PCOS: A Starting Point for Answers and Natural Treatment
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. PCOS. The name is misleading. Not everyone with PCOS has ovarian cysts. And not everyone with ovarian cysts has PCOS. Our condition is widely misunderstood and, in many cases, inadequately treated.
But as individuals, we face scrutiny because of our irritability, behavior and apparent laziness and gluttony. Very few understand our struggle. The feeling when you can’t control your thoughts, emotions and sometimes, actions? It’s maddening and frightening.
Fortunately for me, I had paid close attention to my body enough to know something was wrong. Unfortunately for me, not everyone saw the gradual decline so it was easy for some to simply label me an Evil Bitch. I don't completely blame them, but I still was confident enough to know this wasn’t “me.”
I’ve been able to make some amazing headway in managing my PCOS naturally and am now asked many questions about my journey and treatment protocols. When you start being referred to as the local “PCOS expert,” it made sense for me to put it in one place for ease of reference.
My goal is to create a post I wished I had as a resource when I started this journey: A consolidated a high level overview of PCOS; the symptoms, what testing to ask for, what supplements/medications to inquire about and how to adjust your lifestyle to promote healthy hormones naturally.
Many of the articles and books I read contained so much information on one topic and it took me years to connect the dots. Hopefully this can serve as a “launch pad” of connected dots for you to begin your own research and ignite conversations with your doctor. The purpose of this post is to share my experience and knowledge; this is not an opposition or research paper (otherwise it would be 90 pages long!)
If you don’t have PCOS, well, wait, you might! Still, you might know someone who does and this will help you understand their struggle.
Here’s the first lesson about PCOS: It is HARD. And while it may be exceptionally hard on you, it is very hard for those closest to you, including and especially your spouse.
Most people who suffer from hormonal imbalance don’t know it at first; we chalk it up to PMS (PMS, subsequently, isn’t normal either, by the way), lack of sleep, a rough day or just being around too many people who don’t get it.
We feel confused. Exhausted. Helpless. Ugly. Fat. Out of control. Words fly out of our mouth expressing a deeply angered soul that we don’t even recognize. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in this journey is to try to offer as much grace as I can to those around me because I don’t know their struggle.
During this journey some people in my life have made incorrect assumptions about me. But that's ok. I was on the receiving end of so much more grace offered by those who truly loved me while I received the medical interventions I needed. While all the information I list here may be important, your most valuable asset will be your support team (and a whole lot of Jesus!)
Before moving on, please know this:
- You are not alone. There are tons of us out there and you can come sit with us.
- There really is hope. With proper protocols, you can feel better.
- I am not a doctor, though I think I could have earned some medical degree with all the reading and studying I have done! I will purposely not list out any dosages of supplements or medication, as you should get that direction from your medical practitioner.
From the age of 18-26, I experienced minor, but noticeable symptoms. At which point I began to experience a slow and steady increase in symptoms, getting more intense and painful every month for another 4 years, at which point I got pregnant with my daughter at age 30. Refer to this post to read about what happened when I learned my daughter had a 50% survival rate!
It wasn’t until I was 28 (That means 10 years of symptoms and doctors with no answers) that I diagnosed myself with PCOS. I have spent countless hours since then trying to research this incredibly hard to understand condition in an effort to treat myself naturally.
Why naturally? Because hormones are no joke. Synthetic hormones have a strong link to causing cancer and I’ve seen it first hand in my family. Why do synthetic hormones exist? Because you can’t patent natural hormones. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
What exactly is PCOS?
PCOS is a genetic endocrine disorder, that seems to be strongly linked to insulin resistance, that ultimately causes a disruption in your body’s hormones, which then lead to a plethora of physical symptoms to be covered later.
So what is insulin? As your stomach breaks down food, glucose is one of the sugars extracted from this process and absorbed into the blood stream, causing an increase in blood sugar. If insulin is working properly, it allows the glucose to absorb into your cells, which is then use for energy.
However, if insulin is not working properly, the glucose stays in your blood, therefore maintaining a high level of blood sugar while the cells do not get sufficient energy. The sugar left behind turns into fat if it can’t be used properly. No wonder we have trouble with weight and energy.
My doctor gives a thorough overview of the PCOS in which he believes insulin resistance plays the primary role in the condition (my summary of his words):
- Insulin resistance → alterations in the hormones FSH and LH → ovarian cysts and menstrual irregularities.
- Insulin resistance → loss of SHBG → less binding of testosterone → increase in free testosterone → skin issues (acne and hisutism)
- Women with PCOS have a 5-fold increase in breast cancer due to loss of progesterone
- Women with PCOS have a 50% miscarriage rate due to loss of progesterone
- Most women with PCOS are thyroid resistant
- Thyroid resistance → slowed metabolism, fatigue weight gain
As you will hear me say over and over: PCOS can present itself differently in patients but some of the most common symptoms are:
- Painful, heavy and/or irregular periods
- Weight gain and difficulty losing weight
- Skin problems (darkening skin and acne)
- Hirsutism (abnormal hair growth)
- Hair thinning
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Mood swings
- Sugar/Carb Cravings
- Difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep and getting back to sleep
- Difficulty regulating or inability to regulate body temperature (not as common but I had it so I’m listing it!)
Doctors and Labs
Two different Kaiser Doctors laughed at my PCOS theory because I was “not fat”. They ran a TSH (a partial thyroid test) test to appease me, which came back “normal”. What I didn’t know at this point was that the doctors need to test TSH along with T3 and T4 on the first or second day of your menstrual cycle in order to have a baseline for the levels.
More than that, PCOS is not simply a thyroid disorder. Some may not display any thyroid abnormality.
A big indicator of PCOS is the LH to FSH ratio. The LH levels should not be higher than FSH and with PCOS, most patients present with LH levels 2-3 times higher than FSH.
When you get labs done, you need to ensure they run an entire hormone panel including at least:
- Free Testosterone
- Total Testosterone
- Free T3
- Free T4
- You also need a diabetes test, which will include your insulin level along with HbA1c, HOMA-IR, Glucose, GSP and Adiponectin.
- It is highly recommended that a Vitamin Deficiency Test be administered. Many women with PCOS are deficient in one or more vitamins like B, D and Magnesium.
- The blood work I had done was incredibly thorough and not only included all of the above, but also a work up for Food intolerances, Lipid, Lipoprotein and Apolipoprotein Tests, Heart HDL Map Tests, Cholesterol, Inflammation, Genetic Tests by Genotyping and Liver, Kidney and Muscle testing.
- It may seem extreme, however, with the genotyping tests, we discovered that I also suffer from both MTHFR gene mutations, which, quite simply means my body doesn’t break down toxins and heavy metals or convert Folate and B-Vitamins efficiently. People with this condition are more susceptible to stress and toxin build-up and are at a higher risk for cancer, stroke, heart problems, congenital defects, depression, IBS, miscarriages, migraines and chemical sensitivities. I don’t know about you, but having that information would seem pretty helpful to anyone to have!
While I truly do respect the advances made in western medicine, most modern doctors will not run these tests. Some may run them if you have done your research and ask nicely. No one will run the ones you need until you advocate for yourself.
My Naturopathic MD was the one that rolled up her sleeves to look at all my symptoms over the course of my lifetime to find the root cause(s) and confirm my PCOS diagnosis. You want a doctor who does this. My initial consultations with both of my doctors were at least 60 minutes long. You want someone who treats the cause, not the symptoms.
To help ease the symptoms of PCOS, your diet should be:
- Water, water and more water. Typical consumption should be half your body weight in ounces daily.
- Unprocessed, organic and grass-fed wherever possible. The concern for produce is toxin overload and xenoestrogens, found in pesticides. The concern for animal and animal by-products is their diet (non-organic corn/grain, etc) and treatment (added hormones, anti-biotics, etc.) ends up in your body when you eat the meat or by-product.
- Soy-free (Very high Phytoestrogen)
- Refined Sugar-Free (Limited use Coconut-Sugar, Local/Raw Honey and Maple Syrup are good replacements)
- Limited caffeine and alcohol (hormone disrupter) - and as usual, organic is so much better!
- Refined Carb-free (list here)
- Heavy on low glycemic vegetables and fruits
- High Omega-3, Low Omega-6 (i.e. Salmon)
- Contain simple ingredients that you understand
- Healthy balance of protein and unrefined carbohydrates
In about 60-80% of women, your diet MAY need to be:
From what I have learned, do what your body tells you. There are a lot of mixed messages out there regarding exercise, including that cardio spikes the very hormones that you are trying to keep from spiking. Here’s what happens when you follow that advice; you end up on your couch watching Netflix or starting a blog.
But exercise of any kind can help improve ovulation, cholesterol and insulin sensitivity. Not to mention, you can help manage weight gain.
Listening to my body:
- If I feel any degree of exhaustion: Yoga and Stretching, etc.
- If I feel stressed or amped: Cardio and/or Weights, etc.
For the first several months I spent the majority of my exercise time doing 15 minutes of Yoga about 5 times a week and that’s ok! Since I am a stay at home mom and exercise as time allows, I found this Yoga App to be incredibly helpful and effective. There are 15, 30 and 60 minute classes, or you can build your own!
PCOS manifests itself differently in person-to-person, but you want to treat it with the least amount of supplements and medication as possible. Especially if you are younger, there is a chance that your body could still begin to produce the things your supplementing, so if you start off with an aggressive treatment plan, you are likely to only need more and more as you age.
There are several supplements you can take for PCOS, this is just a short list of examples that I have used or am currently using to manage PCOS. Note: I am NOT on all of them at once.
Any natural doctor will most likely advise you to stop taking any synthetic medication, including birth control. I did not struggle with ovulation, so I do not have any tips on that portion, sorry.
- Vital Nutrients Blood Sugar Support (Insulin Resistance)
- Inositol (Insulin Resistance)
- Vitex or Chasteberry (Assists progesterone sensitivity)
- 5HTP (Mood)
- Probiotics (Gut health/immunity)
- Fish Oil/Cod Liver Oil (Omega 3 and has been shown to help with insulin resistance, mood, overall health/immunity and managing cortisol spikes.)
Vitamins – Depending on your vitamin deficiency results, these will vary from person to person. Most PCOS are in need of:
- Vital Nutrients B6 + B Complex (Many uses) This particular version has a large dose of B6 along with B2, B12, Biotin and Folate.
- Vitamins B3 and B5 (Additional weight support)
- Vitamin D Drops (Mood, insulin resistance)
- Vitamin C (Overall health/immunity)
- Magnesium (Many uses): You can take a powder like Natural Calm or a topical oil like Ancient Minerals. Oral magnesium can cause loose bowels in some.
- Thorne Research Methyl Guard (This is only if you have one or both MTHFR gene mutations and PLEASE talk to your doctor about dosage. You can over methylate and cause more side effects)
Unfortunately, many women still struggle managing their PCOS symptoms even with exercise, supplements and adjusted diet. If you are in that boat, you should discuss natural hormone replacement therapy with your doctor. The common hormones that women with PCOS find extreme relief with (including me!) are Progesterone and Thyroid.
If you are in need of any hormones, ask for the micronized, plant-based, natural or bio-identical version. In most cases, you can locate a compound pharmacy in the area and they can make the natural version of your prescription.
Several people, myself included, have seen the horrible adverse affects of synthetic-horse-urine-laden hormones that are being prescribed. You want your prescription to say the actual hormone word (i.e. “Micronized Progesterone” or “Thyroid”) and not a pharmaceutical word (i.e. Prometrium, etc.).
What I do with my 18-month old daughter
Since insulin resistance is genetic and kids today are exposed to toxins and xenoestrogens more than ever, I do everything in my power to try to promote a healthy lifestyle in her so she hopefully won't have to suffer as I have.
I give her Probiotics, Vitamin C and Cod Liver Oil daily which she takes like a champ. Am I really that lucky!?
She eats like me, primarily organic, well-balanced meals, free of soy and refined sugar. She eats grains like oatmeal and 100% Veganic Ancient Whole Wheat which has such a low GI and taste delicious! When she has dairy, I give her organic raw milk from our farmer's market. This particular company tests all milk before selling and it tastes AH-MAZING.
My plan is to have her prefer this type of diet so junk food will never be appealing to her. So far, so good, we'll see how it goes!
The Hormone Cure - While not PCOS specific, this book does an amazing job at explaining the functions of each hormone and how they all affect each other. There are helpful quizzes to see which of your hormones could be off, without blood work. It essentially reaffirmed many of my findings that took me years to figure out on my own and still I learned a lot in just the first chapter!
For help with food, check out my Pinterest board for many “PCOS-Friendly” recipes and ideas.
As always, please comment to share any additional experience that might be helpful to others.