This morning I didn’t wake up to the sound of my alarm or the sun streaming through my windows. Instead, my uterus pulled me out of my slumber demanding my immediate attention.
For many people like myself, periods aren’t just a nuisance but instead take over your whole life. The excruciating pain means brain fog, nausea, weakness; not being able to participate in your daily routine.
Oh, and let’s not forget the cystic acne, dark hair sprouting from everywhere except your head and the irregular periods.
Since I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) at age 18, this has been my reality. September is PCOS Awareness Month, a time to give attention to a reproductive disorder that impacts the lives of thousands, worldwide.
So, What is PCOS?
PCOS is a chronic hormonal disorder that affects between 8-13% of women of reproductive age, that is, from when your period begins until menopause. It’s the most common hormonal disorder and can affect high-risk groups such as Indigenous women at a larger rate. Considering how common it is, (1 in 10 women have the condition) little is actually known about how it develops.
Some studies suggest that it’s due to an increase of the male hormones AKA androgens. Another reason can be attributed to high levels of insulin (the hormone that metabolises carbs, fats and proteins and helps regulate blood sugar) in the body. If you have a family history of PCOS you’re also more likely to genetically inherit the condition as well.
Although it’s possible to have multiple cysts surrounding the follicles of your ovaries, PCOS comes down to a hormone imbalance so it doesn’t just affect the ovaries. When your hormones are unbalanced, sometimes the body doesn’t ovulate. This is where infertility with PCOS comes into play and is why missing periods can occur. No ovulation? No period but also... no conception.
What are the signs to look out for?
When I sat in the GP as a teenager, the doctor diagnosed me because I had three major symptoms: acne (particularly around the chin area), a missing period, and dark, hormonal hair beginning to grow on my face and stomach called hirsutism.
Other symptoms caused by PCOS can include:
- Thinning of the hair on your head.
- Gaining weight very easily or quickly.
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding and infertility issues.
- Irregular or missing periods.
- Dark patches on your skin.
- Changes in your mood.
What are people with PCOS more prone to?
Due to the imbalance of hormones and blood sugars, PCOS can be attributed to a number of other health issues. If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, you’re more at risk of developing conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol levels
- Endometrial cancer
- Type 2 diabetes
- Sexual health problems
- Sleep apnea
Getting a Diagnosis
There are a few different ways to get diagnosed with PCOS. After sharing your symptoms, your doctor may ask for some blood tests to assess the levels of androgens in your body. Another diagnosis tool is through abdominal or transvaginal (internal) ultrasounds to see if there are any cysts on your ovaries or if your ovaries are enlarged. The doctor is also able to see whether the lining of the womb (the endometrium) is thickened on account of irregular periods.
Your GP might check your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose metabolism as well to see if there are any signs of diabetes.
According to an international study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 35% of women said they saw three or more health professionals to find a diagnosis while 34% said it took over two years to get a diagnosis of PCOS.
These stats prove that there’s still a long way to go in getting women’s reproductive health to be taken seriously.
Okay, so how do I stop it?
One of the hardest things for me to deal with when receiving a PCOS diagnosis was understanding that it’s a chronic illness. Once you’ve developed it, it will never go away. But! The great news is that the symptoms can be managed to live a relatively healthy lifestyle.
Once diagnosed, most doctors will ask what your everyday lifestyle is like.
How much do you drink, smoke, exercise?
This isn’t to shame you but instead to determine which adjustments you can make to your health to improve symptoms. Weight gain is a symptom of PCOS that can be hard to manage but, balancing your exercise and diet can greatly improve your symptoms which thrive when your sugar levels are out of whack.
I know that when I indulge in a bit too much chocolate that month, my cystic acne can come back with an angry, red vengeance, signalling to my body to enjoy sugar in moderation.
Exercising can balance your blood sugar levels as well as improving your mental health, a dark symptom of reproductive disorders that sadly isn’t spoken about as much.
Some medicines can help improve symptoms. The contraceptive pill is often used to balance hormones and drugs like Metformin can reduce the levels of insulin in your body.
As mentioned earlier, infertility is a big issue amongst people with PCOS. Drugs like Clomid can increase your fertility to help get you pregnant.
Seeking out alternative therapies is also very helpful. Acupuncture, naturopathic techniques, vitamins and visiting a nutritionist can be a drug-free way to help with PCOS.
Some examples can include, laser hair removal or bleaching for hirsutism, skin treatments for acne, heat packs for painful periods and of course, Ovira’s Noha device.
The amount of relief I’ve gotten from using my Noha during the first few days of my cycle has been unparalleled.
The small TENS machine sticks to your abdomen through little pads (cutely named Love Handles). Simply pop them on, turn on the device and set it to the level you’d like. The small shocks confuse the nerves that signal pain to the brain, essentially numbing those PCOS cramps. Clever, huh?
By wearing the device I can function at a semi-normal level instead of calling in sick, unable to move and crying in bed to sad rom-coms.
PCOS Positivity & Awareness
Raising awareness of PCOS in your everyday life means sharing your stories, educating the people around you on your condition and speaking up to your healthcare professional when something doesn’t feel right. Because despite 1 in 10 women of reproductive age having PCOS, sadly not enough people are aware of it, making our diagnosis, management and everyday lives all the more hard.
While my PCOS has taken me years to manage (and I’m still trying), there are ways and new technologies to help control my symptoms.
People like the clever team at Ovira or IVF doctors mean pain and fertility is managed and by finding the right techniques that work for you, you can live a fun, joyous and fulfilling life. Yes, even with PCOS.