When it comes to our collective understanding of the various conditions that impact our reproductive system, most people have heard of endometriosis (thanks, Lena). We’re all well versed in the delight that is PMS, of course, and increasingly, issues like PMDD are turning up in the dialog.
But what of PCOS? It stands for “polycystic ovary syndrome,” and if your immediate reaction here is that it is breaking the rule of being a proper acronym by taking up the “P” and “C” with a single word, well, you are correct (one would suppose this is because “POS” was already spoken for).
But the more important point is that I, like so many others, had no idea what it was until I was diagnosed with it. As gynecologist Dr. Sarah Choi explains, “the name PCOS itself is misleading, as many healthy women have cysts or follicles on their ovaries, and their presence alone does not indicate PCOS. To further confuse us, some women with PCOS simply have a hormonal imbalance, and do not get these cysts.”
Between the misleading name and the fact no one knows what causes it, PCOS can be an unwieldy diagnosis, despite affecting an estimated 8 to 20 percent of women worldwide, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. A leading cause of infertility, PCOS places sufferers at increased risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease as well.
How To Determine If You’re Part Of The Cysterhood
To make a diagnosis, a doctor will primarily look for three things: Elevated levels of androgens (male hormones), irregular periods, and the presence of ovarian cysts, which are detected via pelvic ultrasound.
Dr. Choi elaborates that “these cysts are not painful or cancerous, and they don’t need to be treated or removed.” Other symptoms include weight gain, thinning hair on the head, infertility, acne, mood changes, sleep problems and excess hair growth on areas such as the face, arms, back, chest, and abdomen (which this woman and PCOS patient totally rocks, btw). And celebs including Victoria Beckham, Daisy Ridley and Emma Thompson have all been open about their struggles with PCOS, which has helped bring the conversation out into the open.
Treatment options for a mysterious disease
Good news first: The first line of treatment for PCOS focuses on things that are relatively accessible and within your realm of control—nutrition and exercise. Another common treatment is birth control pills (hence one of the many reasons recent legislative efforts to restrict access is so dangerous).
The hormones in birth control pills can help reinstate a regular menstrual cycle, as well as help with acne and excess hair growth. Medicated skin lotions or antibiotics may help acne, and laser therapy can be used to remove extra hair (I tend to just pluck mine, or let it go and embrace my inner Frida). Fertility treatments are another option if PCOS has impacted your fertility.
After diagnosing PCOS, doctors often conduct a glucose tolerance test as well, in which you drink a buttload of sugary liquid and your blood is tested to determine whether you have diabetes or pre-diabetes.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS, which can be heavy news to deal with. Psychologist Susan Nash explains, “all aspects of life can be affected by a diagnosis of PCOS; intimate relationships, work and friendships. Significant mental health issues can arise in response to the daily effort to cope, such as anxiety and depression.” Thus, talking to a trusted friend or therapist may be a crucial part of managing PCOS.
How *I* cope
Initially, I didn’t make a fuss about my diagnosis. But then I was told I’d probably find it difficult to have kids. The devastation punched me—right in the ovaries. As a career-obsessed woman in my 30s, I’d never considered what it would mean if my biological clock wasn’t ticking because it couldn’t.
While there’s no definitive diet that’s been proven to be effective in treating PCOS across the board, studies have shown that a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet can have positive impacts on reducing insulin resistance in women whose glucose levels have been impacted by the disease.
Ahead of going in for my glucose test, I opted to abide some of these guidelines for good measure, replacing full-fat milk with almond milk, chocolate with fresh fruit, and that pillowy white bread with rye.
I also experimented with a variety of natural treatments, such as spearmint tea, which has been shown to reduce levels of androgen; the herb ashwagandha, a method used in Ayurvedic practices; and cinnamon on everything, which has been shown to improve menstrual cyclicity in women with PCOS (and for me, personally, had the added bonus of helping me curb my sugar cravings).
After going in for my glucose test, I was beyond relieved to find out I didn’t have diabetes, despite it running on both sides of my family. And while I can’t claim to know that my changes in diet were the reason, that wasn’t the only bit of bright news: My hormone levels had also normalized. And lo and behold, a few months of laying off the birth control, my partner and I got pregnant.
PCOS remains a mystery. But as someone who once desperately despaired her diagnosis, I was able to find comfort in community and the knowledge that lifestyle changes can potentially have an impact of the severity of the disease. To find out more about PCOS and the treatment options that are out there, check out the DHHS guidelines, and find additional resources at the PCOS Awareness Association.
Before making any changes to your diet or nutrition plan, be sure to personally consult with your doctor or a registered dietician/healthcare provider first.