body; of which for me is all out of whack.
- Irregular periods
- Medical Opinions – my cystic acne as I said has been around since I was 12 and no matter the course of action, nothing worked. At 19 I took my first course (of 2) of Roaccutance and after my second course, the results were positive. However I needed to maintain taking the Pill and only now have I found another medication, which does not wreak havoc with my insulin resistance. Since coming off the Pill in 2010 in line with the insulin resistance diagnosis, this was a great decision, however my periods are still irregular and often very painful. Although medication may be the course for some people, I did not want to be taking insulin-correcting medication (Metformin in my case) for the rest of my life. One of Australia’s leading experts in PCOS/insulin resistance advised me that this was my only option and that was not an option for me. Eating cleaner food; that is as close to its natural source as possible; consuming less sugar (all kinds), plus maintaining my exercise levels became super crucial in my mind and I would say my own type of treatment.
Getting my cycle back and also definitely keeping my body fat down, particularly around my stomach which is linked to my cortisol levels and gut health. Now that my period has come back (woo hoo!) in the past 6 months, keeping my body composition in check is the hardest thing for me. I’ve completely managed all the other symptoms over the past few years by changing my nutrition and lifestyle though am still working out the right approach to staying lean easily.
My body is very sensitive to food and nutrition changes, and I need to be mindful of pretty much everything I put in my mouth or I start to gain weight very quickly and my health in general goes to sh*t! The other thing that I found hard over the past 5 years is the general approach by doctors. There is one standard approach of prescribing drugs straight up, and if that doesn’t work, double the dose. I hate drugs and whilst I succumbed to trying Metformin for 8 months, it didn’t sit well with me and long term nutritional change is what really gives me results. I also resented that the general approach to dealing with hormonal balance, fertility and getting my period back was to just wait until I wanted to get pregnant. That to me wasn’t good enough!
3. Lowering your carb intake and staying lean seems to keep your symptoms at bay for you is this true?
For me, living with PCOS + insulin resistance, this certainly makes sense and my diet is much lower in carbohydrates now than in previous years. However due to my high-activity level and also what works best for me (as we are ALL unique!) I do absolutely consume a healthy level of complex carbohydrates in my diet. Complex meaning fruits, vegetables and nourishing, quality grains.
This one is a double edged sword and I want to be very careful about advocating low carb as it can also cause harm if done incorrectly. Everyone is unique when it comes to low carb, so even defining low carb can be difficult e.g. less than 50g might be low carb for a female and 100-150g might be considered low carb for male. Plus it depends on your body, how you metabolise and your glucose sensitivity in general. So I just want to make it clear that low carb is not for everyone and I recommend if you embark on this direction, to do so under the experience of someone who knows what they are talking about.
All that said, yes, low carb and low GI carbs were a big part of my initial diet to bring my PCOS symptoms under control and in turn, help regulate my hormonal balance. This also helped me to lower my body fat and keep my weight under control. I went through a period of time where I ate zero starchy carbs as a part of being completely sugar free to heal my gut bacteria balance, and after that, I didn’t consume many starchy carbs for a time as well. Now, however, I do incorporate starchy carbs regularly and have carefully been building up my tolerance to them. I am smart with my macro timing, so generally keep starchy carbs to post workout and will often leave them out if I’m not training.
If you’re overweight with PCOS and/or insulin resistant; then lowering carb intake is definitely a good place to start. If you were like me and not overweight (i.e. lean PCOS) then I would suggest trying a moderate intake of carbs and see how you go. Stick to quality carbs, sugar is not going to be your friend, so eliminate that as much as you can from your daily diet and instead save it for special occasions. Personally I function just fine on a protein and fat diet for days, but it’s a part of my overall health plan to continue improving my tolerance to carb intake as they are so important for thyroid function and hormonal balance too. Plus they taste darn good!
4. What is the single best piece of advice you could offer to a fellow PCOS sufferer?
This condition need not be a life sentence and it is a wonderful opportunity to live better. To lead a cleaner and more active life, getting in touch with your body and mind as opposed to listening to a doctor and taking medication without looking for more answers. You need to find what is the best path for YOU as you are unique and that involves asking questions, doing research, perhaps having tests and absolutely living better. Instead of a “condition” treat it as the best thing that ever happened, your wake up call of sorts!
Question everything and listen to your body. Don’t settle for one approach or solution that a doctors or specialist gives you as PCOS is so very unique for every individual that you need to find your own personalised approach to managing it. I like to share what has worked for me but I’m so aware of different approaches from other women with PCOS that it’s very important that you take responsibility for it and do your own research too. If you experiment with different approaches, then make sure you only try one thing at a time and give it time too. At least 4-6 weeks to see how your body reacts. Trying a new supplement? Don’t change anything else or you won’t know for sure how it affects your symptoms. Also, and this is maybe the most important – be kind to yourself and keep your stress levels low. Keeping a happy healthy body is essential for managing PCOS and stress will only exacerbate everything.
5. What do you think is the best nutrition approach for PCOS?
Although we are all unique and what works for one of us, may not necessarily work for another, there is one commonality that I feel can be considered for those diagnosed with PCOS/insulin-resistance. Think and eat clean! For example, I switched to eating food that I had made from wholefoods. No packets, cans or tins. Secondarily though also linked, is the reduction of sugar in your diet. Absolutely first and foremost this extends to processed sugars though also includes natural sugars. Knocking back a juice with 6 serves of fruit in one go is something that I would not advise for example, the spike in insulin and hormone havoc that it produces is less than ideal.
As mentioned above I do think low carb or moderate carb is good approach to try. A varied whole food diet is great for women with PCOS and really, for anyone so that’s a good place to start. Focus on lots of veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats and some fruits. Stick to as much unprocessed food as possible and low-inflammatory foods. I highly suggest trying gluten free and also a dairy free diet. You might not have to stay on this forever, but there is a lot of research that both can be inflammatory and therefore affect your hormonal balance. That was probably the best choice I made personally. I do have dairy occasionally, but only now that I have managed my symptoms do I find I am able to tolerate small amounts (which is good because I love the odd ice cream!).
6. In regards to training, sometimes less is more for women with PCOS – how has exercise worked (or not worked) for you personally?
Great question! My understanding of this science is linked to the excess production of a hormone named cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. Not great for anyone though particularly those living with PCOS & insulin resistance. In previous years, especially when competing in running and multi-sport events, I would train intensely 6 days per week, every week and with a large focus on cardio activity (due to my sport involvement). For the last 2 years however I train intensely, to my absolute maximum 3 days per week, at a moderate/maintenance level for 2-3 days and have 1-2 days off dependent. The breakdown of my focus has also shifted to a strength focus and incorporates my cardiovascular training in this way, so much more dynamic and circuit training is now on my weekly agenda and it has worked really well. It is more interesting as I change it up all the time (all of our bodies respond well to that anyway!) and when I do train hard I am completely able to which I love!
For me, weight training, HIIT and some low intensity cardio has been the best. Strength training is fantastic not only for building a sexy body, but it will also improve bone density in women, hormonal balance and body composition overall. I like HIIT because it is short and sharp and doesn’t take much time, plus it’s a great fat burner. As far as cardio goes, walking and gentle sessions I generally just do for the mental break and enjoyment. It’s really important to not over train as this is just another form of stress on your body. I wouldn’t suggest training for marathons or any really long duration training (over an hour). Most of my sessions are short and intense, done in 30-45 minutes. Getting adequate sleep is also vital to keeping those hormones balanced.
Wow! Loads of information and insight from Zoe and myself! What we want for you is to feel empowered and excited! You can take charge of your own PCOS (or that of a loved one) and improve your symptoms; maybe even turn your whole health outlook and life around. Use our experiences and feel inspired to create a new path for yourself – one bigger, brighter and better. Thanks for joining me Zoe and thanks to YOU for joining us!
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