Losing weight with PCOS
Do you want to know whether losing weight with PCOS is possible? The answer is yes! Read on…
Several years ago, when I was at my heaviest weight, I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). PCOS sufferers would know this is no fun.
What is PCOS?
PCOS, as the name suggests, is a complex condition most easily recognised by the appearance of multiple cysts on your ovaries. The cysts themselves aren’t necessarily a problem (unless they burst, which can happen) but the corresponding symptoms are.
The most common symptoms for PCOS include irregular, heavy or painful periods (and sometimes difficulty getting pregnant), insulin resistance, weight gain, acne and facial hair growth, the latter two in particular being caused by excess testosterone. Not only does gaining weight make PCOS more likely, and the symptoms more severe, but weight loss for women with PCOS becomes much harder.
Personal experience and a google search will show you how big a challenge weight loss with PCOS can present for some people.
For me, it was the insulin resistance, also known as pre-diabetes, which I had suffered since I was a teenager, that sent us down the road of diagnosing my PCOS. Being on the Pill for a long time masked any irregularity with my periods and facial hair and acne have thankfully only been minor issues for me.
The insulin resistance though, was inescapable. I had a number of tests over a few years, largely to measure my blood sugar and insulin response which showed that nothing was working as it should, but due to the fact that my weight didn’t start to become a ‘real’ problem until years later, PCOS wasn’t picked up until I started seeing a new doctor who referred me for a pelvic ultrasound in my late 20s.
And there they were, little shadows all over my ovaries.
At that time I was at my heaviest weight – just over 90kg (200 pounds). I’d also developed this dark skin on the back of my neck, where it creased – and again, I had no idea this was acanthros nigricans – a darkening of the skin that is linked to insulin resistance.
I thought it was just a kind of chafing that had occurred because my neck was clearly too fat. Here I am at about this time – you can’t see the dark skin, but trust me, it’s there!
Insulin Resistance – the bane of my existence
To the best of my reading, medical science still isn’t overly clear on what the link between insulin resistance and PCOS actually is beyond there being a ‘positive correlation’ (Endocrine Society; Androgen Excess and PCOS Society).
The co-occurrence has been known since the 1920s when it was charmingly referred to as the “diabetes of bearded women” but science hasn’t really gained any more clarity on the subject since then. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Hormone imbalances impact how we respond to food, and in turn, weight gain impacts on how all those digestion and reproduction-related hormones work.
All I really know is that in my case, the insulin resistance came to my attention quite early, and I unwittingly, through sheer ignorance, fueled its rapid acceleration and either caused the PCOS or made it much worse, through a poor diet.
Learn more about recipes in my PCOS diet plan post.
I can vividly recall how hypoglycaemic attacks would strike, creeping up on me while I was running errands for the office job I had as a teenager so that with the shakes and feeling overcome by weakness I would duck into a bakery to refuel.
Always a bakery. Intuitively, my body was telling me it needed that combination of wheat and sugar, which as I’ve discussed recently, is the LAST thing the insulin resistant person (or anyone really) should be eating, although it may feel like the right decision at the time. And it went on that way for 10+ years before I figured it out, and to be honest, the medical profession wasn’t a whole lot of help!
I saw numerous GPs and an endocrinologist and I don’t recall any of them telling me I should be eating low-carb or low GI food to head this off before it became worse.
My current doctor, whom I’ve been seeing for 5+ years now, is a fabulous resource but even she never really quizzed me on my diet or gave me any lectures on it. My blood test results showed my pancreas was working double-time to try and pump out enough insulin to keep my blood sugar in check.
I was heading rapidly towards Type 2 diabetes, but I wasn’t quite there yet! She did suggest we give Metformin a try, which is a medication both Type 2 diabetics and people with PCOS use to increase their sensitivity to insulin, so they need less insulin to keep blood sugar stable.
The side effects of Metformin were awful though – constant nausea and a racing heartbeat – so I could only stick that out for a month before giving it up. I have since read that there are natural alternatives to Metformin – Berberine, Glucosil or NoMetSyn for example – however I didn’t try any of these so can’t comment on how effective they might be.
Natural alternatives to Metformin
Read about what I had to say about natural alternatives to Metformin here.
Perhaps I need to take some responsibility for not having communicated well enough how distressing it all was for me. The fear of the hypoglycaemia was as bad as the episodes themselves, and I was in a constant state of anxiety about it, which fueled obsession about what I could eat, and when.
Trouble was, I was flying blind because I didn’t understand any of the science behind how what I chose to eat impacted my blood sugar response. It was hit and miss – mostly miss.
Things started to turn around…
It wasn’t until after the turning point in my life where I realised my weight was a problem that I started to really research and understand, largely through trial and error what food seemed to work for me and what didn’t.
The insulin resistance naturally improved as I lost weight, as our body’s hormones always work better when they have less ‘body’ to try and cover, but also I noticed through diligently tracking my food intake that I didn’t seem to have a hypoglyaemic episode if I hadn’t had carbs for breakfast. I’m actually embarrassed how long it took me to notice this pattern.
In my early 20s when I was a University student and working part-time in a bank, I would have a mixed berry Fruche, which is a sweet yoghurt type thing – a dessert basically – for breakfast every morning, as soon as I had arrived at work, and almost every day I would have the shakes within a couple of hours after that, but for some bizarre reason I never actually connected those symptoms with what my previous meal had been.
Those Fruches were only about 200 calories each, and they were 98% fat free, so I was actively buying into the fat-free (aka loaded with sugar) bullshit along with the rest of the population.
Contrary to popular belief about carbs, I didn’t seem to need them at breakfast to have sustained energy through until lunchtime. In fact I was better off without them! Interesting.
Provided I had sufficient quantities of protein AND fat, I was more than able to avoid that late-morning hypo.
Same goes for lunch.
Enough protein AND fat, with plenty of ‘good carbs’ in the form of fresh veggies, and I could avoid the late-afternoon hypo as well. Amazing! But hang on… fat makes you fat, doesn’t it? No. No, no, no, no and no.
Wheat and sugar made me fat. Eat excess calories of any food and you’ll put on weight, but the insidious thing about wheat and sugar is that it is far too easy to eat them in excess. Easier than it is to eat excess amounts of protein, fat or fruit and vegetables.
The excess calories combined with the blood sugar response unique to wheat and sugar, plus the emotional relationship I’d developed with those two foods – that’s what made me fat!
In addition I started taking Chromium supplements, which I’ve listed as one of my top tips for giving up sugar.
Chromium is a mineral that helps insulin do its job in maintaining regular blood sugar levels and I’ve seen it recommended for women with PCOS as well as insulin resistance/pre-diabetes. It’s widely available and inexpensive.
Interestingly, tests showed I was also chronically low in Vitamin D, which has also been linked to PCOS and insulin resistance. I took Vitamin D supplements for several months, at the same time as I was working on my diet and while I didn’t connect the two at the time – I didn’t realise there might have been any link between Vitamin D deficiency and PCOS – my Vitamin D levels were back where they should be by the time I was given the good news about the PCOS having disappeared.
Success! Weight loss, even WITH PCOS!
Fast forward a few more years and not only am I 30kg lighter (full story here), I now have 20:20 vision when it comes to my insulin resistance and how best to eat to avoid those debilitating hypoglycaemia episodes. I understand that PCOS and weight gain were linked, in my case.
I know absolutely when I eat the ‘wrong thing’ how my body will respond. Wheat + sugar = hypoglycaemia. Wheat without sugar can be manageable, when I’m careful to combine the wheat with plenty of fat and protein so the glycaemic impact of the carbohydrate changes, and doesn’t result in quite the same blood sugar spike.
Sugar, as well, is ok in small doses, as it’s lower on the Glycaemic Index anyway than wheat. You can read up on all that extra blood sugar detail here.
My hypo attacks are far less frequent now, and I don’t fear them as much because they are easily predicted, and avoided. They still occur, but always because I’ve eaten the ‘wrong thing’, willfully, perhaps, but at least in full understanding of the consequences.
Now to get to the point of this post. A few weeks ago I was at my doctor’s getting a few things sorted out, and she referred me for another pelvic ultrasound – my first in about a year. I just assumed that because I still do get occasional hypos, the PCOS was still there, and likely to be a feature of my health that would remain with me for the rest of my life.
Imagine my surprise then when I went back to my doctor and she excitedly told me the scans were clear. Totally clear. Of everything. I had “only the normal amount of follicles – nothing to indicate PCOS”! I wasn’t quite understanding, so she made it crystal: “All that weight loss has cured your PCOS. It’s gone”.
I was ecstatic and so proud. In the process of losing weight I had accidentally discovered how to cure my PCOS. I’ve now improved every marker of weight-related risk for heart disease, diabetes, other chronic illness AND reversed something I assumed I’d have forever. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that!
I had underestimated the power of changing my diet and my lifestyle. Weight loss is only the most visible part of the change that has occurred in my life. I had underestimated my own power to influence my health and turn my life around.
So the answer to the question, can PCOS be cured, is resoundingly YES.
Losing weight with PCOS is possible, and in the process you can rid yourself of it completely. Low carb, low GI and preferably wheat-free and sugar-free eating will make a huge difference for you.
This story, of course, comes with the disclaimer that this is my own personal experience, and each person and each body is different.
Depending on the level of severity of your symptoms, it may never go away, but given there is a link between diet and lifestyle and conditions like PCOS, doesn’t it make sense to try the natural way first before other medical interventions?
Don’t get me wrong, medications like Metformin can offer a lot of relief, but I would advise they’re best used in conjunction with lifestyle change. This is not impossible!
If it can happen for me it can happen for anyone, and I firmly believe that.
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