What is PCOS? For me, it’s something that makes me feel less of a woman.
Sorry for the bleak opener.
The more scientific explanation of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is that it is a condition which affects how the ovaries work.
Women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance that affects their overall health, fertility, and appearance.
We have an excess of androgen, which can cause excessive facial and body hair, acne, weight gain, thinning hair on the head, abnormal bloating, irregular periods, and difficulty getting pregnant.
So, things get real sexy around here.
PCOS affects one in 10 women in the UK, but its cause is unknown.
The syndrome differs from person to person.
My story involves a lot of fad diets, wax appointments, anxiety and emotional outbursts.
In the hope of normalising the symptoms women face with PCOS, I want to share the nitty-gritty struggles that some of us with the condition feel embarrassed to talk about.
Having PCOS and feeling like a healthy human being at the same time can come at a serious cost: an investment of time, effort and money.
And sometimes, I can’t hack it.
Sometimes, I don’t want to wax my neck. Sometimes, I’m too tired for a doctor-approved fitness class. Sometimes, I just want the bloody chocolate bar.
Unknowingly, I began my PCOS journey at 12 years old.
I ate the same food at school lunchtime as my friends and went home to healthy, balanced meals in the evening. Still, my slender frame ballooned. I went from a size six to a size 10 within a year. I was putting on weight rapidly, particularly around my stomach.
Everyone told me it was simply puberty happening.
I went on my first fad diet at 13. I obsessively watched every single thing I put in my mouth and sat up late each night, researching which diet to try next. When none of them worked, I simply starved myself.
I laid on my bedroom carpet counting to one hundred stomach crunches every evening after school, desperately trying to flatten my stomach, and every time I looked in the mirror naked, I wanted to be sick.
I never thought of myself as having an eating disorder though. I naively, and rather crudely, thought, ‘Surely people with eating disorders are thin?’ I’m not thin.
According to studies, nearly all women with the condition will experience the side effect of weight gain that is difficult to manage.
Dr Kerry Marson says between 40 to 60 per cent of people who have PCOS are obese.
I didn’t realise it at the time but not eating was the worst possible thing I could do to my body. PCOS means my metabolism is already naturally slow and I’m already prone to putting on weight, so messing with crash diets has affected my metabolism in the long term.
I was finally diagnosed with the condition when I was 22, 10 years after my first symptoms. It was a relief to hear that there was a name for my heartache.
But that was to be short-lived when the doctor explained how I could manage the PCOS side effect of weight gain. He calmly went through the list:
‘Don’t touch sugar. Don’t go near carbs like potatoes, rice, pasta, bread, bananas, starchy vegetables, most dairy products, red meat, juice, dried fruit and peas.
‘Avoid alcohol too.
‘You should probably only drink water and green tea.’
Not so calmly, I asked in my head, ‘Are you fucking joking?’
‘Oh, and you should be working out five days a week for 60 minutes per day,’ he added.
He explained that losing the excess weight which PCOS itself brings helps lessen other PCOS symptoms and reduces the risk for developing serious health complications that impact women with PCOS much sooner than people without it.
Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are some of the biggest additional health concerns people with PCOS may face.
The hair growth was also a killer for my self-esteem.
When you have PCOS, areas typically affected by this excess hair growth may include the face, arms, back, chest, thumbs, toes (yep, that’s right) and abdomen.
Mine was on my upper lip, chin, and my neck. I’d tried plucking, hair removal cream, threading, and waxing to deal with it—now, I get waxed every week. Even then, it’s sometimes not enough—the hair grows in velvety thick, dark patches.
While I salute anyone who embraces this symptom, I fight with it each day. It makes me feel unattractive and desperately insecure.
I was painfully conscious every time I batted away a boyfriend as he went to kiss my neck; of every time I decided against wearing my hair in a ponytail; of every time I walked in daylight, panicked that the person next to me would notice the hundreds of black hairs on my face and neck.
Laser treatment usually doesn’t work for PCOS sufferers, but hopefully when I have the money saved, electrolysis will.
There is no cure for PCOS yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to eliminate some symptoms and, generally feel better.
I used to be incredibly ashamed about the effects of PCOS, but over the last few years, I have found simple ways to help control the hormone imbalance and feel more comfortable in my own skin again.
Looking after myself is key, so a healthy diet and lifestyle is a must – boring, but it really does work against PCOS symptoms.
PCOS sufferers are advised to avoid sugar altogether because sugar spikes our insulin levels and, as insulin is a fat-storage hormone, it concentrates fat, particularly in the belly region.
Spiked high insulin levels also tells our ovaries to make more testosterone, making more unwanted, excess androgens, which in turn produce more nasty symptoms like excess facial hair, weight gain, anxiety, acne and fertility problems.
To get the androgen levels down, women with PCOS are advised to go for foods rich in omega-3 – such as flaxseed, salmon, walnuts, sardines, and chia seeds – and avoid foods high in refined carbohydrates.
Regular exercise also decreases the amount of insulin needed to lower blood sugar.
Doctors can offer different medicines that can treat symptoms, too. The pill which I’ve found helps with weight maintenance and anxiety is Metformin.
There’s no point in glossing over it: Having a natural hormonal imbalance is tough.
There will be fragile moments where you don’t feel like being kind to your body – I can’t tell you the amount of times where out of sheer frustration, I’ve binged on chocolate while sitting in bed watching endless episodes of Sex and the City.
Still, PCOS doesn’t have to have a hold over my life. It is something in my life that I work with. I have ways to manage my symptoms.
And now, whether I am having a good or a bad day, I find power in remembering that I am the one in control.
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