Living with PCOS: The Link Between Hormones & Weight Gain (CFC Spotlight Thursdays)

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Way back in January, me and my friend were chatting over coffee about our workout regimens. When she told me that she planned to walk 20miles that day, I nearly dropped my cup! I asked her what she was training for and she told me that she generally walks/hikes several miles each week as part of her management of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (“PCOS”). Given how important PCOS is to every woman’s understanding of why she might be struggling with her health & weight gain, I asked my friend to share her story here on chicfitchef.com. She agreed, but did not want her name or photo used. So, for privacy reasons, this is one interview that does not include any photos for illustration. Please read on for this very personal story on PCOS and whether you might need to speak to your doctor. 

1. How did your health & fitness journey begin? Did you always struggle with your weight?

I’ve always been overweight, and I finally decided to do something about it when I went to college.  I dropped somewhere between 40-50 lbs in my first two years of school through diet and exercise. After college, I moved to New York and found myself increasingly fatigued and depressed. I quickly gained back nearly all the weight I had lost despite maintaining a strict diet and exercise regime.

 To be honest, no, I did not struggle with my weight.  I was heavy, and I can’t say that I was happy with how I looked, but it just never really occurred to me that I could do something about it.  I’m not sure exactly what inspired me to take control and stop making excuses for myself.  Maybe it was just a chance at a fresh start away from the people I grew up with.  I realized I didn’t have to be the “fat girl” anymore.

2. How did being overweight effect you growing up (before college)? 

Being overweight is tough, and we women tend to be our own worst enemy when it comes to body image.  As anyone who was heavy as a child knows, no matter how much progress you make, you always struggle to see yourself as others do and to be satisfied with your appearance.

3. Do you have any advice for young girls struggling with being overweight in high school?

 I would say to try to let your desire to be happier and healthier rather than the need to be “skinny” guide your decisions when it comes to dieting and weight loss.  Working towards a goal like running a half marathon (or getting through all of the Insanity workouts) will help you focus on taking positive steps.  If you tell yourself that your goal is to go from a size 12 to a size 2 in a month, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

4. You mentioned that you decided to take charge of your weight loss in college. What steps did you take?

College was the perfect opportunity for me to lose weight because I ate all of my meals in the school cafeteria, and the food was nothing to write home about.  It was easy for me to limit myself to low-calorie options like salads and egg whites. I also had a gym in the basement of my dorm and plenty of free time, so I had no excuse to skip a workout.  

5.  As you said earlier, you unfortunately put back on a lot of the weight you lost when you moved to New York. What made you decide to talk to a doctor about your weight gain this time?

My weight gain was accompanied by a number of other symptoms such a general feeling of lethargy, depression, and “brain fog.”  It took a while for me to consult a doctor, though, since my symptoms were so indistinct. Long story short, it took three years of misdiagnosis (seasonal affective disorder), but I was finally diagnosed with hypothyroidism and, soon after, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).  I am happy to say that, through lots of trial and error, I found a formula that works for me, and I am almost back to where I was in college.

6. What questions did you ask your doctor that led to the discovery of your hypothyroidism and eventually PCOS?

It was persistence, not any particular question, that led to the diagnosis of my hypothyroidism. My blood test results have technically never fallen outside of “normal” range, and I was misdiagnosed several times before I finally found a doctor who was willing to pay attention to how I felt rather than what my blood tests said. The PCOS was far more straightforward.  A list of typical symptoms can be found here.

7. Were there any difficulties in your PCOS treatment?

When I was first diagnosed, I was tested for insulin resistance. The tests came back negative, but my doctor put me on metformin, a pre-diabetes drug, anyway.  Over the next six months, I lost nearly half of my hair.  I was panicking.  My doctor was sure metformin wasn’t the cause, but online PCOS forums like soulcysters.com had posts from other women who had had similar reactions.  I high-tailed it to another doctor who took me off of the (unnecessary) meds right away, and my hair started growing back about six weeks later.  I’m now using natural supplements inositol and berberine in addition to birth control pills, which clinical trials are showing to be as effective as metformin for treating PCOS.  I’m not saying that metformin is wrong for everyone, but stay informed, trust yourself, and don’t be pressured into following a course of PCOS treatment that does more harm than good for YOU.

8. How has your diagnosis impacted your approach to health & fitness? What is your diet like? How often do you work out and what kinds of exercises do you do?

I had to learn that I would never reach my weight loss goals unless I got my hypothyroidism and PCOS under control.  If you have untreated or under-treated hypothyroidism, it may not be your fault if the weight isn’t coming off.  The type of hypothyroidism that I have is a progressive autoimmune disease, which means that it worsens over time.  I always gain some weight when I am under-medicated, and I just accept that I will work it off once my medication is adjusted.

In terms of exercise, it’s all about cardio for me.  Whenever my schedule and the weather allow, I clock about 50 miles per week hiking, walking, and kayaking.  Strength training is great, but it’s not enough for me.  I also occasionally get muscle weakness, joint pain and lethargy from my hypothyroidism, which means that strength training just isn’t an option at times.  I can always work up the energy for a walk though.

When I am trying to lose weight, my diet consists of around 1000 nutritionally rich calories per day if I’m totally sedentary up to about 1500 calories if I do, say, a 20-mile walk.  I also keep a food diary, although I admit that I sometimes get a bit lax over the holidays.

9. What advice do you have for women out there who are overweight and/or think that they might have PCOS?

Whether you are overweight or not (many women with normal BMI’s have PCOS), you should immediately seek medical attention.  Some forms of PCOS are accompanied by insulin resistance, which can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes if left untreated.  PCOS can also cause difficulty getting pregnant or carrying to term.  For women who are overweight, you doctor will likely recommend a weight loss regimen, as many women see reduced symptoms or even a disappearance of the condition altogether with fairly moderate weight loss.

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A Special Note: 

I want to thank my friend for sharing her very personal experience managing PCOS. If you think that you or a loved one may have PCOS, please know that there is nothing to be ashamed of. PCOS is a common hormonal disorder and can be treated.  Consult with your doctor about your symptoms and a treatment plan that works for you. Below is the Mayo Clinic’s description of PCOS for your information. -CFC

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age. The name of the condition comes from the appearance of the ovaries in most, but not all, women with the disorder — enlarged and containing numerous small cysts located along the outer edge of each ovary (polycystic appearance). Infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, excess hair growth, acne and obesity can all occur in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. In adolescents, infrequent or absent menstruation may signal the condition. In women past adolescence, difficulty becoming pregnant or unexplained weight gain may be the first sign. The exact cause of polycystic ovary syndrome is unknown. Early diagnosis and treatment may reduce the risk of long-term complications, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.”

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About ChicFitChef

My "deserted island" checklist: a BCBG dress, a healthy & diabetic-friendly meal and a few workout DVDs. ;-)
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