Between 5-10% of women aged 15-45 years old are diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and that number has been increasing as science understands more and more about this condition. In Canada, that translates to about 1.4 million! As symptoms can be completely randomized from person to person, diagnosing PCOS can be a challenge, and many are left without a concrete answer.
Defining Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
PCOS is a hormonal condition that affects the ovaries of women in their reproductive age. As the name suggests, small cysts are often found in clusters on/around the ovaries. Most women who have PCOS have increased male hormone which disrupts the menstrual cycle, making periods very irregular and/or heavy.
Angela Logan, Operations Coordinator at Simply For Life, was one of those people left with many question marks on her increasingly common condition. This week, Angela shares with us her experience with PCOS, from conflicting medical opinions to everyday lifestyle management. Here is her story!
Amber: When did you suspect you had PCOS (or something going on) and when were you actually diagnosed?
Angela: I was officially diagnosed around 14 years ago, but had always suspected something was wrong. My menstrual cycles were always irregular as a teenager but I chalked it up to "just hereditary", as my mom had the same issues all her life. Plus, conversations about period health were pretty taboo when I was a teen, so I never thought too much of it.
I was a super active teen with irregular cycles and some dark hair around my chin, so like most, I was put on birth control to manage these symptoms and remained on it until college. I stopped taking birth control at that point - and I didn't have a period for two years! I thought for sure it had something to do with the birth control. I was less active at that time and ate a bad diet, so weight gain happened. Then migraines would hit - and they would be LONG, almost always present - so I new, again, something was wrong.
When I ate better and lived a more active lifestyle, these conditions would improve. When I moved to British Columbia, I finally saw a doctor who said he suspected PCOS. I was given progesterone and spironolactone as my only options - no talk about lifestyle management. After moving back to the East Coast, I saw an OBGYN who said, NOPE! You don't actually have PCOS! So, I was then off of the medication. I still kept struggling with irregular periods, migraines and weight gain.
When I moved to Toronto, I saw yet another specialist who instantly saw all of the tiny cysts I had and wanted me to go back on birth control to manage PCOS - which I did not want to do, as I've been down that road and knew it didn't work for me. With another specialist I was prescribed metformin which I took, and had an absolute nightmare of a time. At that time, I started researching for myself about PCOS management. I came across a blogger who shared their bad experiences with metformin and they talked about how lifestyle changes made a huge difference for them. Speaking with that doctor, she completely agreed, and I was off metformin and officially managing it on my own.
Amber: So many ups and downs! How did you get started on PCOS lifestyle management?
Angela: Luckily, I found a great workshop in Toronto that had dieticians and fitness experts who specialized in PCOS. I learned a lot about the Glycemic Index, incorporating weight resistance training, and that reducing the mid section by 5% would make a huge difference.
It was fantastic to learn this stuff, so when I settled back on the East Coast, I joined Simply For Life as a client and successfully lost 30 pounds. At that stage, my PCOS was "in remission" because of the lifestyle changes I had made!
Amber: There are likely some people out there who suspect something is going on, just like you did. Can you share what your symptoms were?
Angela: It's important to note that these were my experiences and it can vary from person to person, but for me :
- irregular periods that were very heavy and super painful when they arrived
- migraines that were ever-present, sometimes dull but made it hard to do many things
-excessive dark, coarse hair in places where women "don't typically" get it
- weight gain... unlike popular opinion, you don't need to be obese to have PCOS, but weight gain of some kind is common
-skin tags arrived later for me personally but they are a common symptom
-strong cravings for high carbs all the time, like breads and pastas
- I'm not sure if it was related to PCOS, but I would have irregular PAP test results
Amber: What lifestyle changes have been working for you, and what has not worked?
Angela: If you're managing PCOS on your own, don't be scared of an elimination diet! This process helps determine what foods may be triggering your symptoms.
- I had to completely cut dairy out. No cheese, yogurt or milk. This small change reduced migraines significantly for me and cleared up acne
-I stay away from gluten mostly but can have it in small doses, this isn't a huge trigger for me but it may be for someone else
-Following a low Glycemic Index diet and learned about Glycemic Load as well
- Weight/resistance training over cardio
-No caffeine. Luckily I can have decaf coffee and am completely fine, but caffeine worsened my symptoms
What didn't work for me, personally, was being on birth control and medication. I didn't feel like myself and the bad outweighed the good. Luckily my PCOS isn't as severe as some, so medication may be the right answer for you.
Amber: Lastly, what advice do you have for those who are suspecting PCOS?
Angela: Owning your own life! Take control of your life, educate yourself (I used podcasts, the internet, read books, etc.) and make the best decisions for yourself that can be compounded into consistent behaviors.
Secondly, look to your family history. They say PCOS is hereditary and many of our moms suffered from painful, irregular periods and were dismissed by the medical system.
Be your own advocate! I had several medical opinions that were back and forth. It can be easy for some of us to take the first opinion and run with it - if you feel something is wrong, keep pursuing.
And lastly, don't give up. It can be easy for some of us to get depressed, worried, or anxious about PCOS. The best thing you can do is incorporate a healthy lifestyle and, if needed, manage your life with medication. You got this.
Thanks to Angela Logan for sharing her story today! Needing help on incorporating an elimination diet, or planning your life around PCOS? Our team of nutritionists can help. Click below to get in touch with your local Simply For Life!