At the age of 19 I was enjoying the end of my teen years and starting a relationship with my first (and only) boyfriend. I exercised regularly and could eat whatever I wanted, which included daily dips into the Nutella jar, while maintaining my size 3 physique (ahhh, the good old days). I was finally going on my first real date with the guy I was certain I was going to marry, when I started to turn into Chewbacca. Something was definitely wrong.
That’s right; like a werewolf during a full moon, I began to transform. The fine peach fuzz on my lower cheeks and neck darkened into a lovely shade of black with a rough, prickly texture. The fine hair on my lower belly and lower back followed suit. Instead of planning what outfit I was going to wear for my first date, I was panicking trying to figure out the best way to remove my new stubble.
I tried and tested various hair removal methods for the next several years (I plan to create a post dedicated to this topic in the near future). Through a combination of waxing, Nair-ing, shaving and laser hair removal I was able to remove the hair I needed on a regular basis. It was exhausting. I was always self-conscious about it and feared people would see the hairy woman I was hiding within. I did not seek medical advice for my hair growth (mistake #1), I just thought it was a result of my Italian background; you know, hairy Italian dad, hairy daughter. As if my stubble issues weren’t enough, I had slowly but surely packed on over 40 pounds during the next 2 years.
Again, I did not go to my doctor (mistake #2), I just thought it was a side effect of having a boyfriend who loved to take me out to amazing restaurants and ice cream shops on our date nights. I decided I would start exercising and lose the weight again, no biggie. But that didn’t go as planned either.
It wasn’t until I discussed my issues with my cousin (who was also a hairy daughter to a hairy Italian dad) that I learned that a visit to the doctor might be needed.”I have the same issues” she said. “Do you also have irregular periods?” Why, yes, I did. My periods were never the usual 28-day cycle. I could go two to three months without a period. I never even bothered counting my cycle days because they were so unpredictable. Only a bit of bloating and minor cramps would warn me when my period was coming. I had read during puberty that periods can be irregular in the beginning and sometimes took time to regulate, so I never thought twice about it (mistake #3). “You should go see your doctor. It could be polycystic ovarian syndrome. That’s what I have.” So, based on my cousin’s advice, I went to my doctor to find answers.
I told my doctor about the hair growth I experienced, which he could clearly see. I also mentioned the missed periods. He sent me for blood work and an ultrasound of my ovaries. The ultrasound tech was nice enough to show me what my ovaries looked like and pointed out that they were surrounded by tiny clusters of cysts. Like me, my ovaries loved wearing pearls, apparently.
Later, the doctor explained that based on my blood work, (which showed elevated levels of testosterone), excess hair growth, missed periods and my ultrasound results, I had Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. He gave me a prescription for birth control pills (Alesse) to ensure I got a monthly period and sent me on my way.
Managing the (Hairy) Monster
As with any new area of interest, I began my research into PCOS to get a better understanding of the beast I was dealing with.
PCOS is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder in which a woman’s hormones are out of balance. Normally, the ovaries make a tiny amount of male sex hormones (androgens). In PCOS, they start making slightly more androgens. This imbalance affects five to 10 percent of women of reproductive age and can cause:
• Irregular periods or no period at all
• Infertility (due to lack of ovulation)
• Excess hair growth (hirsutism)
• Acne, including body acne
• Weight gain or trouble losing weight
• Thinning hair
• Skin tags (moles’ ugly cousin)
• Higher risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes
• Insulin resistance – impairment to your body’s ability to effectively use insulin.
Great, I thought. So what now? My doctor referred me to an endocrinologist (hormone specialist) who did a physical exam and discussed my symptoms. She then sent me for a glucose tolerance test to determine how well my body processes sugars. This test would also determine whether I was diabetic, pre-diabetic or normal, based on the results. My first test resulted in higher than normal blood sugar results, making me fall into the “pre-diabetic” category. This sh*t just got serious.
Being somewhat healthy, I never thought I would be worrying about diabetes, but women with PCOS have at a higher risk due to the insulin resistance associated with PCOS. Just wonderful.
Goodbye Sweet Love
I cut out sugar from my coffee. Goodbye Nutella. I told my parents not to cook potatoes, pasta or rice for me. I was determined to cut out as much sugar as possible. It worked. I lost four pounds just from these modifications and when I did the glucose test again, I was back in the normal range. I was told to keep up the good work and try to lose more weight. Apparently, the more weight you carry, the more resistant your body becomes to insulin, which in turn leads to more weight gain due to higher insulin levels. A vicious cycle.
The next several years of dealing with the symptoms of PCOS, including infertility, gave me further insight into the condition and why maintaining a healthy weight was so important.
If you have irregular periods, please see your doctor to determine the cause. Don’t ignore it, it could be PCOS, or something else. You should never ignore irregularities in your period like I did.