Transcending PCOS through Diet

by Frances
(Ontario, Canada)

I've had PCOS since puberty. When I reached the age of 17 and was still not menstruating regularly my doctor ordered tests and made a diagnosis. A year later I was on the pill, which was helpful in controlling symptoms.

Fast forward to 12 years later - I had gradually gained about 25 pounds (a pound here, a pound there), avoided excessively sugary foods because they caused an uncomfortable feeling, and was B12 deficient. Also, my husband and I were ready to start a family. I was done with the pill.

Around this time my doctor recommended a low-carb diet. This was a lot to ask at this time since I have quite the sweet tooth, but I started by cutting my sugar and carbs in half, either by indulging half as often or consuming half as much.

Later, I incorporated a sugar and carb free day once a week. Although I did not place limits on the rest of the week I found I craved sugar less and so ate more healthily. Next I discovered the glucose index and began eating only foods with an index less than 50.

During this time I was relatively symptom-free and I lost most of the weight I had gained during my 20s, no more than a pound per week, averaging 2 or 3 pounds a month. However I was not menstruating so chances of conceiving were low.

Six months after going off the pill the acne I had as a teenager returned - the hormonal kind that starts well beneath the skin's surface, with pimples so large its ridiculous to even try make-up, and takes weeks to clear. I'd get a new blemish every couple of days so it wasn't long before I was fairly disfigured.

I maintained the low-carb diet, but it didn't seem to be enough. By one year of no pill and no menstrual cycle, PCOS was wreaking hormonal havoc and I was just about to consider fertility treatment when an internet search led me to Nancy Dunne's book.

The information was clearly explained, and so much of what I had experienced with PCOS made a lot more sense. I followed the dietary recommendations and noticed an improvement within a few days. I was myself again, and mood swings were less frequent and less severe.

After a couple of months I still wasn't menstruating, and experienced occasional mood swings that I felt were caused by something I ate, but what? I then came across the blood type diet and incorporated the recommended foods with Nancy's PCOS diet.

Suddenly all mood swings disappeared, my skin really started to clear up, and within 3 weeks I got my period. I became a bit discouraged over the next few months when my period did not make a second appearance, but stayed with the diet simply because I felt better. I was quite surprised to wake up one day with morning sickness!

I'm still following this diet, and am happy to report that both myself and my four month old son are doing well! I believe that even if I had conceived without making these changes to my diet that there is a strong chance that I might have miscarried or that my son's health would be compromised in some other way. As it is, I find that when I do stray from the diet he develops milk rash.

I have already returned to my pre-pregnancy shape, no longer need to watch my sugars, and recent blood work to check my nutrient levels showed no deficiencies.

The simplified version of my diet is: no wheat, corn, oats, potato or soy. I do eat brown rice, spelt, millet and quinoa instead. Avoid corn starch/syrup, vinegar and msg, even in trace amounts.

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Keep Up the Good Work!
by: PCOS Editor

Thanks, Frances, for the update and your most interesting story. It sounds like you're on the right track, in spite of the challenges that never entirely go away.

It seems to me that the majority of women with PCOS would benefit form a ketogenic type of diet, where the primary fuel is fat, not carbs. Of course, such a diet would also be heavily weighted towards vegetables.

If you're looking for a "pick-me-up", a favorite combination of mine is organic coffee with some medium chain triglycerides blended in (1 tsp. - 1 tbs. medium chain triglycerides per large cup of coffee). Another idea is free-form amino acids, such as "21 Blend" from Jo Mar Labs. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and free-form amino acids are absorbed directly into the body and used for energy and rebuilding purposes -- no digestion required.

I can't say enough about avocados! I try to eat one almost every day. As you say, one benefit is that they can help reduce cravings. For an added crunch, I put sliced avocado on Mary's Crackers, which are a seed cracker that has no flour.

Update on my story
by: Frances

I posted my story as Frances 9 years ago and I'd like to give an update:

I now have 3 healthy kids, conceived naturally. In between pregnancies I had consistent periods beginning 9 to 12 months post-pregnancy with a 28/29 day cycle. The only thing unusual about my cycle is that it is opposite to the textbook correlation with the lunar cycle, so I menstruate during the full moon. The third pregnancy was accidental, following a challenge to eat 40 vegetables in a week, and an unexpected extension of my cycle so I ovulated when I should have been premenstrual.

I had my third child at age 40. I was still nursing when my monthly cycle resumed 9 months later. With my first two pregnancies I had nursed while menstruating up to 18 mo, but this time I experienced some very strange symptoms: I was extremely irritable, like PMS on steroids some days, constant cravings for whatever was the sweetest food available, insomnia at night, intense fatigue during the afternoon, irregular urination - days when I hardly had to pee at all alternating with days I couldn’t seem to go often enough, even leaking, weight gain, water retention, and a loose sensation in my knees.

I was seriously concerned there was a real medical issue going on, but through the internet I learned these were all symptoms of pre-menopause (the only symptom I didn’t have was hot-flashes) which can be triggered by non-ovulatory cycles, which can happen when nursing over the age of 40. I reduced nursing to twice a day and by the next ovulatory phase of my cycle most of these symptoms vanished virtually overnight.

However, the intense cravings, far more intense than pregnancy, had caused me to gain 25 lbs in 3 months, and the sweet tooth persisted. I suddenly looked like I had swallowed a watermelon whole and people were started to ask if I was pregnant again. In contrast, just a few months before, my stomach was almost flat, and I only had 10 lbs left to lose to return to pre-pregnancy weight. I struggled for a year with carb cravings and stubborn fat.

It was very frustrating and I now understand much better the experience of girls and women I have known who struggled with their weight. Hormonal weight gain is not as simple as eating right, calories in vs. energy out, and not over-eating when cravings are so strong you are convinced you are starving and eating a donut (or two) feels like a potent super-food.

Six months ago I tried a new approach - fasting from carbs for at least 12 hours out of every 24. So between 7 pm and 8 am I don't eat anything containing sugar, flour, grains starch or root vegetables. The idea is to alternate between the glucose and ketosis cycles.

My belly was noticeably smaller within a few days and it was much easier to avoid sugary foods during the day. After a week I lost 3-5 lbs, the same result I got when I did a sugar-free week 2 months before. The main difference was that with 12 hours carb-free I had very few cravings, an improvement I noticed after the first day, while with the sugar-free diet I really struggled with cravings and only succeeded because it was short-term. Two weeks after the sugar free week I had regained all the weight plus 2 more lbs. It is now 6 months since beginning the 12 hr carb free, and even though I don't always comply, my weight is stable (although I am still overweight) and my sweet tooth is no longer an issue.

The fatigue and insomnia also persisted for at least 6 months (a book about adrenal fatigue helped with that - the most helpful tip was to drink a glass of water lightly salted with sea salt at 2 pm to get through the 3 pm slump without an energy crash). It's been 18 months now and I still have trouble falling and staying asleep although it is better than last year.

I've been reading a lot about hormones related to weight gain and menopause and observed that every hormonal imbalance that seems to apply to me can be corrected or prevented by proper sleep. I have developed a bad habit of staying up past midnight every night, which I suspect is part of a vicious cycle related to mixed up cortisol levels. My next challenge is to get to bed earlier and get the recommended 7-8 hours sleep each night.

My cycle continues to be regular, and opposite the typical pattern, as it was before, and it seems like I am mostly back to normal. I no longer feel pre-menopausal, but I have aged more this year, and am further along the peri-menopausal spectrum, so there has been a lasting effect of this latest hormonal disruption. It has also given me a glimpse into the transition to menopause, and it is no picnic, believe me. Also the remaining fat layer simply won't budge, although I am actually more fit now due to regular cardiovascular exercise. I am currently trying to improve muscle tone in addition to cardio.

When I was younger I sometimes wondered what happens when a woman with PCOS approaches menopause. Is it less of an issue because hormone levels are low or irregular already, or do the symptoms of PCOS combine with those of menopause to create a perfect hormonal storm?

Unfortunately, in my case it seemed to the latter. It also seems that the two conditions have many properties in common, and I wonder also if PCOS could be partly the body mistakenly trying to apply the processes designed for the menopause transition in response to imbalances due to other causes.

If I could offer some advice to other women in a similar situation, it would be to emphasize the importance of self-care during this time. A year and a half ago I returned to work when the baby was still waking for feedings at any hour, and was very stressed out just with my regular life of juggling 3 young kids, never mind the hormonal havoc that was breaking out.

If I had known then what would unfold there is a lot I could have done differently to minimize the effects: make adequate rest top priority, have on-the-go protein options for snacks, limit sugar (avocado zapped sugar cravings for some reason - eating a 1/4 avocado at 2 pm curtailed the 3 pm carb binge), watch for signs of hormonal imbalance after return of menses following pregnancy, and reduce breastfeeding sooner in response, insist on more support from a spouse rather than trying to do it all. Also eat sweet potato regularly.

I used to eat sweet potato to reduce PMS - I read that women in Africa regulate their hormones with yams, not knowing the African yam is a different plant - but it worked, and I find even now it is helpful when I feel hormonal. Maybe it's a placebo effect, but it still helps, so I'm sticking with it!

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