I was originally diagnosed with PCOS around five years ago, and have been on a bit of a journey since (it's been such a journey that I've started using the word 'journey' unironically, so you know it's been heavy).
A while back I received a copy of Fiona McCulloch's 8 Steps to Reverse Your PCOS, which was such an eye-opener. It helped me understand which PCOS Type I had, which already made it easier to make better choices in everyday life (when it feels like you have a real 'thing', I feel like it's harder to make bad choices for silly or selfish reasons). I then started following Tallene Hacatoryan's PCOS Weightloss instagram account, in an attempt to fill my feed with posts that would normalise the condition and the lifestyle changes required to heal it. It wasn't long after that I decided to join the Cysterhood itself: an online community of people with PCOS who receive regular updates including recipes, meal plans, workouts, podcasts and articles from Tallene, as well as sharing content with each other.
A big component of the Cysterhood is sharing updates about how you're doing on your PCOS journey. Now look, I'm not traditionally a big sharer - I used to be, on Facebook when I was 19 or 20 (I look back now at the volume and content of my posts now and... guys, it was so bad - I will post a screenshot at the end of this post to show you the true depths of my pointless oversharing. Alt text is on all images for accessibility). Anyway, I've since found that rather than just shouting into the void, when I share these experiences, even if nobody is reading them, I'm helping myself process them, and letting myself celebrate my wins (and come to terms with my failures). I'll be stoked if any of my sharing can help even one other human in some way, but even if the only person it helps is me, so be it, that's fine too.
So: Here are six new habits I've been trying to form in the past few months, to help improve my PCOS symptoms, and my life in general (these improvements often go hand in hand!). Spoiler alert, they work.
#1 - (The Big One...) Getting Up Earlier
This changed everything. I used to come up with so many excuses for why I couldn't do this. I should have put some of that energy into coming up with ways that I could make this possible instead! It made no sense for me to find so many new and creative ways to complain about my life, whilst also constantly justifying why I was not making my life any better: that really shows that I didn't have the right mindset at all. Taking PCOS more seriously and receiving advice from a doctor on what I needed to do to achieve my life goals made this first step a no-brainer.
Get. Out. Of. Bed. Earlier.
You just have to. Sorry!
I was so busy working all the time that I kept justifying my late rising time with all sorts of "Oh I need my rest", "I'm too tired", "I finish work so late" excuses. Because I got out of bed so late, I had no time to do those little niggly jobs that kept piling up and stressing me out. I never had time to exercise properly because I had no time after work. I didn't have time to eat breakfast or pack good food for the workday, because I had to get up and rush straight out to drop my partner and then myself at work! I started out by just getting up 15 minutes earlier, then 30 minutes earlier, and then 45, and then an hour. Soon I'd gone from getting up at 7.45am or sometimes much later, to bouncing (no, not exaggerating) out of bed at 6.00am. Who even am I anymore?
It didn't happen overnight, but by being gradual and consistent, and not giving up if I failed on occasion, I have managed to stick to this almost every single day. Because my partner and I don't have the same work schedule, I even do this on my days off, and have found them to be so much more productive and positive! That's right, I've lost my sleep-in days, but I've actually never felt better. I am one of those people.
#2 - The Right Kind of Exercise
I have already written in my prior post on the subject of gym memberships and how I couldn't help but feel cheated by trainers' misunderstanding of my needs. By the time I started my last gym membership, I actually knew already about my PCOS, but hadn't yet found out how best to exercise for the condition. I told my trainer about my PCOS and bad knees when formulating my programme, and was given a super high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout plan, with high-impact stuff on my knees, "explosive movements", and plenty of exercises that would increase stress and therefore testosterone, worsening my PCOS symptoms. I don't consider myself a particularly bitter person, but damn, that was a few hundred dollars wasted right there with no recognition that they'd done the wrong thing for me. But you live and learn.
Getting up earlier has given me the precious time I need to do the right kind of exercise for PCOS. I go on gentle walks, where my heart rate does not rise too high, and after just a few weeks I noticed a difference in my endurance. I put on a good podcast and wander the neighbourhood, discovering new streets and secret spots - usually for between 20-30 minutes, but sometimes longer. Some days (and this is a part I'm still working on formally structuring), I will do some of the gentle strength workouts on Tallene's Cysterhood community, and others I will follow a basic PCOS yoga sequence from YouTube. Knowing that a gentler workout, with a lower heart rate, is just what I need to help target my PCOS symptoms has made an enormous difference, and for the first time in a long time, the scales are moving. I am losing enough weight that the actual numbers on the scales are visibly changing. That is a huge thing for me, after so many years of busting my butt and not seeing any results - at the time of writing, I'm down 8kg, just from gentle exercise and a good diet!
#3 - No Gluten, No Dairy, No Sugar, No Fun (Just Joking) (About the Fun, Not Everything Else)
Yes, I am one of those people who has gone gluten-free even though I'm not coeliac. If you are one of those people who gives shit to people who go gluten free, without any understanding of their context whatsoever, you are dumb.
Gluten: In people with PCOS, gluten causes inflammation and can cause leaky gut (any condition with the word "leaky" in it, I am happy to avoid thanks). It can cause a number of issues in the intestines, which contribute to the chronic inflammation that causes so many of the other symptoms of PCOS - there is a heap of writing about this out there so I won't bang on about it too much, but if you try cutting gluten out for a month and feel better, you may well be in the same boat as I am!
Dairy: Fiona McCulloch explains it this way (I'm paraphrasing) - dairy is made to help a baby cow grow very fast. It's nutrient dense, and made to provide a large amount of everything needed to support tissue growth very quickly, in a small dose - not ideal for people with PCOS who are insulin resistant and are metabolic conservers. Dairy contains insulin, leptin, insulin-like growth factors, various forms of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol. When you have issues with your hormones, consuming the milk of pregnant cows containing high levels of female sex hormones is counterproductive, and when you put it that way it also sounds kind've icky.
Sugar: A big part of PCOS can be Insulin Resistance. People with chronic low-grade inflammation and excess abdominal fat deposits (i.e. lots of PCOS people!) may have cells that are insulin resistant. The cells don't respond to the message of insulin after eating, and too much sugar remains in the blood instead of being taken up into cells. The pancreas senses this high blood sugar and sends out even more insulin to control the blood sugar. This high level of insulin in the bloodstream aggravates the ovaries, causing them to produce androgens like testosterone, and causing oxidative stress and inflammation, disrupting bodily functions (e.g. fat around the waist, difficulty losing weight, dark pigmentation in the folds of skin under arms/behind neck, and the formation of skin tags). This is why Metformin (usually used for Diabetes patients) is often prescribed for people with PCOS, though there are natural supplements and remedies too (did you know 1.5g of Cinnamon per day can help with insulin resistance?).
This process has been a little easier than I had expected. Gluten free options in supermarkets and restaurants are better than ever, as are dairy free options! Sugar is tricky and I even need to avoid sweeteners, but I find that I don't have so much of a sweet tooth anyway, so avoiding it where possible is not too bad for me. As part of my PCOS diet I need to limit the number of carbs I eat, so I even try to cut down on gluten free breads and pastas, as they chew up so much of my daily carb allowance anyway. Changing my diet alone (before I had figured out the exercise thing), already made a difference to my weight - though of course the exercise was really necessary to balance it. It also helped me feel more focused, well, and connected to my body, as discussed in my previous post on the subject.
Eating more fats and proteins, as well as pairing them up with foods like fruit (sugar!) to better manage my insulin and blood sugar has made a huge difference, and I eat so much more exciting and tasty fresh food now. I know not to go for long periods without eating, and I am much better at snacking when I need to in order to maintain a more steady blood sugar level. Those after-dinner carb cravings so common in PCOS still lurk, but even knowing that I'm susceptible to them makes them easier to deal with - again, that whole "knowing you have a thing" makes it easier to make the right choices. If you stop shying away from PCOS or pretending that it doesn't make a difference to your life, you take away its power.
#4 - Brush Yo Self
This is a new thing I just found via The Cysterhood: According to naturopathic physician Dr. Alan Christianson, dry brushing can heal adrenals. As stress can help unbalance our hormones, giving your body a soothing and relaxing stimulus like dry brushing can calm your body's "fight or flight" response, calm the adrenals, and stimulate lymph nodes and the liver, helping your hormones and fluid retention.
The Cysterhood recommends using a natural bristle body brush (but I'll be honest, I use a friggin hair brush because I'm also trying not to buy stuff right now) in small circular motions from the ankles up, before showering each morning. It only takes a few minutes, and is also a great exfoliant (I enjoy watching my little skin dust particles float off into the distance). I have actually really enjoyed dry brushing and feel great afterwards! I've also started, on the advice of the Cysterhood, making sure I moisturise my body too (I've always cleansed, toned and moisturised my face, but haven't really bothered with my body). This leads me to my next point...
#5 - Chemical Things
Hey fun fact, did you know that like everything in your cleaning cupboard, pantry, or make up bag sucks, and corporations don't care if they ruin your life, or the lives of your children, or the lives of your children's children? Yeah how cool is that! Take my money!
Fiona McCulloch's book and The Cysterhood have given me some important information on common chemicals to avoid for PCOS, that I'm still building into my everyday life.
I've cut down on exposure to BPA (Bisphenol A) by using glass containers instead of plastic, never microwaving with cling wrap, purchasing canned food marked BPA-free, and using beeswax wraps instead of plastic wrap. BPA is pretty bloody scary because it's a xenoestrogen, a chemical that imitates estrogen, which can activate or block estrogen receptors in the ovaries, uterus and brain. These chemicals can disrupt hormonal function in men and women, and by accumulating in our fatty tissues they can hang around for decades. They are used in baby bottles, water bottles, medical devices, receipt paper, and the coating on the inside of food cans and water supply pipes. I mean really. It can leach into your food and water, and they affect the next generation. In her book, Fiona McCulloch references lab tests where pregnant rats were exposed to BPA, causing permanent PCOS-like changes in the ovaries of the second generation of rats, and then increased androgen levels in the third generation of rats. WTAF.
I've cut out perfume (except for the very odd special occasion), and have swapped out fruity tooty lotions for ones that are free of scents wherever possible. I am trying to purchase shampoo free from pthalates which affect egg quality and quantity, though for the life of me I still can't really make sense of those ingredient lists, so that is a work in progress there.
I'm trying to keep a closer eye on parabens, which also mimic hormones, competing with estrogen for binding sites in the body. On the advice of my specialist, I've stopped dying my hair. One thing I've yet to do is check the ingredients on my hair dye, but I also happen to be quite lazy, so not dying the bright ends of my hair every few weeks, actually suits me just fine right now.
The Cysterhood has warned me about Ozybenzone, found in most sunscreens and hair sprays and has been shown to be carcinogenic and hormone mimicking. Before I perform onstage, I often coat my entire friggin' face in hairspray to set my make up, so this is definitely a sticking point for me, and I'm looking forward to exploring my alternatives - if anyone has a make up setting spray or tip, please comment!
I had not heard of Triclosan until reading about it on the Cysterhood, but damned if it isn't a common ingredient in hand sanitiser that can interfere with the expression of thyroxine, the main hormone secreted by the thyroid! Well shit, back to washing my hands with soap and water. (Oh but read the ingredients on your soap too).
So far it's been difficult cutting out chemicals when I don't actually fully understand what they are or what they do, but I'm looking forward to learning more about how terrifying and toxic the world is, woohoo.
#6 - Listen to my Damn Body Because It's Fine
I always just assumed that I felt like shit all the time because that's... how.. I felt? Welp, turns out I don't actually have to feel that way!
I was disappointed when doctors kept telling me to lose weight (especially before my PCOS diagnosis when I was trying so damn hard with no results), but now that the process has really started, I can see just how important (and dare I say easy) this has become. I do not have to fight temptation to eat doughnuts when they're on offer, because I know that my overall health, wellbeing and fertility is so much more important than 1 minute of sugary glutenous doughnut joy. Yes, I have lost weight (I am still not used to saying that!), but more than that, I've started to: address inflammation, treat insulin resistance, balance my adrenals, treat excess androgens, address hormone imbalances, balance my thyroid, create a healthy environment with fewer damaging chemicals, and eat a balanced diet. It sounds like a lot, and when I first read about the 8 Steps, I felt a little overwhelmed, but even just starting the changes suggested has given me results. It's really reinforced to me that huge changes, huge tasks, or achievements, are all started with small steps. Going gluten or dairy free for one day sounds a lot less intimidating than cutting it all out forever immediately, right?
I'm trying to listen to my body more, to figure out what what I can do to make it (me) feel better.
So, my ankles swell (I guess it's fluid retention?) when it's hot.. and I bloat when I eat... something... I'm still working on that one, but I think it's carbs? (Trying not to be pessimistic and just say it's "food" that makes me bloat, haha). When I haven't eaten in a few hours I get tired and unfocused. If I'm silly and go a really long time without snacks I even feel like I might faint. I can actually tell when PMS has arrived because I no longer just feel PMS-y all the time, I notice an actual change. I can feel the difference in my body after exercise, and after yoga - it feels great! So yeah, turns out I can trust this body of mine after all - if I pay it attention and give it what it needs, I can improve my wellbeing and live my best life.