Terrible breakouts, constant fatigue, wild mood swings and unexplained bloating and weight gain. Sound familiar?
It's me, Ashley - the Founder of Mela. I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, also known as PCOS, during my Freshman Year of college. I was a student athlete trying to balance getting good grades and making new friends - all while feeling completely terrible. I gained 15lbs in two months (and no, I wasn't eating junk food!), my skin was breaking out for the first time in my life and I was so tired I struggled getting out of bed in the morning. I spent months going to different doctor’s appointments trying to figure out what was wrong with me. After months I was finally diagnosed with PCOS and a Vitamin D deficiency. It took a while for them to diagnose me with PCOS because I didn’t actively have cysts on my ovaries.
After receiving my diagnosis, I started the long process of understanding and healing my body. There have been a lot of ups and downs, but I want to share my experience with the hope that it helps you on your own journey. It’s also PCOS Awareness Month, so I want to shine a light on this complex disorder that affects women of color more frequently and severely.
PCOS is a common and complex hormonal disorder that affects individuals with ovaries. It's characterized by a variety of different symptoms, including irregular menstrual cycles, ovarian cysts and elevated levels of androgen hormones. These hormonal imbalances and other symptoms can have a huge impact on both your physical and emotional health.
In this article, I'll dig deeper into the world of hormone imbalances, and have an honest discussion about everything from fertility issues to acne and those annoying chin hairs. Let's explore what PCOS is, what factors contribute to its development, and most importantly, what steps you can take to manage its symptoms and hopefully heal your hormone imbalance.
For those of you that do not have PCOS, hormone balance is still a fundamental aspect of your overall health and can impact your risk of everything from diabetes to heart disease. So stick around!
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects individuals with ovaries. While its name suggests ovarian cysts, PCOS is more complex than cysts - as some of us don’t actually develop cysts - like me! Essentially, it's really a complex disorder that impacts your hormonal, metabolic, and reproductive systems.
PCOS symptoms can vary from person to person, but common symptoms include:
- Irregular menstrual cycles: Often with fewer than eight periods a year or prolonged gaps between periods. Individuals with PCOS may also experience heavy or prolonged menstrual bleeding when periods do occur.
- Hormonal Imbalances: PCOS is characterized by hormonal imbalances, including elevated levels of androgen hormones. This hormonal imbalance can lead to a range of symptoms, including acne, hirsutism - oh hey chin hairs we see you, and hair thinning.
- Ovarian Cysts: While not all individuals with PCOS develop ovarian cysts, they do exist in many. These cysts are small, fluid-filled sacs that can form on the ovaries. They are often seen on ultrasound scans.
- Metabolic Complications: In addition to hormonal disruptions, individuals with PCOS often experience metabolic challenges. These may include insulin resistance, which can lead to higher blood sugar levels and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Weight gain and difficulty losing weight are also common. So that typical "lower your calories and lose weight" strategy may not work for you!
- Reproductive Challenges: PCOS can significantly impact fertility. Irregular ovulation or anovulation (lack of ovulation) can make it more challenging to conceive naturally and may even increase your risk of complications like pre-eclampsia, which we know women of color are already at a higher risk for. This is not to discourage you though! There are so many paths to take and ways to manage your risk that you can discuss with your doctor.
- Psychological and Emotional Impact: PCOS isn't just a physical condition - it can have a huge impact on your mental health. Dealing with symptoms like irregular periods, acne, mood swings and irregular hair growth can lead to anxiety and depression.
PCOS is one of the most prevalent hormonal disorders among individuals with ovaries. While it affects people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, research has shown that women of color, including Hispanic, Black, and South East Asian women, tend to have higher rates of PCOS compared to other groups. These disparities make it even more important to discuss and address within our community.
Causes of PCOS
So this is the frustrating part - we still don’t know the exact cause of PCOS. However, research has provided valuable insights into what could be contributing to its development.
- Genetics: There is evidence to suggest that genetics play a role in the development of PCOS. If you have a family history of PCOS, you may have an increased risk of developing the condition. While specific PCOS-related genes have been identified, the genetic component is still being extensively studied.
- Hormonal Imbalances: Hormonal irregularities are at the core of PCOS. Women with PCOS often have higher than normal levels of androgens.
- Insulin Resistance: Insulin resistance is a key contributor to PCOS. Elevated insulin levels can stimulate the ovaries to produce more androgens, making hormonal imbalances worse.
- Inflammation: Chronic, low-grade inflammation is another factor linked to PCOS. Inflammation can affect the ovaries and disrupt their normal function. It may also contribute to insulin resistance and metabolic complications commonly seen in PCOS.
- Stress: While not a direct cause, chronic stress may make PCOS symptoms worse. High stress levels can lead to increased cortisol production, which, in turn, can impact insulin sensitivity and hormonal balance. So now you have another reason to embrace the soft life!
- Ethnic and Racial Disparities: It's important to note that there are ethnic and racial disparities in PCOS prevalence. Women of color, including Hispanic, Black, and South East Asian women, tend to have higher rates of PCOS.
Understanding the causes and contributing factors of PCOS is essential for effective management and prevention. While the exact triggers may vary from person to person, addressing hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, and lifestyle factors can be key steps in managing PCOS and promoting overall health. Now let's talk about practical strategies to manage PCOS symptoms, and I will share what has worked well for me.
How to Improve PCOS Symptoms and Achieve Hormone Balance
When I say I’ve tried everything to feel better, I mean EVERYTHING - prescription medication, intense workouts, keto diet, fasting, herbal remedies, and of course vitamins and supplements. I am here to share more about what has worked for me, and what leading research is suggesting. However, every body is different and part of your journey is working with your healthcare provider and figuring out what works best for you.
Modify Your Diet
It spent months adding and taking away foods to figure out the right plan that helped me feel better and helped manage my bloating and breakouts. For me, I have learned that I cannot eat gluten, lactose or a lot of carbs - and I mostly stick to a LOW-FODMAP diet. Here are some of the dietary changes that research has shown to provide relief for hormonal imbalances. If this is overwhelming, you may also want to consider consulting with a registered dietitian who specializes in PCOS that can help you come up with a meal plan.
- Low-Glycemic Index Diet: When you focus on foods with a low glycemic index to help stabilize blood sugar levels. This includes whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, and plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. This also means avoiding sugary and highly processed foods that can lead to insulin spikes.
- Low-FODMAP Diet: When you work to limit FODMAPs in your diet, which are certain types of carbohydrates that can trigger digestive symptoms in some people. While this dietary approach is primarily designed for managing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), those of us with PCOS may find it helps with bloating and other digestive issues.
- Balanced Nutrition: When you plan out your meals to ensure what you’re eating is well-rounded and includes a variety of nutrients, including vegetables and fruits and limiting processed food.
Commit to Regular Exercise
Incorporating regular workouts and moving my body on a daily basis has helped with my fatigue, mood and bloating. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean that I’m doing bootcamp style training or intense workouts. For me, I have learned that low to moderate intensity workouts help me feel better and prevent me from gaining weight. My favorite workouts are the 12-3-30 workout on the treadmill (walk at a 12 incline at 3 speed for 30 minutes), slow weight lifting and riding a bike.
- Low-intensity workouts: These workouts are gentle on the body and can be a great starting point, especially if you're new to exercise or want to help lower your stress. These workouts focus on consistent movement and are less strenuous and include things like walking, yin yoga, swimming and slow biking.
- Medium-intensity workouts: These workouts offer a balance between low and high intensity. They can help you build cardiovascular fitness and strength without overwhelming your body, and include things like pilates, flow yoga, slow weight lifting, dancing, walking uphill and slow jogging.
- High-intensity workouts: These workouts are strenuous, but they can significantly boost cardiovascular fitness and calorie burn. However, they can be demanding on your body and raise cortisol levels with workouts like running, crossfit, bootcamp classes and kickboxing. So don't overdo it with the intense workouts!
Better Manage Your Stress
Chronic stress can make PCOS symptoms even worse, contribute to higher cortisol levels and even impact things like weight gain and breakouts. Easier said than done though, right? I am a naturally anxious and constantly busy person - so focusing on managing my stress is a daily choice that I have to make. What works for me is going to hot yoga three times a week, practicing deep breathing, taking daily walks outside and finding something that brings me joy every single day. Check out our other post about how to lower your stress levels and improve your mood and mental focus for more ideas.
Depending on your specific symptoms and goals, your healthcare provider may recommend medications to manage PCOS. Birth control pills, for example, can regulate menstrual cycles and reduce androgen levels. Other medications like Metformin may be prescribed to address insulin resistance, and Spironolactone that helps reduce androgen production and address symptoms like acne and those chin hairs we all hate. I have found that Spironolactone is the best option for me, but this is a personal choice that you will make with your doctor.
Herbs & Supplements
There are certain teas, herbal remedies and supplements that can help address some of the symptoms and underlying factors related to PCOS. I spent a decade trying different formulas, and used this data as part of the foundation for creating Mela Vitamins. What I have found works for me is a daily cup of Spearmint and Bergamot tea, Ceylon Cinnamon, our Daily Essentials multivitamin, fish oil, chromium and inositol.
- Spearmint: Spearmint can be taken in tea or capsule form, and has been shown to have an anti-androgen effect - which can help reduce acne and abnormal hair growth. Some research has also shown that Spearmint can help support healthy blood sugar levels and a healthy gut microbiome.
- Bergamot: Bergamot is in Earl Grey tea, and can be taken in tea, juice or capsule form. Bergamot has been shown to support healthy cholesterol levels and lower inflammation.
- Ceylon Cinnamon: Ceylon Cinnamon is an adaptogenic spice that supports blood sugar management, has anti-inflammatory properties and even supports neurological health. This is why we include it in our Daily Essentials multivitamin.
- Inositol: Inositol is one of the most frequently studied supplements for PCOS, and has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and menstrual regularity. Inositol has also been shown to support ovulation and overall fertility.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 supplements may reduce inflammation and support heart and brain health.
- Vitamin D: Many individuals with PCOS have lower vitamin D levels, with an estimated 85% being deficient. Adding in a Vitamin D3 supplement may also support better insulin sensitivity and lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. This is one of the many reasons why we include high-dose Vitamin D3 in our Daily Essentials multivitamin.
Build Your Community
Having PCOS or a hormone imbalance can impact every aspect of your life, so it is important to have an understanding and supportive community around you. Having a naturopathic doctor and gynecologist that I trust have made a huge difference, and has allowed me to get answers to my questions and try out different treatment options until I found what worked for me. Just remember that it is so important to advocate for yourself - and if your doctor doesn’t listen, find a new one!
I like to call my husband my supporth uman, because he has so positively contributed to helping me embrace a calmner, softer life - and he calls me out when I'm having mood swings! 🤣
I also belong to several online communities and have several friends that have PCOS that I can vent to, share tips with and celebrate wins together. And of course, I am open and honest about my disorder to my family and friends so they can try to better understand what I am going through on a daily basis.
Your Healing Journey
I know firsthand how long and frustrating this journey can be. PCOS is a complex condition that affects all of us in very different ways, and our symptoms can change over time. By understanding the causes, symptoms, and strategies for improvement, you can take proactive steps towards feeling better. My hope is that you will empower yourself with knowledge, seek support from your healthcare team and engage with a community that supports you. You can build a future where you feel and look like your best self. And if you need someone to talk to that understands where you've been, I am here for you.
Lin MW, Wu MH. The role of vitamin D in polycystic ovary syndrome. Indian J Med Res. 2015 Sep;142(3):238-40. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4669857/
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Racial and ethnic differences in the polycystic ovary syndrome metabolic phenotype. https://www.ajog.org/article/S0002-9378(17)30103-5/fulltext
Mayo Clinic Diseases and Conditions. Polycystic ovary syndrome https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pcos/symptoms-causes/syc-20353439
John Hopkins Medicine Conditions and Diseases. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos