Make your PCOS journey your ownMonday, September 20, 2021
WOMEN diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) often feel that their bodies have failed them, but your diagnosis does not define you, nor is it your fault.
PCOS is a health problem that affects one in 10 women of childbearing age. Women with PCOS have hormonal imbalance and metabolism problems that may affect their overall health and appearance ( womenshealth.gov ) . Dealing with the lifestyle changes associated with PCOS may seem intimidating at first, and it's because of this that the PCOS 1 in 10 JA campaign aims to pioneer the beginning of holistic education related to managing PCOS physically and mentally. Many women do not understand how to cope with their PCOS and may end up exacerbating their symptoms due to neglect or lack of information.
Scientific research has found that PCOS could be hereditary or caused by insulin resistance, being overweight, and inflammation. In fact, there are four main types of PCOS.
1. In insulin resistant PCOS, the body does not respond properly to insulin. The body creates a surplus of insulin to reduce blood sugar levels, but this increase in insulin also prevents or reduces ovulation.
2. Post-pill PCOS is usually temporary and caused by discontinuing hormonal pills such as birth control. This happens because of a spike in androgen levels. Inflammatory PCOS occurs when the body produces a higher level of inflammation.
3. Inflammatory PCOS occurs when there is a high level of long-term inflammation.
“Inflammation is normal when we are sick or injured; however, in this type of PCOS, it is long-term which makes the body produce more male hormones, causing ovary and menstrual cycle disruptions,” explained medical doctor, and one of the campaign's organisers, Dr Kimberley Sommerville.
4. Adrenal PCOS is attributed to high levels of stress in the body or when the body responds to normal levels of stress by producing one of the male hormones called 'Dheas' produced by the adrenals.
“This gives women the same symptoms as if you were producing the other male hormone testosterone from the ovaries,” added Dr Sommerville.
Common signs or symptoms of PCOS include missed or infrequent periods, difficulty getting pregnant, acne, excessive facial and body hair, weight gain, hair loss or thinning. Ali Matalon, policy advisor and campaign participant experienced many typical symptoms of PCOS. Unfortunately, it was dismissed as being normal for her age at the time.
“I was put on birth control at age 17 after only having about three or four natural menstrual cycles. In coming off the pill at age 21, I expected not to have a regular cycle for some time. After 18 months without a menstrual cycle and a barrage of symptoms I thought were the result of the loss of my period, I was begging medical practitioners for answers. I gained 30 pounds, I began finding single black hairs on my face, stomach and chest. My skin felt dry and presented as “blotchy”. I had uncomfortable and regular bloating. I even had cramps and headaches, without having the relief of a menstrual bleed. I started to get acne, which I had never had before,” shared Matalon.
It is important to be mindful that everyone experiences PCOS in different ways, so gynaecologist consultations are strongly advised if you believe that you may have PCOS. Self-diagnosis should always be avoided. Women with PCOS are at an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, strokes, high blood pressure, endometrial cancer and sleep apnoea, so it should be taken seriously.
Nutrition and exercise will be critical for this new lifestyle if your gynaecologist confirms that you have PCOS. Due to insulin resistance as a key characteristic of some types of PCOS, many women are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes which leads many doctors to prescribe the medication Metformin. Metformin is also used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes as it helps to lower blood sugar levels.
Matalon typically uses a combination of Metformin, light exercise and avoids some foods. “I take 500 mg of Metformin daily to manage insulin resistance although I am coming from 1500 mg. I do yoga, cardio and strength training and have returned to my normal, pre-diagnosis weight. I don't follow any particular “diet” but I stay away from foods that negatively affect my digestive system and generally eat “clean” as best as I can,” added Matalon.
However, some women manage their symptoms by solely relying on food and exercise. Kim Rose, Founder of Think Mental Health JA and one of the campaign's organisers, has successfully done this with yoga, simple workouts and meditation.
Apart from this, women can do high-intensity interval training as cardio which can include jumping jacks, pushups, bodyweight squats, plank up-downs and skaters (Women's Health Magazine). Riding a bicycle, swimming, walking, dancing and doing aerobics is also helpful.
Although an excellent workout routine will help significantly, even better results can be achieved by eating healthily. Food has the power to transform the state of our health tremendously and should not be underestimated.
Monique Allen, Certified Holistic Nutritionist and PCOS educator, commented that, “There isn't any one size fits all diet for PCOS. Women will need to eat differently based on personal preference, genetic make-up or where they are in their health journey. However, having a clean diet consisting of whole foods is critical; that is less processed foods and eating food as natural as possible. Also, don't be afraid of healthy fats such as avocado, coconut oil or olive oil. They are amazing for balancing hormones and helping to manage PCOS symptoms. Some women may have issues with digesting cow's milk due to sensitivities, inflammation or an imbalance of gut bacteria while others may be completely fine. Listen to how your body responds to foods and decide what to keep and what to change from there.”
Allen also recommended that women with PCOS pay close attention to packaging. “Avoid liquids stored in plastic bottles. This is as endocrine disruptors from the plastic can seep into the liquids you consume. These chemicals mimic the body's natural female sex hormones causing confusion in the female reproductive system and worsen PCOS symptoms,” she advised.
Transitioning to a new diet may seem overwhelming and confusing initially, but the most important aspect is to start. Release yourself from the notion that failure means that you should quit, but rather view it as an opportunity to learn from mistakes as you take care of your body.
“The aim is to create a sustainable lifestyle, not just one that you can keep up with for only two weeks. As always, remember to be gentle with yourself and know that your body is healing.”
PCOS is an ongoing battle but you will not be defeated as long as you prioritise your health.
For more information on the campaign and to keep up to date with all activities, check out @PCOS1in10Ja on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.