If you go onto Youtube, you will find an entire genre of transformational videos that are so easy to love. The videos usually take an individual or a group of individuals and commits them to a lifestyle change for a certain amount of time. In 10 minutes you get it all: the self doubt, the setbacks, the rewards; basically an entire emotional pilgrimage of change. And holy hell, by the end of the clip, it’s amazing. These people are healthier, stronger, faster, smarter, more clairvoyant; in essence: positively new. However, the common trait shared by all participants is that they didn’t realize just how terrible they felt previously until they had a new standard of “feeling good” to compare it to.
The truth is it’s hard to tell that your sick when you’ve forgotten what it’s like to feel well. Our lives our busy and often we don’t prioritize our health, for whatever reason. It’s even more difficult when the small contribution we do make isn’t visible and the accumulation of your efforts is not summarized in a neat before and after shot. I think about this a lot: what health actually means and the investment it requires, mostly because my health was challenged after receiving the diagnoses of a disease called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder affecting women of reproductive age. Essentially PCOS is the imbalance of androgens or sex hormones that leads to complications in the ovaries in the form of cysts. It is estimated that 116 million or approximately 5-15% of the population fit the criteria for PCOS. Currently there is no final consensus of the actual cause, although research seems to indicate it has both a genetic and environmental basis and could potentially involve something called the anti-Müllerian hormone.
PCOS is diagnosed based on the Rotterdam criteria, where a woman must exhibit two of the three benchmarks in order to be diagnosed: Delayed ovulation or absence of menstrual cycles, hyperandrogenism/high androgenic hormones, and/or polycystic ovaries on an ultrasound. However, what makes PCOS so difficult is the many associated symptoms. Woman with PCOS face weight gain, hair loss (where you want hair), excess hair growth (where you don’t want hair, such as your face, back and arms), cystic acne, mood instability, risk of Type II diabetes, insulin resistance, infertility, the list truly goes on…
I was diagnosed with PCOS at the age of 22. I was living in New York City and was trying to juggle a full class schedule, a job, and a social life. There is a whole list of excuses: I was busy, working in a bar, on a budget, etc. but the long and short of it was I treated my body terribly. I drank heavily, smoked, ate whatever I wanted, and had no other form of exercise besides walking to class and work. At first I started feeling exhausted, but how could I not be? I thought it was normal for a 22 year old to feel completely fatigued. Then I started gaining weight. Again I dismissed this, as I rationalized that it was bound to happen given my lifestyle. Next I started getting deep red cystic pimples around my ankles, and yet still I ignored my symptoms despite never having a pimple my entire life. It wasn’t until I started bleeding for weeks at a time, that I finally made an appointment to see my OB/GYN.
I was booked for an ultra sound and received my diagnosis the same day. Visible inside both of my ovaries sat a collection of black dots, the size of beans. These are the cysts that collect in the ovaries, which fit number three on our list: polycystic ovaries. I was given a brief synopsis of PCOS, prescribed birth control and sent on my way. Leaving the doctors office I felt terrified and confused. My doctor had handed me a lot of information, but I was given a synopsis of my disease, not a solution.
Currently the treatment plan for PCOS is addressing the hormone imbalance through pharmaceutical intervention. The most common drugs prescribed are oral contraceptive, Metformin, Spironolactone or some combination depending on your symptoms. Oral contraceptive is used to regulate or technically induce a menstrual cycle, thus eliminating the cysts. Metformin is a drug used for diabetes. Since many women with PCOS are diabetic or insulin-resistant, Metformin helps facilitate the absorption of glucose into the cell. At low dosages Spironolactone acts as an androgen blocker, which can reduce symptoms of acne and hair growth that results from the excess testosterone. If you’re lucky then your physician will also advise you on dietary changes that can help manage your symptoms.
A common complaint that I share with many other PCOS sufferers is that it feels like there is little explanation for what is happening to our bodies and even less support regarding our treatment plan. You take some pills, lose some weight, and we’ll figure out pregnancy when the time comes. However, I was taking the prescribed medication and yet I still felt sick. Even worse, I felt like I was jumping from birth control to birth control as each one came with a new unwelcomed side effect. It wasn’t until a year later that I decided to ditch the conventional treatment plan and attempt to heal my body rather than manage my symptoms.
It’s funny because in hindsight it was obvious. However, just like those people in the videos, I had no memory of what it was like to feel healthy and in the beginning it often felt like I was groping in the dark. Tackling PCOS for me took a lot of trial and error, loads of will power, and tremendous amount of support from loved ones and the right healthcare practitioner. It wasn’t easy but I was able to change my diet, start exercising, and find the right supplement routine. Eventually I was able to eliminate most of my symptoms and in a way that worked for me. That isn’t to say that the conventional treatments aren’t effective, they just weren’t effective for me. There are thousands of women whose lives have been saved due to those drugs; I just wasn’t one of them. I found I did best managing PCOS through a more holistic approach.
My diagnosis of PCOS has been bitter sweet. Although it is manageable, it is a lifelong condition that threatens many aspects of our daily lives. Those with PCOS suffer both physically and emotionally due to its symptoms, all while knowing that there is no cure. However, at the same time I am fortunate to have been forced through the grueling process that is taking control of your health. PCOS has taught me that health is not something that can be neatly summarized in a cute before and after shot, but is a continual process of self-betterment.