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I always knew there was something wrong with me. Ever since I hit puberty, my body was just ‘off.’ It started when my brother made fun of my ‘mustache’ and my Mom valiantly tried to help by taking me to get electrolysis. Ouch! Then there was the abject horror I experienced in junior high school when I realized that all the other girls had nice, smooth legs… and my legs looked as hairy as an ape. Shaving didn’t matter that much because by the end of the day I would always end up with the female version of the ‘5 o’clock shadow,’ or the ‘mono-brow.’ These were the first signs that I suffered from a condition called Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS), but they were hardly the last.
Tell Tale Signs*
As puberty progressed the troubling symptoms started piling up.
- In college and throughout my twenties, I could go months without my period. Months. There was one year where I didn’t have my period at all. Let me be perfectly clear– I was not sexually active, and this was not the immaculate conception. I was just, defective.
- Despite eating healthy and exercising like a fiend, I could gain 10 lbs. just by looking at a cookie. It took a modern miracle (like an intestinal parasite) to lose weight. I was in the U.S. Army in my late twenties, and in addition to at least 1 hour of physical training a day, I also trained for marathons. I was very active. However, I knew something was not right when I would go on training runs in excess of three hours (!!!) and not lose a single pound. It wasn’t that I was gaining muscle. I was just, defective.
- I had a blood test at a wellness event and the results were startling to say the least– my cholesterol and triglycerides were through the roof! (Note: this is more a symptom of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is common in women with PCOS)
- Remember the hairy ape problem? Well, imagine my horror when I started losing the hair on top of my head. Don’t get me wrong– I still had the ‘5 o’clock shadow’ on my legs. However, the hair on top of my head… my beautiful mane was literally falling out. Every time I washed my hair I would lose enough loose hair to fill a small trashcan. For months I was scared to brush or wash my hair because quite frankly, I didn’t want to go bald.
- I had an insatiable craving for sugar.
- All of my weight was firmly concentrated in my belly (well, and my boobs). Shopping for clothes was always a hoot because I had virtually zero fat on my legs, hips, and butt. However, I totally rocked that apple shape. Elastic waistbands and bulky sweaters were my friends.
- My skin was volatile.
- I could not get within 10 miles of athlete’s foot without contracting it.
- I could scrub my elbows for 20 minutes and apply a thick layer of lotion, but I could not get rid of the dark, rough skin that clung to them.
- I started a collection of skin tags all over my neck, underarms, and back.
- I was itchy– all of the time. I started to think maybe I really was part monkey– first the hair, now the scratching.
- I had dark skin patches under my arms that would not go away.
- At least once a year I would develop a painful rash that didn’t respond to medicine. At its worst, the rash covered my entire trunk region. (Many of these skin problems are not necessarily caused by PCOS. However, they are common for individuals who are pre-diabetic or diabetic, which women with PCOS are more at risk for developing.)
- I would experience severe abdominal cramps… not cramps from menstruation. However, they were debilitating.
- I couldn’t get pregnant. Seriously, I could. not. get. pregnant. My husband and I tried for years. Of course, it is kind of difficult to get pregnant if you never ovulate.
It was the infertility issue that finally resulted in answers. A few blood tests and a vaginal ultrasound later, and the diagnosis was confirmed… Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
So, What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Anyway?
Here are some fast facts about PCOS:
- It is an endocrine disorder that affects about 5-10% of all women of reproductive age.
- Symptoms occur because of the presence of excess male hormones.
- The symptoms vary wildly from woman to woman (see below for the common symptoms).
- PCOS is likely hereditary. It can be passed from either the mother or the father, but if one parent has it/carries it, it is likely that a daughter will be affected. It is also very possible that a son could pass it on to his daughters. My sister, who is 10 years younger than me, also suffers from PCOS.
- You can’t cure PCOS, but it is possible to control many of the symptoms. Not easy… but possible.
- Women who suffer from PCOS will likely suffer from Insulin Resistance or Metabolic Syndrome.
- PCOS sufferers are at a much greater risk to develop Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, and Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.
PCOS Symptom Checklist
Do you think you might suffer from PCOS? Here are some of the common symptoms:
- Irregular periods
- Excessive hair growth on face and body
- Alopecia (thinning scalp hair)
- Obesity and in particular, abdominal obesity
- Acne that was severe as a teenager or that you still have as an adult
- Sugar Cravings
- Inability to lose weight
- Skin tags
- Acanthosis nigricans (darkening of skin areas)
- Pelvic Pain
- Gray-white breast discharge
- Sleep Apnea
- Depression or anxiety
- High blood pressure, high triglycerides, low HDL levels (as a result of insulin resistance)
- Unexplained infertility
- Multiple miscarriages
What do you do now?
If you have a number of these symptoms, you may have PCOS (I suffer from almost all of them). If you think you suffer from PCOS, how do you deal with it?
Well, the first thing you need to do is consult your ob-gyn doctor. Your doctor can order blood tests that measure your level of male hormones and other PCOS markers. If you are trying to get pregnant, your ob-gyn can also prescribe medicines like clomid that can stimulate ovulation.
If you are already approaching an ‘advanced maternal age’ (35 and older), you may want to research fertility clinics, which specialize in fertility issues that result from PCOS.
If you are already overweight or obese, or if you have been told you are insulin resistant and/or pre-diabetic, you will want to schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist who can help you manage the non-fertility related symptoms and complications of PCOS.
In the meantime, I would like to recommend two books that I have found to be excellent resources (affiliate links included for your convenience):
I hope that you have found this overview helpful, and if you think you might have PCOS, seek medical expertise sooner than later. It is much easier to control the symptoms when you are in your twenties than when you are in your thirties.
Finally, if you suffer from PCOS, please know that you did nothing to contract this disorder. It is an endocrine disorder that you inherited. Additionally, if you know there is a reason for feeling like your body is out of control, that knowledge can help you gain some control.. and you will feel a lot better.
Check in next week to find out more about how PCOS affects fertility.
In the meantime, thanks so much for reading!
*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This post should not be viewed as medical advice so much as my personal experience as someone who suffers from PCOS. If you suspect you may have PCOS, please seek the advice and treatment of a medical professional. Thanks!