Living With PCOS, A Disorder That Can Really Mess Up A Woman’s Life

Posted: June 18, 2016

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A few tweaks to your routine is all it takes for living with and managing PCOS. Many women suffer from this – often ignored/ not diagnosed, leading to a lot of grief. 

PCOS/PCOD is Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome/Disorder. Approximately 1 in 5 Indian women are thought to live with this hormonal condition that affects metabolism and appearance. It is important to manage this condition because it predisposes women to other diseases like diabetes and increases their risk of heart attack.

PCOS/PCOD affects girls and women, both lean and overweight. While no one is sure of what causes it, we have some idea on what triggers the syndrome to make a diagnosis.

Managing your PCOS is the only way forward – there is no cure. The good news is that a few tweaks in your lifestyle and thinking can minimize its impact on your health.

What steps can I take to bring my PCOS/PCOD under control?

Read about the condition and understand it

For a condition that is more and more prevalent in women, information is still hard to find beyond the basic minimum. We need to understand the role of insulin in this syndrome – it converts carbohydrates into fat for storage. Androgens are higher from elevated insulin levels, causing facial and body hair, acne, male pattern weight gain around the stomach, etc. A sign of elevated insulin levels is the presence of Acanthosis nigricans: skin discolouration on the neck, armpits, groin and under the breasts. Lean women can also have PCOS.

It is hard to manage the unknown, so reading up enough to know about the condition is a good first step. Rujuta Diwekar’s recent book on the subject is a good starting point for Indian women.

Find a doctor who understands PCOS and will proactively help you manage it

Doctors love to hate patients who depend on the Internet for their information. One can understand why relying on non-medical sources is a bad idea. However, the stars need to align to find us a well-informed doctor who has the time to both educate you and proactively manage the condition. In order for your treatment to have a chance at success, you need to commit to one doctor. Do your research and get personal referrals to gynecologists before committing to that doctor.

There are many doctors who believe that PCOS is an urban myth. Others might diagnose the condition but not help you beyond that on getting a handle on it. If you are being guilted about your weight by a doctor who should realize that weight gain is common with PCOS (and shedding it difficult) because your hormones are working against you, you would want to find another doctor.

Normal protocol is to get blood tests and scans to diagnose and start with medication to manage your insulin levels, if one wants to go the pharmacological route. Ask about supplements like Inositol that are showing results in helping women reduce weight in addition to the steps ahead in terms of diet and exercise. Ensure that your vitamin D levels are checked because many Indian women are deficient. Studies have found that 1 in 2 women with PCOS also have a significant Vitamin D deficiency.  Another common supplement that helps is Omega 3 with both EPA and DHA.

Get into a mental space that values your health

PCOS/PCOD is a condition we need to accept and live with. It will require some dedication to our personal health, doing what it takes to minimize its deleterious effects. For this, we need to work on our minds first to put ourselves on the priority list. This will mean mentally committing to do what it takes to maintain good health for ourselves and our families, living a life rich in both quality and quantity.

Managing PCOS will require some lifestyle changes. Without this mental commitment, change in our routines and well-set habits will be hard to bring about.  You might need to educate family members and ask for help to make sure you can sustain the long term changes in lifestyle that you need to make.

Support groups

Any lifestyle change is hard to manage in one huge chunk. We will need to work on it in little bits and pieces, doing just enough on all fronts but getting to this happy space over a period of time. Sustaining change is what is required and that is hard, regardless of how small the change is.

You will need support from those around you as well as those who are in the same boat as you. Online support groups and forums are useful for this, both for information and inspiration. There are many international support groups – a few good ones are PCOS Diet Support (Tarryn sends you emails daily to keep you on track and this isn’t even the paid version!) and Soul Cysters.

Do remember that these are not professional spaces where medical information is prescribed. Any and all information should be used with supervised medical guidance, so while these are good spaces to get information, please always get your doctor to sign off before you put anything into your body.

Nutrition and supplements

Even a 5% weight loss helps you manage PCOS better.

What works for PCOS diets:

  • High fibre and low glycemic index (GI) foods. GI is a relatively new way of ranking foods on the basis of the carbohydrates in foods and its impact on blood sugar. Managing your insulin levels is key with PCOS: high GI foods push the pancreas to secrete more insulin, which then converts more carbohydrates into fat. Some low GI foods are brown rice, apples, oats, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, buckwheat, barley, etc.
  • Avoid dairy, smoking and alcohol. The Insulin Like Growth Factor (IGF 1) in dairy products is said to wreak havoc with existing insulin levels in the body.
  • Portion sizes. What we think we eat and what we end up eating are actually different. It would help in the beginning to measure out a cup versus wing it. After some time, you get the hang of the measure without having to formally do it. Even changing the size of your plate has shown a significant impact on the amount of calories ingested.
  • A food diary. Often, we skimp on the main meal but fill up with junk calories. An aloo paratha is not as bad for you as popcorn is. Getting an honest account of how much and what we eat is a starting point to getting our diet under control. My Fitness Pal is a good online food diary to try out with Indian foods also featured.
  • Eating enough. Dieting is not about starving ourselves but getting a balanced meal in. While we’d want to limit our carbohydrates, we have to hit the fat, protein and trace mineral quotas to be healthy human beings.
  • Supplements. Supplements like Inositol along with folic acid are said to help manage PCOS symptoms. Herbal teas like spearmint tea are said to reduce the androgens, reducing hirsuitism (hair growth, especially on the face). Many women take Omega 3 capsules. It is important to clear any and all supplements with your doctor.

Exercise

45 minutes of exercise, 6 days a week is what is recommended. Exercise needs to have both aerobic and weight training components. Since exercise needs to become an activity that we need to sustain over the rest of our lives, it would help to set up a routine, vary the kinds of exercise, get some company and find ways of exercising that we find fun. If you have never done weights before, it is a good idea to learn how. Weights without supervision can result in injuries.

A check in with the doctor at regular intervals will help keep you on track, including changes in weight. It also gives us the external motivation to keep on with the health and lifestyle changes.

The most important accessory for a woman with PCOS/PCOD is a positive mental attitude. Yes, it is hard that managing a disorder that causes obesity is weight loss. Yes, it can get hard to reduce and to get pregnant.

All this has all been done before by regular, ordinary people. If they can, so can we!  Good luck!

Image source: PCOS diet plan by Shutterstock.

Sangitha Krishnamurthi is a special educator, blogger and mother of three. Her interests include living

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