Living With PCOS Can Feel Better When You Focus On These Areas of Your Health
“You have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Most people call it PCOS for short. It’s a condition that affects your hormone levels and explains why your periods have been irregular. It’s something that could get better with time, but other women struggle to get pregnant when you get to that point in life.” — My OB/GYN
My first OB/GYN appointment was at age 16 to address irregular periods. I would have two cycles in one month, then nothing for six months. My moods fluctuated and I always felt tired, more so than a typical teenager. It turns out my estrogen and progesterone levels were low and my testosterone was elevated. I knew little about hormones then, but assumed that wasn’t great.
My doctor suggested going on birth control to normalize my period and briefly discussed lifestyle modifications. The whole thing felt weird because I was not even close to considering having children. I thought my health habits were fine because I was young, played sports, and ate whatever I wanted. As I aged, I revisited her mention of lifestyle modifications. I researched, thought, and talked about it more.
I now have an IUD and my symptoms are mild. We haven’t tried for kiddos yet so I’m not sure the extent of my reproductive health, but I have felt cysts rupture (ouch) and struggle with adult acne. My weight used to fluctuate, but I attribute that more to inactivity and poor nutrition versus hormones.
There are a lot of great research studies on PCOS, including risk factors and ways to manage the condition and its side effects conservatively. I knew little about them when I was first diagnosed, but include them in my life now.
Conservative Treatment Recommendations
Over the years, I’ve met many women diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. PCOS affects 6% to 9% of women of reproductive age. Aside from my symptoms of cycle irregularity, acne, cysts, and weight fluctuations, many women suffer from excessive hair growth, skin abnormalities, and balding. Around 60% of women with PCOS will be diagnosed with at least one psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, OCD, or bipolar disorder compared to women without PCOS.
PCOS can get better on its own, but there are ways to help decrease your symptoms. After following these recommendations for several years, I can confidently say I feel much better. I have more stable energy, weight, and confidence.
Maintain a healthy weight
One of the most common correlations with PCOS is a high body mass index. This can lead to other health conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. It’s important to maintain a healthy weight to avoid these systemic complications.
But one person’s healthy weight and ways of getting there may differ from another’s. I love to cook nutritious food and exercise in the gym, but some of my friends are less conscious of what they eat and make it up by running a lot. No one knows your body like you, so figure out what it needs to stay healthy.
Women with PCOS have higher rates of eating disorders. It’s linked to the increased risk of psychiatric disorders and the fact that women with PCOS often have a higher BMI. Eating is a physical and mental event. Some women resort to unhealthy ways of trying to lose weight. A negative relationship with food, like feeling guilty for eating it or needing to control it, can take time to change. The first step is noticing you have a problem and being willing to talk about it.
In general, it’s best to eat minimally processed whole foods. Enjoy fruits and veggies, and cook as much as you can so you know exactly what you’re putting into your body. Sparingly eat artificial sugar, fast food, and junk foods. It’s hard to recommend a specific diet here because again, everybody is different.
Being physically active is good for everyone, especially women with PCOS. Exercise helps regulate blood sugar and hormone levels, which are often abnormal in those with this condition.
Choose an activity that you’ll stick to. I enjoy lifting weights, walking, and attending group exercise classes. Some of my friends would rather play sports, cycle, or do yoga. Picking something you love will help you dread less and enjoy more while improving your health.
Manage stress levels
Cortisol is a hormone that responds to stress and can cause and worsen PCOS. This study found that women with PCOS often have an exaggerated response to stress, meaning their stress hormones stayed in their system longer. This correlated with higher body mass index (BMI), heart rate, adipose (fat) tissue, and waist-to-hip-ratio. Researchers concluded the higher and longer stress response is one cause of weight gain for women with PCOS.
I’ve felt that stress response. Some days, I feel like there’s a low level of anxiety about nothing and everything. It’s hard to explain sometimes, but I resonate with the exaggerated stress response.
Be aware of this concept and try to manage your stress levels. Not all stress is bad — a low level can motivate you to do your best or meet a deadline. But if you notice or even think your responses to stressful situations are big or long, try relaxation techniques. Meditate, journal, or walk. Try some mental exercises to reframe experiences. That’s what I’ve been doing lately — spin the experience positively, focus on the parts you can control, and roll with it.
Focus on your mental health
Since depression, anxiety, OCD, and bipolar disorder are more common in women with PCOS, it’s important to check on your mental health. Stay in touch with your thoughts and emotions.
Try to identify what makes you sad or anxious. Is there an environmental trigger that you should avoid? Do you notice those feelings around a specific person or place? Is there an activity or song that you don’t like?
On the other hand, is there something you need more of? Do you feel happy around a certain person, place, or activity? Get and stay in touch with yourself and modify your life as needed. Talk to others about your feelings, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can be hard, but is necessary for your well-being.
It can get better
I can’t claim that I’ve cured my PCOS because I still have an IUD and we haven’t tried getting pregnant yet, but I know I feel better than I did the first few years after diagnosis. My fatigue and overall “blah” feelings are way less, and I don’t need a midday nap or motivation to be active. My weight has stayed stable instead of fluctuating like it used to. The best thing I can do is keep focusing on my physical and mental health.
PCOS is a common condition and often not talked about, but I feel so much better when I do. I would love to connect with others and hear your experiences. What’s your story and what works for you? The most important thing I know is it’s a tough condition, but can get better. We’re in this together.