About four years ago, I got sick.
It wasn't the kind of sick that made you better after a few days off work and a couple of pills, though. It was the kind of sick that required years of medication (often the wrong kinds), a ton of doctor's appointments and way too much stress and anxiety.
But the worst part about all this was I had spent years not even REALIZING I was sick.
After a really bad breakup (which is totally a story by itself), I found myself gaining weight. I thought it was just stress-eating, so I got a nutritionist to help me figure it out. I thought I could lose the weight in a way that would hopefully be easy and manageable.
For eight weeks, I stuck to my plan to a T.
I followed every meal plan, didn't cheat, turned down dinner invitations and basically made sure NOTHING would get in the way of my weight loss goals.
So, imagine my surprise when the weight just kept piling on. At first, I thought it was stress. But that wasn't the case.
Then, I thought it might be a thyroid issue. Several tests after revealed THAT wasn't it, either.
"Have you ever thought of getting tested for PCOS?" my nutritionist asked.
"What's that?" I asked, super confused.
PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, is a type of disease where your ovaries literally develop small cysts (aka fluid-filled sacs) on them. This typically results in several underlying symptoms, like missed or irregular periods, difficulty losing weight, high levels of androgens (male hormones), hair loss on the head and thick hair growth on the face and body.
But these symptoms are also easy to ignore because you might think the weight gain and missed periods are related to the foods you're eating or too much stress. If I hadn't been told about this disease, I probably wouldn't have even gotten tested for it at all.
Even after I DID determine I had PCOS, I had to go to three doctors to find the best way to beat the symptoms. (Sadly, PCOS can only be managed... not cured.)
Here are the symptoms you need to look out for to determine whether there's something else at play that your doctor isn't diagnosing:
1. Weight Gain
If you're eating healthy, exercising and getting enough rest – but STILL aren't losing weight – you might have a hormonal issue at play.
Alisa Vitti, a functional nutritionist and women's hormone expert, says,
PCOS is caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and dietary factors, which result in a pituitary-ovarian breakdown that prevents ovulation, causing the missing periods. The combination of insulin sensitivity, estrogen overload and testosterone sensitivity leads to the weight gain.
Your hormones are therefore completely out of whack when you have PCOS, and traditional dieting methods like calorie cutting just don't work to fix the underlying hormonal imbalances.
To counteract the hormonal overload on your system, Vitti suggests cutting out dairy, gluten and caffeine. "Kale, sweet potatoes and flax are hormonal heroes!" she says.
For more information on dietary changes that could help, check out her book, "WomanCode."
2. Hair Loss
Thanks to high levels of androgens in the body, hair loss is common among women with PCOS. Most women who suffer from PCOS might notice thinning hair, and in some cases, even male pattern baldness.
You'll most likely notice the thinning out of your parting, hair loss near the crown and a receding hairline.
3. Missed Or Irregular Periods
The funny thing is, after I was diagnosed with PCOS, I realized my periods had pretty much been irregular my entire life. While they certainly hadn't DISAPPEARED like they did when I was originally diagnosed, I was always concerned because they were late. I even sometimes skipped a month or two.
I should have been paying attention, but it's easy to just think you're off by a few days. But this isn't normal.
Martha McKittrick, RD, CDE – a nutritionist specializing in PCOS – says in order to get your period regulated, you should focus less on medication and more on lifestyle changes. She says,
Medication is not a magic bullet. We need to look at the body as a whole, and do our best to feel better physically as well as mentally.
By looking at YOUR specific symptoms and working with a specialist, you can figure out the best game plan for you.
Another hormonal imbalance that occurs when one has PCOS has to do with insulin. McKittrick says,
The majority of women with PCOS have insulin resistance. This means the cells are 'resistant' to insulin. The body overproduces insulin in an attempt to keep the blood sugar in a normal range.
It's this insulin that causes the body to produce too much testosterone, and that testosterone is what causes your body to grow thick hair on your upper lip, chin, chest, stomach and hands and feet. If you had light hair in those places, the excess androgens could convert them to thick and dark.
Unfortunately, this change is permanent. The only way to remove the hair permanently once it has changed texture is to undergo laser treatment.
With PCOS affecting one in 15 women worldwide, it's the number one cause of infertility. The sad part is, most women don't know they have it until it's too late. Because of the cysts on the ovaries, the ovarian follicles have a hard time reaching maturity, and therefore don't release any eggs.
Getting tested for PCOS early on can help these women get the help they need in order to conceive.
6. Acne, Oily Skin Or Dandruff
Because PCOS increases androgen levels, oily skin is often the result. Androgens therefore often increase acne levels due to high oil production. Obviously, this decreases self-confidence.
Clinical Esthetician Mandy Epley says the biggest mistake she sees with people who have PCOS is they tend to dry out their skin, thinking that by reducing the oil, they'll reduce the acne. But that actually INCREASES oil production.
While it may seem like a good idea to deplete oil in the skin with harsh cleansers, soap and alcohol-based toners, drying out your skin will actually cause it to produce more oil. Your skin naturally tries to correct itself, so if it feels dry, it will try to balance the situation by producing more oil, continuing the cruel cycle. You need to be gentle with your skin and keep it hydrated... but that doesn't mean greasy. Use a cleanser for acne-prone skin, a hydrating toner and an oil-free moisturizer. Or, if you're very oily, use a mattifying moisturizer to soak up the excess oil.
7. Anxiety Or Depression
This is sadly a huge problem for most women with PCOS, thanks to all the hormonal changes going on in their bodies.
It was so weird for me because I was also going through a breakup at the time, so I just assumed most of my emotions were thanks to that.
But a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Health Services & Research found that even though the weight gain and unwanted hair growth can cause severe self-confidence issues in women suffering from PCOS, the major cause of psychiatric problems among PCOS sufferers is irregular periods, or loss of periods altogether.
Because PCOS can look different for every woman – for instance, I haven't suffered any hair loss despite being diagnosed – and because there is no known cause, it can be difficult to figure out you have it. The symptoms are insanely varied.
But if ANY of these symptoms sound like they could apply to you, please get yourself tested. You'll be so much more at peace once you know.