PCOS….Polycystic Ovary Syndrome….an acronym I had never even heard about as recently as 7 years ago. I breezed through my teenage years, and the better part of my twenties, not having the faintest idea that such a condition existed. One of my best friends had an extremely irregular period, but my interpretation of that was that it was a condition peculiar to her. If only I had known!
In my late twenties, I found myself gaining weight rather rapidly. I had always been slim, bordering on skinny even. Weight watching had never been an issue for me at all. In fact, I remember doing everything I could to even gain a bit of weight. But all of a sudden, my weight began to skyrocket, and ironically on an even leaner diet than normal. A few months into it, I started suspecting it must have been hormonal, because it was rather inexplicable. But, as I was not trying for a baby, or even married for that matter, I didn’t pay it any mind.
Years later, the night before my traditional wedding, one of my old friends stopped by my house for a visit. Our discussion got quite emotional when she told me she had just been diagnosed with a hormonal disorder, and she basically wasn’t ovulating. She was informed that her estrogen was in overdrive, and that she had been diagnosed with PCOS. That was the first time I ever heard of such a thing. I had to suppress how horrified I was, in order to console her properly. But in my mind, I was like WHAAAAT?! I was so grateful it wasn’t me, or so I thought.
It was some months down the line, that I got to know more about Lady PCOS…..the grand dame called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome! And for the longest time after I knew what it was, I was in denial. Yes, I had put on some weight, but I wasn’t THAT fat! And you could set your clock by my periods….that’s how regular they were. I did have some other physical traits, but even those were not enough to convince me I had the disorder. It wasn’t until I had a serious overstimulation case after a clomid (plus injectibles) treatment that I was diagnosed with polycystic ovaries.
All of a sudden, more and more of my friends, and even close family started getting diagnosed with the condition. With more couples suffering longer child bearing delays, PCOS is increasingly getting fingered as the culprit. It is the leading cause of female infertility, but most women with the condition do not realise they have the disorder until they try, and fail, to get pregnant. Of the women I know that have had to seek assisted reproduction, PCOS has overtaken tubal issues, or male factor infertility, as the primary cause for this. The statistics are truly scary.
So what exactly is PCOS? It is a hormonal imbalance associated with how the body processes insulin, which can lead to a woman’s ovaries being bigger than what is classified average. The term polycystic means the ovaries have a large number of small, immature follicles that very rarely, if at all, grow to maturity and produce eggs that can be fertilised. It affects 12% to 18% of women of reproductive age, with a staggering 70% of these cases remaining undiagnosed.
The underlying cause of PCOS is the body’s resistance to the insulin produced, which often leads to elevated levels. Whilst some people are genetically predisposed to this insulin resistance, others develop the condition mainly from unhealthy lifestyles, both of which can lead to the overproduction of insulin, which in turn stimulates the ovaries to produce large amounts of the male hormone testosterone, thus preventing the ovaries from releasing a healthy egg each month. PCOS can be diagnosed by either, or both, vaginal ultrasounds and hormonal blood tests.
Some of the telltale signs of PCOS are going considerably above one’s ideal weight (with the weight carried mainly in the stomach area), excess hair growth (especially around the upper lip, chin, neck, chest area, and abdomen), thinning scalp hair or male pattern baldness, insomnia, very low libido, mood swings, uterine fibroids, skin dryness, acne, family history of diabetes, ovarian cysts, and irregular periods. These in isolation are not an automatic indication of PCOS, but if one has more than a few of these symptoms, it might be a good idea to investigate it further.
Today, I have too many friends and family members with PCOS, all of whom are managing the condition in various ways. Some of them go for months without having a period. Some of them have gone up about 4 dress sizes in a short space of time. And pretty much all of them have had to deal with long spells of infertility. However, some of these have eventually gotten pregnant naturally, with no intervention at all. A friend of mine found out she was pregnant the day before the doctor’s appointment she and her husband had reluctantly scheduled, after having tried for a baby for over 5 years. Some have succeeded with the help of ovulation inducing medication (such as clomid and femara), with or without medication to manage blood sugar (such as metformin). A good number have succeeded whilst on breaks from such medication. After almost a year of clomid cycles, a friend of mine threw in the towel and decided she needed to give herself a break. She got pregnant 2 cycles after that. For the remainder of these women, assisted reproduction, such as IUI and IVF, remains the best option.
But something I have found very interesting is that when women with PCOS eventually get pregnant, they almost always fall pregnant with the second baby pretty much immediately. I have not come across any medical evidence to back this, but my thinking is that pregnancy helps to harmonise a woman’s hormones, bringing everything to a good equilibrium. In my own case, when I got pregnant, I lost a lot of the PCOS related water retention weight, and exhibited little or none of the other symptoms. And at least 3 friends of mine, who have PCOS, got pregnant after 6 months, or less, of having their first babies (usually conceived after much sweating and crying).
One of the biggest misconceptions of PCOS is that it is only to be worried about by those trying for a baby. But the truth of the matter is that it is a condition that must be managed for life. Right now, I am not necessarily trying for a baby, but I am still actively managing my own PCOS symptoms. The hard truth is that there is no cure for PCOS. However, it can be successfully treated via conventional medicine, or simply by a holistic lifestyle change.
Another misconception is that women who have had children cannot have PCOS. This is absolutely not true, as PCOS has been known to develop later in some women’s reproductive life. Yet another misconception is that a woman must have polycystic ovaries to be diagnosed with PCOS, or that a woman with polycystic ovaries definitely has PCOS. Neither of these is true, as some women with text-book ovaries have hormone levels that indicate PCOS, and also just because a woman has polycystic ovaries does not mean she does not produce mature eggs that can be fertilized.
Thankfully, it is not all gloom and doom. The condition can be managed, by getting one’s blood sugar under control, via medication or diet. If well managed, its manifestations such as infertility, can even be reversed. We need to take our destinies in our hands and work as hard as we can to be sure that our bodies are in the best shape…not only for conception purposes, but also to prolong our lives. PCOS, if not well managed, can lead to diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, to name a few.
The morale of the story is that a healthy lifestyle is key! Even if you are on medication to manage your blood sugar, or to induce ovulation, it is essential to completely overhaul your diet, eliminating white carbohydrates and excess sugar, opting for more proteins and vegetables, and pretty much getting your body back. It is also crucial to exercise frequently, to get your body burning as much fat as it can.
It definitely is easier said than done. I, for one, am still struggling with being able to stick to a healthy eating plan, and usually fall off the wagon. But I always notice a marked change in my health when I am able to cut out the junk and eat healthy. Apart from the fact that I look better, my PCOS symptoms are less pronounced, and I generally have a better quality of life.
So, as I enter this new year of 2015, I first of all have resolved to atone for all the Christmas food indulgence by starting a strict 3-day fruit and veg detox, followed by a healthy food plan, which I hope I will be able to adopt as part of a permanent lifestyle change. I have also renewed my gym membership, and intend to get my body in shape again. And I enjoin us all to do the same, PCOS or not.
This is a sure way to ensure a healthier, happier you!
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