When I first started going through puberty, I didn't really care what I ate. I wasn't really into diets, but didn't give much thought to nutrition either. I wish I would have known what I do now when I first started getting my period. This is my head-to-toe journey of diet, pregnancy and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Diet, Pregnancy and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
I wasn't diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome until I was in my mid-20s. I got my period around the age of 13, and was immediately irregular. At that time, and even today, most doctors suggest that irregularity when a young woman starts getting her period, isn't uncommon. And it's not.
A lot of young women might skip a month or two, or have heavier months than others. Eventually, though, most healthy bodies can work out a regular menstrual cycle.
For me, I would go six to eight months in between periods. Around the age of 16 or 17, my gynecologist put me on the pill. I was breaking out badly before I was on the pill, and my acne only got worse when I was on it. More importantly, I got really bad headaches after starting birth control. Sure, I got my period every month, but the headaches and acne were enough of a motivation for me to stop taking the pill.
Even though I knew getting my period every month was better for my body, I really didn't mind not getting my period that often.
Not Texbook PCOS
Through the rest of high school and into college, my periods came about once a year. Now, I didn't have a lot of the symptoms other people with polycystic ovaries might have. I was within a healthy weight range, I didn't lose my hair and I didn't grow hair in places that were unusual.
I did deal with some level of depression, and saw a therapist regularly. My inability to just be happy and, even though this means very little to me today, have clearer skin, really took a toll on my self esteem. Not getting my period was the least of my concerns.
I also had higher cholesterol - and still do. My cholesterol readings, however, are never truly a concern as my HDL (good) cholesterol is always quite high. My LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides are pretty low.
Like I said, when I first got my period, I didn't really pay attention to my diet and any possible connection to polycystic ovary syndrome...or even my moods. I had such little information about what I healthy diet was or how it could have improved or even prevented the development of polycystic ovary syndrome, that I continued to eat blindly.
Medications Made Things Worse
After I graduated from college, I went on to graduate school. I distinctly remember sitting in my classroom with other people my age who seemed to have it all together. They were smart, happy and had clear skin. I realize how petty that sounds now, but it was the place I was in.
I tried once again to clear my acne and went to another dermatologist for a better protocol. His thought was to simply prescribe Accutane. This drug was the worst, but fairly effective at treating acne. I was 100% willing to jump on board.
The side effects of Accutane include depression, nervousness and severe headaches - essentially the trifecta of emotional turmoil I did not need.
Another terrible side effect is severe birth defects in women who become pregnant. Accutane is now discontinued in the US, but 1 in 4 women who gave birth to children while using Accutane developed birth defects. That's terrible.
But because of this, my doctor told me I needed to go back on the pill. Since I didn't have my period, I couldn't just hop on birth control, so he prescribed a medication that would help me get my period, called Provera. It took two rounds of Provera to get my period.
After I got my period, I had to be on birth control for a full month before starting Accutane.
Are you getting this?
- I had bad acne, so my doctor wanted to prescribe a now-banned drug called Accutane.
- Because I had to be on birth control, which had already triggered more acne in me in the past, I had to have my period.
- I didn't have my period to go on birth control, so he prescribed Provera.
- I took two rounds of Provera and finally got my period.
- I finally started my first month of birth control.
This whole situation was so messy. After I started the pill, I broke out worse, and my moods became darker.
I thought I was doing an okay job with my diet, but in retrospect, I now see that the foods I ate weren't helping anything, least of all polycystic ovary syndrome.
I decided to ditch all of my prescriptions, including Accutane, which I was scheduled to start taking in just a couple short weeks.
It was probably one of the best decisions I could have made - certainly at that time.
Exercise and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
I really didn't exercise very much through my time in graduate school. Not because I didn't want to, but I didn't have the time. I had a 9 to 5 day job and went to school 4 nights a week until 9pm. My life was work, school and studying. If you're thinking even a weekend yoga class would have been good, you're right. But I was pretty tightly wound then and didn't make the time.
After graduate school, everything opened up. I was a couple years older, started working out more and generally felt better. My diet was still something that affected my polycystic ovary syndrome, which I'll get to in a minute, but my new workout routine was as good as food. I felt amazing - even from the smallest amount of cardio.
My life now is a healthy balance of fitness, diet and lifestyle, but then, even getting in a 30 or 45 minute workout a few times a week was a lot! I'm glad I had the experience of appreciating exercise's effect on my mood and life in this way. I can relate to the clients with whom I work, incidentally, many of which are dealing with polycystic ovary syndrome themselves!
That said, where my workouts gave my mood a huge boost, which was badly needed, they didn't resolve anything directly related to polycystic ovary syndrome.
I needed to dig deeper. Diet would be my next pitstop.
Diet and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
I have no idea how or why diet and its possible connection to polycystic ovary syndrome was never brought up to me by a single doctor. I think if I had a significant amount of weight to lose, or if I had been pre-diabetic or diabetic, it would have been mentioned or dealt with in some way.
The closest I got to diet being mentioned was a study I tried to participate in for people with polycystic ovary syndrome through the University of Chicago. I fit the preliminary criteria: I only got my period about once a year. The ultrasound of my ovaries concurred that I, by definition, had polycystic ovaries. The can shown nothing but black bubbles or dots - cysts - all over my ovaries.
I was a little deflated when I was excused from the study because I didn't weigh enough. I was grateful that I wasn't burdened by difficult-to-lose weight, but still wanted to maybe have kids someday! I knew this would be hard in my current state.
I have worked with clients for 14 years, and it's not uncommon for me to work with women who had polycystic ovary syndrome. Almost 100% want to lose weight and control their blood sugar levels.
The lynchpin for me overcoming polycystic ovary syndrome was 100% diet. I made a complete overhaul in terms of what I was eating. Keep in mind, I was a healthy weight and didn't need to lose weight, but my diet was still garbage.
My Diet Before Overcoming Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
My diet when I had polycystic ovary syndrome was, in theory, good:
- I ate low fat
- I ate whole grains
- I avoided saturated fats
- I counted calories
- I ate a lot of fruit
- I ate some vegetables, too!
- I drank diet sodas instead of full sugar sodas
- I ate foods in packages that said "high fiber" or "sugar free"
I was a creature of habit with my diet, and still remember what I ate every morning for breakfast, and then more often than not for lunch and dinner. My diet before closing the door on polycystic ovary syndrome looked something like this:
Breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal + skim milk + blueberries + 1 - 2 packs of Sweet-n-Low or Equal (more on artificial sweeteners here) + large coffee, with sugar free hazelnut syrup
Lunch: Romaine lettuce + chicken breast + carrots + fat free French dressing + diet soda
Dinner: Pasta + ground turkey + mixed vegetables + fat free pasta sauce (it had to be fat free)
Snacks: Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches or pretzels
This is super simplified, but it's not far off from what I would eat all the time. You're probably thinking that the protein looks good - and I have not problems with that. But it's so very different from my diet today.
Truth be told, the changes I've made to my diet are very subtle. I still eat oatmeal, I still eat salads, I still like snacks...but there was something that was missing.
Adding the missing key changed everything for me.
Pregnancy and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Around this time, my education changed quite a bit in terms of nutrition. I was now in a forever relationship, but not a mom. I made some significant changes in my diet. These changes helped overcome polycystic ovary syndrome, and helped me get pregnant!
I know a lot of other people talk about everything they went through to get pregnant. And believe me, I know how hard it can be. But the advice of an infertility specialist made everything so simple. I knew my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was probably going to pop the question sometime soon. Because I got my period so rarely - I wanted to be on the up and up with him in terms of my fertility before we became engaged. So I made an appointment for a September afternoon to see a doctor who specialized in PCOS and infertility.
I told the doctor my situation and explained that I had no interest in IVF or hormonal treatments to get pregnant, but hoped to be a mom someday. He simply said, "Traci, you're at your prime. Go home today and start trying."
So I did...rather we did.
We were engaged to be married in November of that year.
Six months later (a full two months before our wedding), I was pregnant. Of course, I had no idea for a while because my period was months earlier. I became pregnant through spontaneous ovulation. Basically, I ovulated and my husband hit the basket.
We didn't use ovulation tests, and I never took my temperature to see when I might have been ovulating. I think that would have driven me crazy or stressed me out too much.
Now, if I would have been trying to hit some self-imposed deadline to become pregnant, trying for that many months without having a period would have killed me.
The big reason I got pregnant had a lot to do with a complete change in my diet.
Diet and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
When you look at the diet I consumed before making changes, does anything stand out to you?
I'm a child of the 80s - raised at the height of Low Fat Diet craze. Fat was demonized in my mind, especially as I hit puberty. I was conditioned to think that if I ate less fat, I would be skinnier and healthier. So I became accustomed to eating that way. Low fat or fat free everything was my go-to.
When I went into doctors for various visits and we discussed diet, they were always happy with me. "Are you drinking low fat milk?" they'd ask. "No, I drink skim!" I'd say, and get an affirming nod.
I drank diet sodas well into my 20s and avoided saturated fats like butter and coconut oil in preference of canola, soybean and corn oil. You can read more about the difference between good and bad fats here. I was literally depriving my body of the fats it needed most. And let me assure you, fats are not created equal.
Then it all changed. Now that I was a bit older and established, I really wanted to focus on my health. I'd started participating in several nutrition-based workshops - and understanding how important the one nutrient I'd been avoiding my whole life could have actually helped me so much.
I missed out on fat.
One of the nutrients that I added to my diet that I had no idea my body was starving for was omega-3 fatty acids, specifically in the form of fish oil.
I started taking one big spoonful of fish oil, specifically, Nordic Naturals Cod Liver Oil + D every morning. I eventually bumped it up to twice a day. Within a few months, I had my period again.
I also cut out a lot of foods that were hurting me. I no longer ate or drank the following foods:
- Diet sodas
- Fat free dairy products
Diet sodas are a hotbed of artificial sweeteners. I wouldn't say I was drinking a lot of diet soda, but enough that I believe it made a difference in my body. Artificial sweeteners can also trigger inflammation, something closely related to polycystic ovary syndrome.
Gluten is pro-inflammatory. Since I cut out gluten, I don't experience the same degree of bloating or discomfort I used to. Not everyone is intolerant to gluten, but you should read more about it to stay informed.
Fat free dairy products are everywhere. I don't know why I ever ate so many of them. Maybe because I believed if I ate more fat free yogurt I'd maintain bone strength. Honestly, I don't know where the logic is in the benefit of fat free dairy products really are. My family today doesn't overdo dairy, but when we do eat it, it's full fat organic.
My diet today looks more like this:
Breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal, coconut oil, walnuts, cinnamon and blueberries
Lunch: A couple eggs and vegetables and a salad
Dinner: A big chicken and vegetable stir fry with as many cruciferous vegetable (like Brussels sprouts) as possible!
Basically, I cut out the foods that were triggering inflammation, and included more foods that were anti-inflammatory. I also supplemented with a healthy omega-3 fatty acid from fish oil that I knew my body needed, but wasn't getting.
PCOS Free Today
I have not had to deal with polycystic ovaries for about 10 years. I was able to conceive my first two kids through spontaneous ovulation, with no real period to speak of and lots of time in between. But our family's third installment came in a much more predictable way!
Please leave a comment below if you have any questions about PCOS, or have stories of your own to share. Let's keep in touch.
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