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PCOS and Carbs

1546_38447_1_1_9727It took me a long time of reading and experimenting to discover that my body has a love/hate relationship with carbs that is more severe in women with PCOS. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking, ‘yeah! I can eat more carbs because I exercise and lift heavy!’ Then I do, and I instantly regret it. Living with PCOS is about finding that delicate balance between how many carbs your body can process without gaining fat and how few carbs you can get away with before you’re running to the store for cake.

If you don’t exercise, you can probably get away with a no carb diet. Regular exercise is crucial for managing your PCOS symptoms, though, so I wouldn’t recommend going that route. If you do exercise and you go too hard or you don’t find the appropriate carb balance you body needs, you will be eating everything that’s not nailed down by the day’s end. It has nothing to do with your willpower or dedication. It has everything to do with your body’s reaction to what you’re doing.

My body responds best with 1 serving of carbs before and 1 serving after my workouts. I may also have another serving of carbs later in the day if I’m feeling particularly hungry, but under 100g daily seems to work best for my body. I don’t have carbs at breakfast (though I do have protein/fat) because I will feel hungry and crave carbs for the rest of the day. If I indulge in sugar or processed carbs, I need to make sure I can lay down shortly after, because they wreak havoc on my body. As delicious as they taste, they’re usually not worth the aftermath.

My body reacts differently to a variety of “healthy” carbs as well. For example, I feel great when I eat 1 serving (1/2c) of rolled oats or quinoa. If I eat 1 serving of sweet potatoes or rice, however, I am hungry and have cravings for sweets within an hour. I strongly recommend everyone (not just PCOS women) experiment with carbs. Eat 1 serving of carbs and notice how you feel within 1 and 2 hours after that meal. I think you will find that your body has different carb preferences as well.

Lastly, I want to reiterate that everyone’s body is different. I am giving you this example of how my body tolerates carbs so that it may stimulate you to start thinking about your carb intake and how it’s affecting your body. Figuring out the formula for your body’s nutritional needs is key to feeling great with PCOS!

Ashley Brodeur, MS, CPT
Exercise Physiologist
Owner, Active Lifestyle Fitness, LLC

PCOS Part III: treatment

Pills spilledOnly recently have doctors begun to recognize and diagnose PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), and research is being conducted as the medical community realizes how prevalent this condition actually is. The biggest challenge doctors face in prescribing treatment is that PCOS affects every woman differently, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The best that can be done at this point is treat and manage symptoms. Some of the most common treatments are ones that I’ve tried and listed below.

Birth Control Pill: This is usually the first line of treatment for women with PCOS because it regulates your menstrual cycle, lessens heavy bleeding, and some pills contain Spironolactone which helps with hormonal hair growth. I started on Yasmin when I was diagnosed by my OB/GYN in 2006 because I had irregular periods. It did regulate my periods, but after 8 years taking it, I decided to try a more holistic route. After being off of the pill for 2 years, I attempted it again (for the purpose of birth control), and it sent me spiraling into a pit of depression and wacky mood swings. It’s important to notice how your body reacts to the addition of synthetic hormones; especially with PCOS because I believe we are more sensitive than most. It may take a few different pills to find one that works for you, or you may opt not to use one at all. Just because you are diagnosed with PCOS does NOT mean you have to treat it with a birth control pill!

Metformin: This is a diabetic drug that is also used to help women with fertility issues, however, I don’t believe it’s necessary to treat PCOS if you are not trying to conceive (unless your glucose levels are out of control). I started on Metformin in 2006 at my next stop to an endocrinologist that supposedly specialized in PCOS patients. She prescribed me 2000mg, and if you know anything about Metformin, you know that’s a high dose even for a diabetic. I started with 500mg and slowly increased the dose as instructed, only to spend every morning at my work desk feeling dizzy and nauseous. I decided that figuring out how to eat properly for PCOS would be a better choice for my body than Metformin.

Acupuncture: I haven’t seen any research on the direct effects of stress on PCOS, but my body tells me that stress makes my symptoms worse. After dropping the birth control pill, I decided to try acupuncture. My stress levels happened to be very high at the time, and I can’t tell you for sure that acupuncture did much for my PCOS, but I can tell you that slowing down and laying on a table for 30 minutes was help enough to lower my stress levels. I can also tell you that since I went off the pill and had acupuncture treatments for 3 months, my menstrual cycle has never been more regular in my life.

Diet & Exercise: Let’s face it, nobody likes this as an answer for treatment for any condition because we are a culture that likes to pop pills to fix problems. I can tell you from experience, though, that you can resolve the majority of your symptoms by taking care of your body. You don’t have to run 3 miles and live on chicken and broccoli, but doing something that gets your heart pumping every day and eating natural foods will benefit you most in the long term. I no longer take any medication to treat my PCOS symptoms; I treat them solely with diet and exercise, and I’ve never felt better!

Ashley Brodeur, MS, CPT
Exercise Physiologist
Owner, Active Lifestyle Fitness, LLC

PCOS Part II: symptoms & diagnosis

It’s important to understand that every woman experiences PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) differently. I’ve met many women with PCOS across the spectrum when it comes to symptoms. Thus, the following list is simply an idea of what you may be experiencing, and not necessarily the requirements for diagnosis. Symptoms may also worsen/appear with weight gain and stress, and may change throughout your lifetime.

As I mentioned in PCOS Part I, my inability to lose weight and excessive mood swings are ultimately what drove me to the doctor’s office. I also experienced irregular periods, but have since been able to regulate them with diet and exercise. Here are some symptoms that women with PCOS may experience:

Irregular periods
Excessive weight gain or difficulty losing weight
Hair loss on the scalp
Hair growth on hormonal areas (face, chest, stomach, etc)
Excessive acne
Fertility problems
Skin tags or patches of skin discoloration
Depression or mood swings

Women with PCOS have higher than normal androgen levels (male hormones) which is the cause of some of the symptoms above. Your doctor will order a blood test to examine your hormone levels as part of the diagnosis. I was also sent for an ultrasound that showed multiple cysts on my ovaries. It is important to have an open conversation with your doctor about what you are experiencing, and to advocate for yourself when it comes to a proper diagnosis. While there is no cure for PCOS, your doctor may be able to help you manage your symptoms, and you will have peace of mind knowing that symptoms such as “difficulty losing weight” are not all in your head!

Ashley Brodeur, MS, CPT
Exercise Physiologist
Owner, Active Lifestyle Fitness, LLC

PCOS Part I: my story

PCOS I’ve been wanting to write about PCOS for a long time, but wasn’t sure how to start, because it’s such a huge part of my life. PCOS is what inspired my career path, and to learn everything I could about health and fitness, especially for women. I intend for this to be an on-going discussion in my blog so that I can do the topic justice. First, I will start with a brief overview and my personal journey.

What is PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome)? In simple terms, it is an imbalance of hormones caused by insulin resistance in females. This imbalance of hormones causes eggs in the ovaries to become stuck as cysts and never release into the fallopian tubes, making it the number one cause of infertility in women (though many women with PCOS are able to have children when the condition is properly managed or with fertility treatments). The current statistics are that 1 in 10 women have PCOS (I believe there are MANY more that don’t know they have it), and over 60% of women that have PCOS are overweight or obese.

I was diagnosed with PCOS in February 2006. I went to my OB/GYN because my mood swings were out of control, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t lose weight. Doctors don’t really understand how to treat PCOS. Trust me, I’ve been to several of them. They usually tell you that you need to eat well and lose weight and it will get better. But this condition makes it twice as difficult to lose weight than it is for a woman without PCOS, so that’s easier said than done. Sometimes they prescribe Metformin (a diabetic drug) and the birth control pill. Both are just band-aids for the underlying issues.

In 2007, I challenged myself to learn how to live with this condition without being obese, as my body seemed to want to gravitate toward obesity. I signed up for a figure competition in June 2008, and the experimenting began. What I found was that I needed to treat myself like a diabetic. All processed carbs were out: my body swells like a balloon when I eat a piece of bread. My body loves a high protein diet with moderate fat intake. I limited carbs to only 2 servings daily; before and after my workout. My body likes rolled oats and quinoa, but sweet potatoes and rice make me hungry an hour later. I can’t eat fruit, even when accompanied with a fat, because I will have a blood sugar crash. I was able to lose 30lbs, and though I wasn’t as lean as the rest of the women on stage, I was damn proud of myself, and I learned everything I needed to know about how my body processes food.

Losing weight didn’t resolve this issue for me, but it did make managing my weight a lot easier. PCOS can be self-inflicted through poor eating habits and lack of exercise, or it can be genetic and it never really goes away (as in my case), but you can learn to manage it. With PCOS, there is no slipping up, being lazy, or “just having one piece of candy.” It’s a battle every day just to maintain your weight, and losing weight is an entirely different story, but it is NEVER an obesity sentence. I know this because I fight this battle every day of my life.

As the obesity rate continues to rise, I believe we will start hearing more about self-induced cases of PCOS, and women using it as an excuse as to why they can’t lose weight. PCOS is not an excuse to be obese. You have to work twice as hard as everyone else, and it is a difficult journey, but your health is worth it.

Ashley Brodeur, MS, CPT
Exercise Physiologist
Owner, Active Lifestyle Fitness, LLC