There’s a lot of mystery surrounding polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). For starters, roughly 75 percent of individuals are undiagnosed due to the complexity of the disorder. Researchers believe that genetics often plays a role while some studies in the past few years have shown that it’s possibly due to levels of high exposure to a particular hormone while in the womb. Beyond that, since there are a lot of things that influence what’s going on with your hormones, it’s hard to pinpoint its exact cause.
Treatment for PCOS is also tricky. Birth control pills can help women get back on track with a regular menstrual cycle and calm some of the side effects like excess facial hair growth and acne. Lifestyle and diet adjustments are necessary to help keep insulin regulated, but there isn’t a cure-all.
What we do know? If you don’t have PCOS yourself, chances are you know someone who does: It’s estimated that 1 in 10 women have the condition. To be diagnosed with PCOS, there are two out of three indicators needed to present: irregular cycles, high androgen levels (testosterone) — which requires a blood, saliva or urine test — and the presence of polycystic ovaries, which can be determined through an ultrasound. Most people with PCOS show symptoms of irregular periods, facial hair growth, and trouble regulating weight early on in their teens, while some can develop it as adults.
One of the most challenging things about PCOS is probably the fact that each person’s journey to healing is different, but there’s solace in knowing that there are people on a similar path. In honor of PCOS Awareness Month, we chatted with Shimrit*, who was diagnosed with PCOS in 2012 when she was 25. She dives in about what the process of the diagnosis was like, how it affected both her physical and mental health, and what she learned about managing PCOS along the way.
I was noticing some tell-tale symptoms of PCOS: irregular periods, painful cystic acne on my face, excess facial hair, and weight fluctuation. A friend suggested that I go to the doctor and after an ultrasound confirmed my PCOS diagnosis, my general practitioner gave me a leaflet about nutrition… and that was about it. I remember sobbing to my parents because I was unsure if I would be able to have children down the line. It was so frustrating to have a condition that I had very little knowledge about.
For a while, I followed a strict glycemic index (GI) diet [since insulin resistance is a common feature for those who have PCOS]. It consisted of foods that contain high levels of healthy fats and low levels of carbs, such as veggies and certain fruit like apples. This type of diet aims to lower spikes in my insulin and blood sugar levels. At first, my period began to regulate again. However, because I didn’t have a deep knowledge of why and how exactly a GI diet affects people with PCOS, I became complacent with keeping up with it. I wasn’t exercising, either, which I later learned was a key part of treatment. After a few years, my periods became infrequent and my weight felt out of control. I often struggled to look at myself in the mirror because I didn’t feel confident in my body. Any discussions about my weight or appearance would send me down a spiral. I didn’t feel like my GP set me up for success.
“I was so unhappy with myself and it was impacting my mental health, how I looked at myself, and my relationships.”
I was so unhappy with myself and it was impacting my mental health, how I looked at myself, and my relationships until I realized that I needed to get it under control and actually do something. I spent several years doing my own research and sought expert medical help again with another round of blood tests. This time, my new general practitioner had first-hand experience with PCOS and referred me to a specialist. Finally, he made me feel seen. I remember sitting down with the practitioner and sobbing about how I felt and being so triggered by the whole experience, and he got it. I was with him for an hour during my first appointment, which is really rare, and he ordered a bunch of tests for me. He referred me to where I could get mental health support, said if I needed medication he could prescribe them, and offered me laser hair removal for my facial hair [caused by PCOS].
With a renewed sense of mental and moral support, I started on a holistic journey to try to regulate my periods again. I know a lot of people with PCOS are usually given a birth control prescription as a first line of treatment. But for me, I preferred seeing if lifestyle changes would make a difference so I wouldn’t have to rely on medication. My situation was moderate enough and my doctor was on board with this decision.
I joined PCOS Facebook support groups and read blogs like the one from fitness trainer Erika Volk to gain a better understanding of my condition. I also knew I had to be proactive and continue researching which foods and exercises would be best for me. Certain foods, like those complex carbs such as white bread, can spike your insulin levels — which cause our testosterone levels to increase — and negatively impact your hormonal balance. So I tried another GI diet, but this time with less restrictions. I recognized that the first time I attempted this, I was punishing myself with restrictions, or rewarding myself with food that would spike my blood sugar and insulin. Instead, I found a better balance with what I ate by avoiding labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and listening to how my body was feeling after certain foods. It wasn’t about strict food planning, but making sure I was choosing options that were healthy. For me, it was more about focusing on eating foods that aren’t going to spike my insulin.
I also started understanding what kind of workouts I needed for my body. I was relying a lot on cardio and just using the stationary bike all the time, yet it wasn’t helping at all. Through my research, I discovered that a mix of weight training, HIIT, and boxing was more impactful since building muscle can help reduce insulin resistance. Plus, I enjoy boxing a lot and it helped me with my mental health.
A lot has happened since my shift in mindset towards healthier eating and living: My cystic acne disappeared, my clothes started fitting better, my mental health improved, and my periods finally began to regulate. Since I made these lifestyle changes, I’ve rarely missed a period. But, most importantly, my journey taught me the importance of being patient and compassionate to myself. I learned to advocate for myself, too, since often the mental and physical side effects of PCOS are dismissed [as I felt like mine were in the beginning]. For those who are also undergoing the symptoms of PCOS, be kind to yourself mentally and get support to make the physical stuff a bit easier.
*Last name has been omitted for privacy purposes.