No matter how much you attempt to surround yourself with those things that make you feel comfortable, it can inevitably often feel as if the battles you fight are fought entirely on your own. This is how I have always felt when it comes to PCOS. Unlike many women who are diagnosed with PCOS in early adulthood, I have actually been aware of my condition since I was about 13 years old…almost 3 years before I ever had my first period.
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, and it refers to a disorder within the female reproductive system. It’s widely believed to be incurable, as well as the direct cause of a slew of hormonal imbalances which include irregular periods, hair loss, uncontrollable acne, dramatic mood swings, and fertility problems, (to name a few).
In addition to the entirety of that short list, I’ve experienced most every catalogued “symptom” related to PCOS. However, rather than a path of discovery through these issues, my journey in navigating my disorder has been a bit backwards.
Let me start by speaking a bit on how my experience has unfolded thus far:
How I Learned I Had PCOS:
Pretty simply, my mother has it. When I was “coming of age,” I complained of severe migraine headaches, and unbearable pain in my abdomen, coincidently around the same time every month. I hadn’t yet started bleeding, but my mom took me to see a gynecologist who confirmed her belief that I had inherited the curse of small cysts forming on my oversized ovaries, then bursting around the time of my menstrual cycle (the fluid causing the pain and discomfort). The doctor immediately prescribed me a low dose of synthetic birth control, and sent me on my way. I was 14.
The symptoms subsided within a couple of months, and I was honestly ecstatic. I was able to maintain an active lifestyle throughout high school, and rarely complained of any side effects. I loved my birth control regimen because as a young teen, it made everything so much easier. When I did get my period, it was consistent, and easy to navigate. I never shared with any of my girlfriends that I had a hormonal condition because I didn’t have to. Birth control masked my imbalances, and once I got used to it, made me feel “normal.”
What Happened Next:
I wasn’t only private about my hormonal condition in high school, I was also close-lipped on the little pills I was taking with my lunch every day. To me, I had an “issue” for which I was taking medication, and I would have felt embarrassed if all of my classmates knew I was “different.” Once I got to college, I quickly learned that A LOT of girls were taking birth control, but not for the same reasons I was. They were taking it to literally control whether or not they gave birth. This may seem like a stupid realization to have after I had been taking it for years at this point, but you have to remember, that was never why I started taking it. To me, it was a medicine I thought I needed to mitigate the side effects of my condition. It had nothing to do with having sex.
Once I learned that was not the primary motivation for most of those using an oral contraceptive, what happened next is kind of hard to explain – I just started to feel a little uncomfortable. Here I was, almost 20 years old, and I had been religiously taking a pill I knew little to nothing about every day, for almost a quarter of my life!
I wasn’t sexually active at the time, and I was more afraid of the risk of not knowing, so without really thinking about it, I decided to stop taking it. Just like that.
In what seemed like an overnight change – I immediately felt better than I ever remembered. Within just a few weeks, I lost nearly 15 pounds. Meanwhile, my appetite and energy levels dramatically increased to a healthy level. I was overall lighter and happier.
Of course, nothing good can last (without maintenance). After graduating, I experienced both a level of stress and a variety of emotions that I had never known before. More specifically, my physical health was struggling, and I had no idea what was wrong. I drank easily an entire pot of coffee a day, and quickly gained back all the weight I had lost in college. I was rarely active, and always anxious. I had hair growing in the most random of places, and acne showing up in places I had never experienced before! And they weren’t little bitty blackheads. It was cystic (hormonal) acne, always around my chin and jawline and it never went away! (More on this later).
I visited a psychologist to try to talk through my uncontrollable mood swings; I saw specialists who tested for food allergies like celiac disease, and lactose intolerance; I was even recommended to have multiple tests done to scan for rare cancers in my breasts and colon. Thankfully, none of these tests proved fruitful, but unfortunately, the mystery of my long-list of discomforts remained unsolved.
You have to remember, it had been almost a decade at this point since I last even spoke of PCOS with a doctor, and almost four years since I had given up the pill, cold turkey. It truthfully never crossed my mind to tie anything I was feeling to my hormones. In hindsight, I didn’t really know enough about my condition to know all of the symptoms, and it wasn’t something I had ever consciously thought to allow to play a role in my life.
A Push, Then A Shove:
In late 2015, results from a routine pap came back as “irregular,” and “inconclusive.” I pretended not to panic, and reminded myself that I had never really been that convinced I’d ever have children, anyway.
“What should I do differently?” I asked my doctor.
“Nothing you can do,” she explained. And told me to make sure I get another check up in a year to make sure it’s nothing serious.
What?! Nothing I can do. The cells in my cervix were showing up “irregular,” and the results of whether or not I had cervical cancer were “inconclusive,” yet there was nothing I could do over the course of 12 months to ensure the next test was better?
For the first time, I shared with my doctor that I had a condition called PCOS, “they told me about it when I was young,” I explained, “but I haven’t taken birth control in a while. Do you think either of those things could be impacting my results?”
“I’m not sure,” she said, “but PCOS is incurable. I would strongly encourage you to reconsider birth control.”
I was floored. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. This time was different than when I was a young teen because I felt as if I had more knowledge. I surely didn’t know all there was to know about my PCOS still, or even birth control, but faced with a hormonal issue, I certainly couldn’t believe the solution would be to chase it with synthetic hormones.
In the Summer of 2016, shortly after my move to NYC and starting a new life, I started researching more seriously the condition and came across a lot of great resources which helped me to feel more educated and empowered than I ever imagined. One book was especially interesting to me: Womancode, by Alisa Vitti. I skimmed it half-heartedly, but didn’t implement any of it’s recommended strategies until months later. What she suggested in the book seemed almost too simplistic, and so I was afraid of it not working for me. I was terrified that maybe what the doctors had told me my whole life was true: there was no hope; I am incurable, and I could never have children. I would always be defined by this condition.
As my symptoms worsened, and the fear for my fertility (and happiness) loomed, it became blaring that I could not continue to live my life this way. The day-to-day symptom I was affected by the worst? Mood swings. I felt as if I was losing my mind, literally, and it was making me miserable. I decided to take a stand of my own. I dove back into my research, determined to win this supposed would-be life-long battle. This would not be my story, I was sure of it.
I decided the following Spring to take a leap of faith. Everything kept pointing me toward Womancode. Armed with new knowledge and understanding I had gained from my research, I had already read Vitti’s book, but now it was time to study it like the Bible. I cried as I read through the testimonials she spoke of. “This is me,” I thought, “this is exactly how I feel.” My confidence was restored, even before taking action. I felt empowered through her words, and for the first time, as if I was not alone in this experience.
I learned so much about listening to my body, and giving in to my feminine energy to stay in tune with my cycles in order to optimize my abilities, but the journey was also a testament to a patience and perseverance I didn’t know I had.
How Did It All Happen?
The first task I challenged myself with was balancing my blood sugar. I learned a lot about what can cause sudden drops and spikes in blood sugar, which seemed to be a major culprit in my uncontrollable mood swings. Now, I try to eat every few hours, even if only a small snack, in order to maintain this balance.
Overall, aligning my diet with my hormones was the easiest part. Womancode includes a super-easy to follow list of cycle-friendly foods, so you know what is best for you during the different phases of your cycle, and what to avoid. What worked best for me was doing a 21-day elimination diet to determine where I might have food sensitivities, and then continuing to avoid those foods as mindfully as I can. I also got to try a lot of new foods I’d never otherwise think of incorporating into my recipes!
It took me almost three months to fully churn my bathroom cabinets, but eliminating harsh products was the next step I took. Harsh toxins can disrupt the endocrine system, and that can lead to hormone imbalances, as well. I studied which parabens specifically tend to appear in which types of products, and used helpful apps like ThinkDirty to determine if what I was already using would make the cut. This was sometimes sad, because I had to say goodbye to a lot of products I loved, but also exciting because I was able to try new things. After a few months of getting used to my new products, I found I love them just as much and it’s great knowing they’re better for me!
A few other key strategies I try to implement into my lifestyle as much as possible include:
- As much stress-relieving activities as possible – journaling, herbal tea, long walks/runs when I am feeling overwhelmed, using essential oils (I love clary sage), yoga, meditation, using hormonal complementing herbs (I love ashwagandha), self-care splurges like a pedicure or massage every once in a while. I also have recently adapted some special mantras that I like to speak to myself when I am feeling especially stressed, or as if I am losing control of my mood.
- Limiting sugar – this has been a more recent discovery, but I’ve always known sugar sensitivity is common in those with PCOS. At the beginning of the year I did a 31-day sugar detox in which I consumed absolutely no sugar. This helped to “reset” the way my brain thinks about sugar, and as I slowly reintroduced different types, I’ve been able to keep my intake at a minimum.
- Cutting out coffee – yep. from a pot-to-myself a day to no coffee at all. I recently reintroduced coffee after my elimination diet this year and confirmed the subtle theory that this too was contributing heavily to my mood swings, and hormone imbalances. I plan to stick to matcha (if necessary, but not every day), and avoid coffee as much as I can!
- Cycle-syncing my workouts – you read that right – and no, I’m not making this stuff up. There is a whole section in Womancode which talks about the different physical exercises that are better during different phases of your cycle. To me, this mostly just means listening to my body. If I’m in my menstrual phase and don’t feel like going to the gym, I don’t go. I also try to push myself out of my comfort zone and try new things during my Follicular phase, when I know I am in a good position to discover something new I might love!
- Limiting carbohydrates – ok, if you’re reading this and I’ve ever spoken to you about carbs before, you know how much I value them as a source of energy for our bodies. However, consuming carbohydrates in moderation is important for everyone, not just those with PCOS. I try to avoid ingesting more than one complex carb per meal, (for example, at Chipotle I might order beans, but no rice). I also try to avoid carbs entirely for dinner. If I can’t avoid a carb heavy dinner, I at least try to complement it with plenty of protein and fat to balance it out, and then opt for more protein and fat the next day. Another great couple of books I’ve read which speak more to diet as it relates to the brain and hormones include Grain Brain by Dr. David Pearlmutter, and Unleash the Power of the Female Brain by Daniel Amen.
- Maintaining a consistent morning routine – arguably one of the most impactful things I done to improve my health has been drinking at least 32 ounces of water as soon as I wake up (before anything else), then making sure to eat breakfast or at least protein/collagen within the first 90 minutes of being awake. This helps to ensure you’re blood sugar is off to a proper start, and provides you with stable energy to positively impact your mood first thing in the morning which can set the stage for your day as a whole!
It is safe for me to say that following the Womancode Protocol has changed my life dramatically, as well as has continuing to learn from other authors. Within 2 months of becoming more mindful about my diet alone – that means none of the other stuff I mentioned, just eating food recommended for each of my cycles – I experienced the first regular period I had since stopping birth control…my first regular period in over 7 years! I also noticed differences in my mood and overall happiness after only a month of cleaning out 90% of my products (not even all of them, because I was using most of them until they ran out).
Ever since learning more about PCOS and my hormones, I feel excited talking about the topic, and I want to share with others that there are ways to take control of your body. You can change the way you feel. It all starts by working with your hormones, rather than against them.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s definitely still a journey, but that to me is exciting. I am still battling some skin purging, and sometimes I still struggle with my mood swings…but I am able to look at these now as “flare ups,” which I can tie to specific causes. KNOWLEDGE is powerful, and it helps me to feel in control – something I never felt I had before.
If you or someone you know is dealing with PCOS, or maybe has some of the symptoms I discussed but doesn’t understand why, you are not alone. PMS, hormonal acne, mood swings, irregular, painful periods, and difficulty conceiving are not normal. We were not designed to struggle as women, we were designed to thrive. Be open and honest about how you’re feeling, and seek support for attacking these issues. If you’re willing to face them and make a change, I promise you, it’s possible to overcome.