PCOS: When Your Ovaries Unfriend You

I was 13 when I first got my period, a bittersweet memory as I look back given that it was largely a day filled with bouts of soft pain, self-pity, and also some exhilaration. Strangely, I also remember spending a large part of the day consoling my weepy mother and trying to avoid my dad who decided to celebrate my 'growing up’ with an array of gifts to soothe my nerves. I wish he had got a packet for my mother too, since she, for some reason, simply couldn’t stop weeping. Most foolishly so, I believed that I would now be propelled into an alternate realm of some fantastical maturity that the streams of blood were supposed to signify. Needless to say, that did not happen. “I could get used to this”, I had thought naively as I lay in bed with minimum pain and maximum self-indulgence before a dreaded cramp- cough combination slapped some sense into me and I could not wait for this nightmare to end in the next three days.

At least, that’s how long I thought it would last. Needless to say, that also did not happen. What followed was years of endless visits to the gynaecologist, blood tests, hormone pills, and consistent, heavy bleeding for months on end, as each part of my lower body felt as though red fingers of rage were ripping it apart. PCOS, a clinical term I was introduced to at 17 slowly wormed its way into every aspect of my life.

What is PCOS really?

Affecting 1 out of 10 women, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is an endocrine disorder that affects women during their reproductive years. Characterized by irregularities in the menstrual cycle, fatigue, infertility, weight gain, hair loss, and an increased perceptibility towards developing depression and anxiety, it is all-pervasive. One of the leading causes is seen to be insulin resistance or the inability of the body to effectively utilize the available insulin and maintain healthy glucose levels. Present in about 80% of women with PCOS, insulin resistance can lead to an increased risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes among other cardiovascular diseases and also increases androgens or male hormone production. Increased levels of androgens cause an imbalance within the body when coupled with decreased production of oestrogen or the female hormone leading to the formation of cysts, causing excess facial hair, acne, and disrupting ovulation. Increased insulin, increased androgens, dark patches on the skin and an increase in appetite all culminate to form a vicious cycle that preys on not just the woman’s body but also her self-esteem. While results are inconclusive, certain genetic factors are also believed to be partially responsible for the onset of this condition. In a nutshell, it creates havoc with your internal balance and sows seeds of hatred towards our monthly cycles along with severe dislike for 'normal' women with 'normal pain-free, easy bleeding 4-day cycles'.

PCOS affects hormones in different ways and this is what makes it so difficult to diagnose. This, coupled with the inherent shame we attach to menstruation paves way for girls to go undiagnosed for years. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania threw light on the major gaps that existed between education and support for women with this condition and highlighted how a delayed diagnosis often leaves women at greater risk of developing more severe underlying conditions. What we require is to shed stigma, increase clinical awareness, and make this information readily available.

While the severity of bodily symptoms may vary, the debilitating impact that this condition has on a woman’s mental model is uniform. For me, hormonal imbalances, fuelled by external medicine leave me feeling helpless, at the hands of some external force that has the power to sway me in whichever direction it chooses. I often wake up feeling on-edge, anxious, and my inability to identify the root cause greatly hampers with daily functioning. A feeling of overwhelming fatigue is one of the most common and most easily ignored symptoms. Emotional well-being stands in direct contrast to the diagnosis of PCOS. Many women develop body image issues and a crippled sense of self, unlocking the dark doors of depression. 34% of women with PCOS suffer from depression compared to the 7% in the general population and 45% suffer from anxiety as compared to 18%.

A world that is quick to judge, one that preys on your insecurities and one that often lacks empathy, is a world where PCOS thrives. Overweight women are clubbed into rigid categories while those suffering from depression are termed as indulgent. Women with fertility issues are made to bear the brunt of immense societal and self-imposed pressure while the root cause of all of this in such cases, could be PCOS. Women, due to these symptoms succumb to decreased social interaction, chronic stress, decreased attention to physical well-being, and mood swings thereby solidifying the barriers between them and the outside world eventually manifesting as fear and anxiety.

While there is no cure for this condition, it definitely can be contained and symptoms can be allayed. "You must work with your body, instead of controlling it", I read somewhere and a lifestyle shift is the best way to make this happen. While hormonal pills bring temporary respite, they do not serve as a long-term solution which can only be found with a shift in lifestyle. Healthy eating, avoiding heavily processed and refined foods, embracing whole foods, nuts, grains, fruits, all help regulate your body. Exercise becomes your best friend, yoga, cardio, weight training, or anything that pumps the blood and oxygenates you will help.

So, get up, get your bodies moving, thumping, running, skipping, dancing, and dance away your PCOS blues. We may not be able to avoid it, but we can definitely defeat it!