I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome at 26 after my body failed to recover from a miscarriage. Until then, birth control pills had worked to control the symptoms. When left to its own devices, my body waged war on itself.
My weight ballooned.
My face, chest, and back broke out in cystic acne.
My hormone levels were all over the place.
Painful cysts took over my ovaries.
My period often wouldn’t show up for months at a time.
I couldn’t get pregnant.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, I started getting whiskers, not just hair, but actual whiskers on my chin.
My self-esteem tanked.
PCOS is one of the most prevalent endocrine disorders in women affecting 5–10% of the population.
The name of the condition is misleading, as many women with it do not have cysts on their ovaries, though they may have many of the other symptoms. PCOS starts with insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means that your body isn’t pulling glucose out of your bloodstream and using it for cells. As a result, your blood sugar rises more than usual.
According to the Mayo Clinic, women with PCOS are at higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, depression, infertility, and more. PCOS is also strongly associated with obesity. I was already struggling with infertility and depression. The rest of the complications on the list are ones I wanted to avoid.
Eventually, I used Clomid and conceived my son. I consider myself lucky that the fertility side of things was so easily solved. My symptoms worsened over the next four years.
In that time, I got divorced and met and married my husband. He had three kids, I had one, and we had been talking about adding another child since early in our relationship. I remember asking my doctor to help me manage the symptoms, especially the ovulation part.
“Diet and exercise are the best ways,” she said.
When she first said it, I hated her. I refused to believe that could be true. At the time, I was a bit overweight, but far from obese. I had always been a healthy eater, and I enjoyed being active, but I never really followed a prescribed program. Here was this severely overweight doctor telling me to spend more time at the gym.
Doctors give most women with PCOS the same advice. Many probably react the way I did initially and think they are already doing enough. Controlling insulin resistance requires a combination approach, a lot of trial and error, and the ability to forgive yourself when you misstep.
To add even more difficulty to the problem, resources such as Womenshealth.gov indicate that PCOS can make it much more difficult to lose weight and easier to gain. The Office on Women’s Health says even a 10% reduction in weight can cause hormone levels to normalize and reduce the symptoms of PCOS.
After some research, it became clear the recommendation for women with PCOS was to include both exercise and diet modifications to improve health. Losing weight from just diet alone saw a 38% increase in insulin sensitivity, whereas a combined approach showed a gain of 80%.
Those numbers are difficult to ignore. Since I felt like my eating habits were already pretty good, I decided to start with exercise. Even if I couldn’t get rid of the symptoms I already had, at least I might be able to prevent the more concerning ones from showing up.
Part 1: Use both cardio and strength training exercises.
I already enjoyed cardio exercises, such as walking and interval training, but the benefits of strength training were something I’d never considered. Research indicates that strength training is essential to improving insulin sensitivity.
Women with PCOS tend to gain muscle fast. Increased muscle mass is associated with increasing your metabolism as well as helping your body process insulin. Since women with PCOS tend to gain weight quickly, building muscle mass by strength training at least twice a week is beneficial.
With our pile of kids, getting to an actual gym is impossible. So, I set up a gym space in our basement. I bought some dumbells and got to work with home exercise programs. You can start small, aiming for 30 minutes a day, even if it is broken up into 10-minute segments.
Part 2: Adopt healthier eating habits.
Diet is always the more difficult puzzle to solve. I have never gone on a “diet” in the traditional sense and didn’t want to start. Since I’m a nerd, I started researching. Dr. Wright, an expert in PCOS, recommends a diet that mimics a diabetic diet in many ways. Since insulin resistance leads to weight gain, controlling how your body responds to food is critical to managing PCOS.
The first step is reducing your carbohydrate intake. Notice I said to decrease, not eliminate. Your body needs carbohydrates for energy. It’s essential to select quality carbohydrates as your body process a donut much differently than oatmeal. Doctors also recommend combining carbohydrates with both protein and healthy fat.
It is also best to frontload your eating in the earlier part of the day and avoid eating at night. I typically eat carbohydrates with breakfast and lunch and avoid them at other times. This schedule seems to work well for me, though you may be slightly different. Not eating after dinner has been the most difficult for me. Though with practice, I’ve gotten reasonably good at stopping the evening snack routine.
I began by reigning in my diet a bit more. I eliminated sugar and refined carbohydrates. I focused on lean protein and veggies. I tracked everything I ate in a food journal. You can use a paper version, or download an app on your phone such as My Fitness Pal
These days I can eat a slice of cake at a birthday party or go overboard at Thanksgiving, and it doesn’t derail me. I go back to my habits the next day. If I have a more extended period where I am off track like, during the holidays, a few weeks of tracking everything I eat helps me get back in line.
Part 3: Get the right amount of sleep.
My doctor missed one element of improving insulin resistance, and that is the importance of sleep. Even short term sleep deprivation is known to cause the same rise in blood insulin levels as eating poorly for long periods.
The relationship between sleep deprivation and insulin levels explains why I was unable to lose weight after the birth of my daughter. I was not sleeping, so my insulin levels were all over the place.
Thankfully sleep deprivation with newborns is a temporary thing. If you’re in the middle of that stage, give yourself some grace.
If you’re not sleeping well, consider changes to your evening routine that help you get to sleep. If you’ve tried and nothing seems to help, seek advice from your doctor.
Within months of reigning in my diet and increasing physical activity, I was leaner and feeling better than I ever had. After a year, I lost 40lbs, and blood tests showed that my hormone levels are within normal ranges. My doctor said she wouldn’t diagnosed me with PCOS based on where I am now.
I began ovulating regularly, and my reproductive system went back to normal. After my daughter was born, my body resisted weight loss for a few months. Eventually, my old habits, along with the end of sleep deprivation, did the trick, and I ended up losing an additional 10 lbs. I still had some of the acne associated with the disease, but I take a prescription that solves that problem as well.
The biggest prize, of course, is that I am no longer at risk for complications of PCOS like diabetes and heart disease. The fact that I can fit into the clothes I wore in high school is just a bonus.
Seven years later, it’s clear that my doctor was right. Eating well and exercising isn’t just a habit for me; it’s something I crave. I jump out of bed at five o’clock every morning to get my workout in before the rest of the family wakes up. Our house is healthy, and my kids even count their vegetable servings every day.
You may never look forward to exercising the way I do. My husband works out regularly but has never enjoyed it as I do. I recognize that everyone is different, but you will enjoy the way you feel and the way your clothes fit. You’ll also enjoy a reduction in your PCOS symptoms, and a better chance of avoiding diabetes and heart disease.
I am managing PCOS every day, but because exercise, healthy eating, and sleep are habits for me now, I say I have defeated PCOS. I am symptom-free, and life is good. Sometimes we need to get out of our way, stop making excuses, and put in the work.