In my time working as a private practice dietitian, I’ve had the chance to work with a wide variety of clients. From women and men who are seeking weight loss, those in recovery from eating disorder treatment facilities, seniors seeking more energy and weight management, those with Type 2 Diabetes who want to manage their blood sugar, and more. Of those clients, a lot the women I work with live with a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) which can often leaving them wondering, why me? They often struggle with the inability to manage weight, feelings of anxiety, depression (which often leads to disordered eating habits), little energy to get through the day, and even Type 2 Diabetes. First, in case you’ve never heard of PCOS before or are interested in learning more, here are some facts about the condition:
The biggest reality that stands out to me is that the condition is so “new” in the medical world. The criteria for diagnosing PCOS has only been around since 1935! There’s also often an unclear understanding of the symptoms, and even the lack of symptoms can be tricky for determining diagnosis which is why 70% of women with PCOS often go undiagnosed for years. If you feel you may have PCOS, your doctor will perform a series of tests including a physical exam, pelvic exam, blood panels to measure blood lipids and hormones, and an ultrasound to take a look at the uterus and the ovaries.
In an effort to raise awareness to PCOS, and because I believe in the power of storytelling, I’m sharing with you, my good friend, Ashley’s powerful and eye-opening diagnosis story. Ashley works in the school nutrition field but specifically with local farmers, and other companies/organizations in promoting and building the supply chain to get fresh, locally grown food in the schools. Ashley is also passionate about women’s health and using nutrition and lifestyle changes as treatment for PCOS. Here’s her story:
“I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was 25. I waited until then to go to my first well woman visit. I’ve always thought something was “wrong” with me because unlike my two sisters, my first cycle came years after theirs (age 15) and has always been inconsistent. There were so many embarrassing moments during that time period since I had no way to “prepare”- it was basically like getting your period for the first time…every time.
For some family background, my mom is not a huge fan of going to the doctor. Go figure. In my adolescence, she told me that I would grow into a regular cycle and that the abnormalities that I was experiencing were normal for my age.
This can be true (for some), but I never acquired such normalcy. I had no other symptoms that would otherwise be indicative of PCOS. In fact, you can have PCOS and remain asymptomatic, which means you may have no way of knowing until you try to get pregnant. This is when most people find out and are diagnosed.
I decided to see a naturopath who specialized in infertility issues. I had no desire to get pregnant. I was in my early twenties, working full-time, unattached, but I wanted to make sure things were in place for when the time came that I wanted children. I went to Dr. Grobe (in Mesa, AZ) based off a referral from a mommy-friend because she practiced both conventional and natural medicine. As a nutrition-focused lady, I wanted to survey a wide range of options in any treatment I might need. I made the decision to see a doctor before I knew that I had PCOS. It was in my first well woman check that the doctor and I discussed my abnormal cycle and she tested for thyroid and infertility issues.
My results showed that my thyroid was clean. The issue was that my sex hormones were all out of wack. Think, estrogen and those androgens. The doctor recommended that I try natural therapies to resolve what she and other naturopathic doctors believe is the underlying cause for PCOS – insulin resistance. They suggest focusing on diet and exercise to help manage. That freaked me out! Diabetes is now on the table. *Serious SAD face*
It is important to point out that I am a short, curvy pear-shaped lady with no previous history of diabetes in my family. My health indicators at the time were normal: blood pressure, waist- hip ratio, blood- lipid panel, blood sugars all “normal.” All of these indicators would point to no risk of developing diabetes except that I later found out…my mom also has PCOS and there’s a large connection to the genetic component to the condition.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll focus on the management and nutrition therapy for managing PCOS.
Office on Women’s Health, U.S Department of Health and Human Services – https://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/polycystic-ovary-syndrome.php
PCOS Foundation – http://www.pcosfoundation.org/what-is-pcos
PCOS Nutrition Center and fellow dietitian, Angela Grassi – http://www.pcosnutrition.com