“I still remember these words as clearly as if it was yesterday. I was 18, sitting on the exam table in the clinic at Fairfield University [in Connecticut]. I had missed five periods in a row. Instead of suggesting that I may have PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome], the doctor told me I was infertile,” said Amy Melding, a certified health coach and the founder of PCOS Diva, on her website.
Her business, which is based in Nashua, New Hampshire, provides women across the U.S. with lifestyle help to manage their disorder.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age in the United States.
Melding struggled from puberty to work through the symptoms of PCOS, which include weight gain, irregular periods, infertility, acne, hirsutism (facial hair), and male-pattern baldness. Doctors told her she would never get pregnant without extensive fertility treatments. It took her years of fertility treatments to have her two sons.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age in the United States — affecting up to 15 percent of women. Abnormal androgen levels prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg each ovulation cycle.
In addition to fertility problems, PCOS also increases a woman’s risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a host of cancers, including ovarian, breast, colon, brain, and kidney cancers.
As many as 70 percent of women with this disorder remain undiagnosed for years. One woman reports that she struggled to lose weight ever since elementary school, only to grow an abnormal amount of body hair after she finally cut 50 pounds. She had only three periods a year. When she did her own research and confronted her OB/GYN, he admitted he had suspected she had PCOS without communicating it to her or performing any tests. He had worked as her physician for 20 years.
Although some medical treatments can treat this hormonal imbalance, there is no cure. Women with the condition can take hormonal birth control, anti-androgen medicines, and diabetes medication. These treatments can control some symptoms, but they have their own side effects and they do nothing to improve fertility.
For women who don’t ovulate regularly, it is important to have a pelvic ultrasound and endometrial biopsy annually.
Doctors have difficulty diagnosing PCOS, too. “Despite its name, ovarian cysts are not required for its diagnosis,” said Dr. Fiona McCulloch, a naturopath practitioner who has treated women with PCOS for 15 years. McCulloch has battled PCOS herself and wrote the book, “Eight Steps to Reverse Your PCOS.” She also founded White Lotus Integrative Medicine in Toronto, Canada.
Women with this condition need to be wary of cancer risk and keep up with regular screenings, McCulloch said. “For women who don’t ovulate regularly, it is important to have a pelvic ultrasound and endometrial biopsy annually to check the health of the lining. It is generally a good idea as well to induce a period every three months if you tend to go a long time without menses,” she told LifeZette.
Weight gain can pose a serious risk for cancer as well; the normal efforts to control weight may not work as well for a woman with PCOS. “Obesity is associated with chronic inflammation and DNA damage and changes in hormonal function, which can contribute toward an increased risk of cancer. Fat is a hormonally active tissue, and if in excess can produce factors that can initiate or promote growth of tumors. Increased fat mass can cause increased production of hormones like estrogens and insulin that contribute to tumor growth.”
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PCOS makes it especially difficult for women to lose weight. A healthy diet for a woman with PCOS doesn’t look that different from a healthy diet for women without the disorder: abundant amounts of vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Researchers have also discovered that everyday products can disrupt normal hormone function in women. Plastics, for instance, leech bisphenol A (BPA), a synthetic compound that can disrupt estrogen. McCulloch recommends staying away from food storage containers and water bottles made from plastic, and opting for glass or metal instead. Animal products such as meat and dairy that come from animals treated with hormones can contribute to PCOS — as can soy products, which contain high proportions of a chemical that can mimic estrogen. Makeup products with parabens have also proven disruptive.
The risk for colon, brain, and kidney cancers can be controlled with a healthy lifestyle — and some women with PCOS have found they have to take extra time for self-care. Amy Melding had a hard time bouncing back after the birth of her second son. She relied on sugar-free, low carb food that had been heavily processed to keep her diet “healthy.” She refused to take Metformin (the diabetes medicine often prescribed for PCOS patients), so she decided instead to try a more natural path to healing her disorder.
“I was very active, and I started to put myself first. I began taking care of myself and making time for me. My husband noticed the difference and starting calling me a diva. He was absolutely right. Honestly, that is what it took to manage my PCOS; I had to be a diva,” Melding said. After she cut out processed foods and made exercise a high priority, Melding was able to get pregnant naturally with her third child, a little girl.
For many other women struggling with this disorder, it might be time to rejigger priorities and put health first. It could pay big dividends.