When I stopped getting my period, it initially didn’t seem like such a bad thing or something I should worry about. I don’t know many women who love getting their monthly visit, so I can’t say that I really missed it. However, after six months of no-show, I eventually booked an appointment with my GP.
I was around 21 years old at that time and otherwise pretty healthy. I have always been very slim in build, but my BMI was in the healthy range, even though it was slightly closer to the lower end. Overall though, I had low energy levels, low moods, and honestly was just not feeling very healthy. After a number of tests, including a physical exam, an ultrasound, and blood tests, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
On the surface, my case was not considered a classic presentation of PCOS. The most obvious sign of this hormone imbalance is weight gain and an inability to lose weight, most of the time due to the development of insulin resistance. Up to 70% of people affected by PCOS don’t respond well to insulin produced in the body, leading to them gaining weight.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that as many as 12% of females at reproductive age (up to 5 million Americans!) are affected, making PCOS the most common reproductive disorder in those of child-bearing age (15-44 years). However, I’ve found there is neither a lot of awareness nor a lot of funding for scientific research.
The endocrine system is a system of hormones that essentially work as chemical messengers for all bodily processes. Despite its name, PCOS is not an ovarian condition at all; it’s an endocrine disorder. It’s characterized by an excess of androgens (hormones that govern male characteristics) that cause an imbalance in the wider endocrine system.
This entire network is interconnected, which is why an issue in one area can have a knock-on effect elsewhere. This means that how your body processes insulin can influence the number of androgens produced, affecting progesterone and estrogen production and disrupting your entire menstrual cycle.
The most apparent effect this syndrome has on the menstrual cycle is that it can lead to a lack of ovulation. This is a reason why many females only discover they have PCOS when they start trying to get pregnant. Many females with PCOS don’t have cysts, but for those who do, an ultrasound of the ovaries is the only way to detect them.
Symptoms of PCOS
People frequently present with different symptoms, which may be a contributing factor to delayed diagnosis. It also seems that what might be a major symptom for one person isn’t present for another, which makes it confusing, to say the least. For the purposes of trying to define exactly what the condition is, here are some of the more common symptoms.
- Lack of periods or irregular periods: the average menstrual cycle is 28 days. However, a regular period cycle can range from 21-40 days, with the menstrual flow lasting for three-8 days. It’s important to know what is normal for you.
- Weight gain: for most people affected by PCOS, it is a result of the knock-on effect of the way their body processes insulin. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have diabetes, but the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes is higher in females with PCOS.
- Acne: an excess of androgens can cause oil glands in the skin to over-produce, which can lead to blocked pores and breakouts. Sometimes this can cause particularly painful cystic acne, which, if left untreated, can lead to scarring.
- Hirsutism: much like acne, excess androgens are also to blame for problems with body hair. These can include an excess of body hair, or the preexisting hair becoming thicker and more coarse. This normally occurs in places like the arms, upper thighs, back, or face.
- Fatigue: one of the most common and unanimous symptoms between those with PCOS is tiredness and fatigue. The intensity of this fatigue is far beyond the tiredness levels that someone might experience after a long day. In some cases, it can even interfere with people’s day-to-day activities.
- Anxiety/depression: there are links between PCOS and increased risk of anxiety and depression. That can be down to hormone and blood sugar fluctuations, and also the fact that many of the symptoms above can lead to emotional and psychological stress.
The root cause of this condition has yet to be 100% determined. While for some, it might be linked to insulin, for others (myself included), this seems not to be the case. For us, there is a frustrating lack of information out there, with most advice focusing on losing weight.
In conversations with my doctor, the only suggested solution was to go on birth control. While this might be a good option for some, all this approach does is mask the symptoms by introducing artificial hormones, leaving you to deal with the syndrome and the root of the problem at a later time, such as if you decide you want to become pregnant.
For me, it felt important to find out and fix what it was that was not functioning well in my body. At this point, I started seeing a naturopath, and this was where my passion for holistic health began. I had lots of success with lifestyle changes and supplements to encourage my body to heal, to help regulate my menstrual cycle, and to manage the symptoms.
Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a ‘‘cure’’ for PCOS. However, there are so many things to try that can make symptoms much more easy to handle. When managing long-term conditions, diet and exercise should be a focal point, as they can sometimes play enough of a role to have a life-altering effect.
Even if you don’t enjoy eating healthy food, there are small steps you can take to increase the quality of nutrients in your diet. If you hate exercising, starting out small by simply walking for 10 minutes a day or just taking the stairs instead of an elevator all have a cumulative effect. Any big lifestyle changes you make should always be done in conjunction with your doctor; with any medical condition, this is the first point of call.
I think, in some ways, having PCOS has also had positive impacts on my life. It’s made me so much more aware of my body because I was forced to educate myself. I’ve become much more appreciative of all that it can do, and I’ve learned that I need to respect it by taking care of it. Educating myself has been a process of discovery, and I’ve realized that there are many myths about PCOS out there. Let’s delve into some of them, shall we?
PCOS Myths busted
Myth 1: “PCOS means you can’t get pregnant.”
Despite PCOS being the leading cause of infertility in females, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t be able to get pregnant. Some people with PCOS ovulate every month, some a few times a year, and some not at all.
Myth 2: “PCOS only affects females who are overweight.”
Not everyone who has PCOS has issues with managing their weight.
Myth 3: “It’s a condition to do with the ovaries.”
It’s actually a condition affecting the entire endocrine system.
Myth 4: “PCOS is rare.”
It’s actually quite common, and it’s the number one reason behind menstrual irregularities. This is why it’s so important to be aware of both what is normal for you and what is considered a healthy menstrual cycle.