Fertility can be a mercurial beast, one that seems to bestow a baby on one person while denying it to another. One of the most common inhibitors to getting pregnant with PCOS also know as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and it is a health problem that has left many women snapping their pregnancy testing sticks with frustration. It can lead to weight gain, hairiness, skin blemishes and mood swings thanks to the tides of hormones surging through the body.
It can also be beaten.
Feeling upset with the cards that nature has dealt is only fair, but how about taking the deck and reshuffling it instead? Our 3 experts look at some of the PCOS myths and ways that will help fight the symptoms of PCOS without you having to take medications or undergo excessive tests and more invasive methods of getting pregnant.
Getting pregnant with PCOS 1 – Light
Problem skin is one of the unfortunate side-effects of PCOS and this really does have extraordinary power over how a woman feels about herself. Self-confidence can impact a woman’s fertility and ability to conceive. Research has found that a negative mental state such as depression can really affect the body, causing problems such as elevated prolactin levels or thyroid dysfunction. It can even result in the abnormal regulation of luteinising hormone which regulates ovulation.
“Acne has an impact on self-esteem and confidence and can cause permanent scarring,” says Dr Rakesh Patalay, consultant dermatologist. “It is a common symptom of PCOS, a condition that affects 5-10% of women and their fertility. Although the cause of PCOS is not fully understood, it does increase the production of male hormones which interfere with function of the ovaries and can result in acne, obesity and infertility.”
Dr Patalay worked on a research team with leading dermatologist Dr Tony Chu to develop a form of light therapy that can help women beat their problem skin. The visible blue light can kill P.acnes (propionibacterium acnes) by exciting the porphyr molecules that this type of acne produces in large amounts.
This causes them to release radicals into the bacteria which destroy them. A combination of blue and red light is an effective and gentle treatment for acne and has been used to develop a home light therapy called Lumie Clear. It was devised thanks to research gathered in the clinical trial by Dr Chu at Hammersmith Hospital who found it was far more effective than certain creams. “Lumie Clear is not on prescription, it’s effective and it’s safe, even for women who have fallen pregnant,” adds Patalay.
Light therapy is also a great way to boost self-esteem if your PCOS is affecting the way you feel about yourself and your appearance. It can help clear up the acne that comes with this condition and, by default, could help you to relax and feel confi dent which will tell your body that it’s time to get happy and possibly even fall pregnant.
Dawn Simpson developed acne in her early thirties thanks to PCOS and decided to try out light therapy to get rid of it. “I’d suffered acne intermittently as a teen, but then in my early thirties it reemerged on my face and back. It made me very self-conscious of my spots, especially the ones on my back,” says Dawn. The way she dressed, the way she felt about herself and her self-esteem were all affected by her problem skin. She couldn’t bring herself to wear strappy tops in summer; instead she covered herself up in the hope that one of the skincare treatments she was using would eventually start working.
“Initially I tried treating my skin with budget products from supermarkets and then, when they didn’t work, I tried some high-end ones,” says Dawn. “A few helped for a little while, but they soon stopped being effective.”
A visit to the GP and some tests later, Dawn found out she had PCOS. The Dr placed her onto a variety of acne treatments that included topical retinoids, benzoyl peroxide and antibiotics, but they were less than helpful.
“Nothing seemed to work and then I saw a tweet from a Lumie Clear user who said they were really happy with the results of the device so I decided to investigate for myself,” explains Dawn. “I started using it on a daily basis and soon saw improvements. I noticed a real difference in two weeks and the skin on my face looked and felt better, so much smoother and less inflamed.”
Dawn’s back cleared up, it started losing the redness, then the pain and spots began to fade. “Getting a diagnosis for my PCOS has been a long journey, but at least now I can use light therapy to clear up my acne,” she beams. “I am now fi nally looking forward to summer again and being able to wear my strappy tops!”
PCOS Buster Number 2 – Diet
Food is such an important part of life. It celebrates occasions, it inspires culinary delights and it brings families closer together. It can also really affect how badly a person suffers from PCOS. Unfortunately, high sugar and refined carbohydrate diets only make the PCOS symptoms worse and periods can even become far more painful and drawn out.
“By making a few simple alterations to your diet, you’ll not only be able to reduce the severity of symptoms such as acne, weight gain and hirsutism, but you should see your body easing back into a more normal way of functioning in just a matter of months,” says Dr Marilyn Glenville, PhD. “With luck it can be an end to all the complications you have had to endure with PCOS.”
Dr Glenville recommends a diet that switches to unrefined carbohydrates, oily fish and foods rich in omega 3 fats to encourage the body to become more sensitive to insulin. She also suggests cutting out all dairy foods for three months and eating more vegetables and pulses to improve SHBG protein levels which will help to bring the levels of male hormones under control.
“Never go more than three waking hours without food to keep your blood-sugar levels balanced and cut right back on, or cut out, alcohol for 12 weeks,” she adds. “Completely eliminate trans fats and cut down on saturated fats to counter the potentially damaging inflammatory processes PCOS causes in the body.”
Dr Glenville believes that by following her nutrition advice you can be well on your way to managing PCOS and possibly even reversing it.
“It may take time, but you will notice improvements in your weight, skin, hair and general health,” she says. “You might even start to ovulate once more as one of the most important changes of this natural approach is helping your body to start a normal, regular menstrual cycle. Research has shown that by the age of 35, women who have PCOS will have had as many successful pregnancies as those who don’t, even without fertility treatment.”
So, for anyone looking to beat PCOS, Dr Glenville has provided three super PCOS buster meals to help you kick it to the curb:
Breakfast: Porridge made with rolled oats and water with added nuts and raspberries
Lunch: Wholewheat pasta with nettle pesto
Supper: Poached salmon with cauliflower and spinach mash
Michelle Thorne fell pregnant with her first child in the first month of trying and automatically assumed that the same would happen with her second. It was, in fact, the start of a long and difficult journey.
“After a year of trying I had a check-up with my Dr who said everything was fine!” she says. “A very long year later I gave in and sought the help of a fertility specialist who diagnosed my PCOS. While he was very reassuring, he did warn me that with PCOS and my advanced age – I had just turned 40 – I might be in for a bit of a journey.”
What Michelle didn’t know was that at that very appointment she was already pregnant, so early on that the Dr couldn’t even pick it up on the scan. “It was only two weeks later when he sent me for a blood test that we discovered I had fallen pregnant with what he called my ‘miracle baby’,” she smiles. “Given my PCOS and age he said that he very rarely saw such a positive outcome with no medical intervention.”
It was diet that forged the path to miraculous success. Michelle did plenty of research into what kind of a diet could help her to feel better and make her more fertile and set off to live the life of low sugar, low gluten and low dairy.
“I felt the results within about two weeks,” says Michelle. “My skin cleared, my energy levels picked up and my sugar levels were more balanced. I didn’t do anything fancy either, I made egg muffi ns for breakfast, ate a lot of salmon and salads for lunch and then meat or chicken with vegetables for dinner.”
When she craved pizza she had crackers with mozzarella and sliced tomato and she had loads of apples and fresh veggies around to snack on. One of her favourite recipes was sweet potato roasted in the oven with a teaspoon of butter and salt.
“The weight loss was lovely, 18 pounds, but what interested me the most was the change in my hormones,” concludes Michelle.
PCOS Buster Number 3 – Acupuncture
Some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with PCOS are enlarged and enraptured follicles, ovulatory dysfunction and very long cycles. In 75% of cases, women experience blood sugar abnormalities and it can sometimes lead to thyroid issues. What acupuncture does is seek to balance the hormonal chaos that’s caused by PCOS and to bring the cycle back into normal parameters. “One of the most common manifestations that I see are the symptoms of ‘Dampness and Phlegm’ – this term is used in Chinese medicine to describe accumulations in the body,” explains Jacqueline Hurst, acupuncture practitioner and counsellor at fertility-support.co.uk.
“Symptoms include tiredness and feeling sluggish after a meal, fibrocystic breasts, acne and being overweight. I also address stress levels with every treatment, helping the patient to relax and take time to concentrate on their own health and wellbeing.”
Hurst recommends that patients stimulate their pressure points when at home. To balance hormones, use the index finger to massage Spleen 6 which is found by placing the right hand on the inside side of the lower left leg. Rest your little finger on top of the ankle bone. There are a number of points that can be used, but these are best discussed with an acupuncturist to locate them properly.
“The benefits from acupuncture may take around 100 days or three cycles on a cellular level. However, many patients feel these much sooner,” says Hurst. “I provide weekly acupuncture treatments with the first one scheduled for the first day of a bleed so as to work with each stage of the cycle.”
Dietary changes and supplements are also highly recommended as part of an acupuncture routine with Hurst suggesting fi sh, a diet high in protein and nuts, beans and tofu. And her advice only serves to really underline the value of a good diet through the removal of sugar, trans fats, processed food and limited dairy.
“Shame, guilt and loss are very real emotions connected with fertility issues and I spend time with all my patients listening to their stories,” concludes Hurst. “I am also trained in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that looks at understanding the behaviours that result from negative thoughts about yourself. This helps enormously with improving low self-esteem.”
Susan Jones (name changed) spent a lot of time researching PCOS and reading about how acupuncture could stimulate the nervous system and help with the symptoms of the condition. She felt it was an affordable, non-time consuming treatment with the potential to help her relax and possibly even conceive.
“I suffered irregular, light periods and had been trying to fall pregnant for a really long time,” says Susan. “I had acne and symptoms were consistent with PCOS and looking back I can defi nitely identify times of anxiety and depression. I think these were linked to both the PCOS and the fertility issues we faced.”
Acupuncture was the golden ticket for Susan as she now has her gorgeous four-month-old son and many of her PCOS symptoms have subsided.
“When you think of acupuncture you tend to think of huge needles and pain!” she laughs. “This really wasn’t the case. I found my sessions relaxing and completely pain-free. I used to fall asleep on the bed and would look forward to my sessions all day. An expensive nap, but far from uncomfortable or painful.”
Susan cannot recommend acupuncture enough: “I found it helped with PCOS symptoms and made me feel like I was actually doing something constructive to overcome it.”