Last August (2016), I shared with you guys how I reversed my PCOS, Leaky Gut and Insulin Resistance Naturally (you can read more about my diagnosis here). It had been exactly one year since I was diagnosed when my doctor pronounced me “cured”. It was one of the best days of my life… no joke. I felt INCREDIBLE.
But here’s the thing… there is no cure for PCOS. I will always have it.
But what I can do is manage it. I can reverse the chronic conditions that accompany the hormonal disorder and essentially be in “remission” from the symptoms.
In fact, if I can keep my hormones balanced and my digestion flowing, I can feel great. So great that I can feel like I don’t have PCOS. I can live a symptom-free life and be my healthiest, happiest self.
But here’s the other thing… it’s not easy. It’s a constant battle because, guess what? Life isn’t constant. Life is full of surprises, of ups and downs, of stressful seasons and seasons of rest, seasons of hustle, seasons of change.
And that means that sometimes my symptoms are non-existent. And sometimes they come back in full force. Living with PCOS, and maintaining my hormone balance is something I think about on a daily basis, and (real talk)… it’s hard.
Sometimes I start to feel sorry for myself. Why me? Why can other women eat whatever they want and have perfect skin? Or even, why can other women do what I do and have regular periods and smooth digestion and clear minds and perfect skin (are you sensing a pattern here? the skin thing is perhaps my greatest struggle) and I can’t?
Sometimes it can feel like I’m doing everything right, and it’s just not working.
I’m eating real foods that are anti-inflammatory, I’m exercising, I’m meditating, I’m taking healing supplements, I’m going to acupuncture, I’m tossing all the toxic products in my makeup bag and medicine cabinet and cleaning closet and using only all natural, non-toxic products instead.
And yet, I still have acne. Some days I feel bloated and nauseous. Some days I feel stressed and overwhelmed. In the winter, I get eczema on my arms. Sometimes my period doesn’t come for 34 days, like it did yesterday, instead of 28.
Sometimes my life is far from symptom-free.
But here’s the truth: I feel so much better than where I started. And while we can all have our bad days, the vast majority of my days are GREAT and I feel amazing.
And when I look back on where I started, I realize how far I’ve come.
I realize how much better I feel living this healthy, natural lifestyle. I realize how much better I know my body and what makes it feel good and what makes it feel like I really wish I didn’t eat that, or drink that much, or sit at my desk that long, or go to bed that late.
And most of all, I realize that I feel happy. I am happier being completely medication free, I am happier eating in a way that nourishes my body, I am happier being able to go to the bathroom every morning without effort, I am happier being in sync with my body and listening to what it needs and fueling it with that.
Because you know what? On my bad days, when I think about throwing in the towel and just saying “screw it, this isn’t working because I still have pimples”, I think about what that would mean. I think about what doing the opposite of what I’ve been doing the past two years would look like, and I quickly realize that I don’t want that.
I don’t want to eat unhealthy foods that give me a stomach ache and make me constipated and make me feel like I need a nap.
I don’t want to knowingly put toxic chemicals into my body, onto my skin, around my home and deliberately poison my body and potentially give myself asthma or cancer or render myself infertile.
RELATED: The Top 10 Toxic Chemicals To Avoid
I don’t want to pop some “magic pill” that might fix one problem, while giving me a whole new slew of other problems.
I know too much now, I’ve come too far. And I don’t want to go back, even to the times when I was blissfully ignorant on birth control. When I realized this, it reminded me of a quote from one of my favorite books on hormones. Author Dr. Gottfried writes:
You have to decide whether the pain of change exceeds the pain of staying the same.”
Such a brilliant way to think about your health, right?
Does the pain of not having pizza regularly exceed the pain of feeling tired, rundown, broken out, backed up, bloated, overweight, off-kilter, and irregular. HECK NO!
Does the pain of practicing yoga for 20 minutes every morning exceed the pain of feeling stressed out, exhausted and mind racingly overwhelmed? Not for a second!
Does the pain of swallowing a few safe and natural supplements before bed exceed the pain of feeling like dirt most days, of not being able to fall or stay asleep, of feeling moody and crampy and PMS-y all day, every day? No way!
Does the pain of grocery shopping and meal prepping and reading labels and paying attention to what I put in my body exceed the pain of feeling my worst? Never. I’d choose feeling my best EVERY.SINGLE.TIME.
I thought so! OK, so on that very long-winded note, I wanted to share with you a 6-month health update of how I’m managing my PCOS, Leaky Gut and Insulin Resistance.
My hope is that by sharing my healing journey and what has worked for me, I might be able to help somebody else out there struggling with similar issues.
But just remember that every single person has a unique body and makeup, and what works for one person, won’t always work for another. So listen to your own body, consult your doctor, and take the following as simply one person’s journey.
OK, let’s go back to where this post started… it’s been six months since I shared with you guys how I reversed all of those conditions naturally. Here’s how it’s been:
PCOS Symptoms + Health Report:
Over the past six months, I’ve had two main symptoms: hormonal acne (while my skin has improved dramatically since my initial diagnosis, I do still get acne around mid-cycle (ovulation) and a few days before I get my period, all around my jawline, chin and cheeks) and nausea (I have a disorder known as abdominal migraines and, as such, suffer with recurring episodes of debilitating nausea).
I’ve also felt bloated at times, and have gone through some periods of feeling really stressed (see here). My periods have come on average every 32 days, and I’ve had very little PMS (including menstrual cramps).
My digestion is super regular (first thing most mornings, no constipation, no diarrhea) and my blood sugar has been super stable. My energy is also pretty steady, if a tad on the low side. I’ve noticed I do feel energized by going outside, exercise, getting out of the house every day (even if just to go to the grocery store) and spending time with friends, though the introvert in me is also fueled by having quiet time alone. So it’s all about finding the right balance.
The Why of PCOS: What’s Happening in my Body?
I’ve found that I’m far more likely to change something if I understand why. It’s not enough for me to just hear “You’re stressed, it’s messing with your hormones and digestion.” I want to understand how stress throws these systems out of balance. I want to know why–and once I do, I find it far easier to fix it. So if you’re like me, this section is for you.
I’ll warn you, it’s pretty heavy on science, so if you’d rather skip to the treatment plan, I get it. But if you like to geek out on stuff like this, then settle in. I’ve got lots of great info in store for you!
For those of you who follow me on Instagram, you might have seen my recent story all about how I track my hormone levels. Getting regular blood labs done is absolutely the key to treating your hormone balance and I highly recommend that everyone find a practitioner near them who can run a complete hormone panel a few times a year.
Below, I’ve copied the hormone labs I’ve had drawn over the past few years so you can see how my levels have fluctuated, and why. (Note: Many of these levels are dependant upon where you are in your cycle as your hormones fluctuate throughout; almost all of my labs have been taking during my luteal phase) Dr. Gottfried has an amazing hormone lab resource for reference ranges.
- Estrogen Dominance + Excess Androgens: Since going off the birth control pill, I’ve struggled with both excess estrogen and low progesterone (known as estrogen dominance, this imbalance can cause acne, long menstrual cycles, and heavy cramping) and high levels of androgens (which are the male hormones, like testosterone and DHEA, that can cause acne, facial hair, weight around your midsection, missed periods, etc.).
- By taking a DIM supplement, I lowered my estrogen levels from 262 to 12. Since I started my protocol, my estrone levels have hovered around 131 (ideal is between 50-100) and estradiol has averaged around 120 (ideal is under 150). With those levels managed, I stopped taking DIM. But because I still struggled with low progesterone, with levels as low as 1-2 during my luteal phase (ideal is between 15-23), I still took a Vitex supplement and Evening Primrose Oil, which got my progesterone back up to 17 on my most recent blood work. I think it’s safe to say that the estrogen dominance is in “remission” now.
- Though I haven’t ever had labs with high testosterone, I have dealt with other high androgen levels. When I first went off the pill, my AMHA was really high at 14, but has since gone down to between 5-7 thanks to drinking spearmint tea, taking inositol supplements and a shot of apple cider vinegar in the morning. However, after going through an extremely stressful holiday season, my DHEA shot way up–it went from around an average of 200, all the way up to 361. This makes complete sense–both DHEA and cortisol (the stress hormone) are produced in the adrenals. And, in fact, when the adrenals secrete cortisol, they also secrete DHEA. So basically I was stressed out, which caused my adrenals to produce cortisol, which subsequently makes them produce DHEA, which increases sebum production on my skin, which causes me to break out. As much as I hate that this happens to me, it’s so cool to see how the body works and understand the root cause, isn’t it?!
- Small Intestine + Digestion: I’ve been chronically low in Vitamin D, which is critical for hormonal balance, for many years, despite taking oral supplements, getting vitamin injections, eating foods rich in Vitamin D and getting direct sunlight every day. My doc thinks this might be due to some nutrient absorption issues I’m having with my small intestine, and I’ve also had some protein and fat digestion/absorption issues show up on my bloodwork. It was so interesting that she highlighted the small intestine, in particular, because my acupuncturist has also said she thinks the root of my symptoms lies in my small intestine. And on top of that, a separate, computerized test that I had done that registers the pulse of your meridians also reported that I had issues with my small intestine. So three separate practitioners/tests all came to the same conclusion on their own, without any outside influence. Pretty crazy! So I did some research (obviously!) and I read about how the small intestine is responsible for assimilating nutrients during digestion (which would explain my low Vitamin D levels). It also explains the bloating I get, as bloating is the result of excessive gas in the intestines due to inadequate protein digestion and an inability to break down fats and carbs fully. What’s more? The small intestine meridian also influences the pituitary gland, which is part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates cortisol.
- Excess Cortisol + HPA Dysfunction: Which brings me back to stress. It’s the answer that is sometimes the hardest to hear, and certainly one of the hardest to fix. Life is stressful and sometimes those stressors are out of our control. But stress affects every aspect our of health. Obviously, it’s emotional and mental, but all of the doctors I’ve spoken to (including a gastroenterologist who specializes in abdominal migraines) have expressed that stress is likely responsible for my nausea AND my acne, too. Reduce my stress, nurture my adrenals and manage my cortisol levels, and I will see a reduction in my symptoms, they say. It makes sense. The hypothalamus is the hormone control center of our brain–it picks up what is happening around us and tells the pituitary to adjust hormone levels, including thyroid, adrenals and ovaries, accordingly. Because I have PCOS, that line of communication is already prone to disruption. Add stress to the mix and dysfunction occurs, throwing hormones further out of whack.
Okay, that was A LOT. I know. And when I first started to learn about how my body works and what my symptoms meant, it felt like I had SO MANY different issues.
But when you really look at the whole picture and start putting the pieces together, the dots start to connect and you realize that all of your symptoms are linked. And often, that if you can fix the ONE root cause, everything else will fall into place.
Managing PCOS: A Treatment Plan for Hormonal Acne + Digestion
So, as you could’ve probably guessed, my primary focus over the next few months is going to be on stress management. I have a feeling that if I can reduce my stress and improve my body’s stress response, that my skin will finally clear up and I may even stop having those awful abdominal migraines. So here’s my full treatment plan:
- Self-Care: I’m going to focus on self-care. I’ve already cut back on my work hours and have started implementing stress-reducing practices like yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage, relaxing detox baths, outdoor walks and exercise. Prioritizing time for resting, for being with my loved ones, and for being kind to myself is also key (as a perfectionist, this one is especially difficult for me). You can read more about my self care tips here. I’m also planning to take a cortisol test at home, which will measure my cortisol at four points throughout the day. My doc has said that based on the results, my treatment plan could change as she may prescribe that I eat certain foods or take certain supplements at specific times of the day based on what my cortisol is doing. I’ll report back on that after the results come in. I’m also going to look into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as I think talking to someone about how I react to stress and finding ways to better manage it when it does happen will be key.
- Live Naturally: I’m going to continue eating a super clean, anti-inflammatory diet centered around real food. And I’ll also keep using natural and non-toxic products, including DIY beauty and cleaning products, as part of my natural living mantra. The first and most important step to healthy living, I’ve found, is to simply reduce your toxic load. You don’t have to be perfect, but by limiting processed foods and toxic and harmful chemicals, you will put yourself on the fast track to your healthiest self. Get more health tips here.
- Powerful Supplementation: I will continue using safe and natural supplements instead of prescription medication. However, I’m going to be changing up my supplement routine a bit. Here’s my plan:
- In the morning, I’ll still take a Probiotic. But to help manage my stress response, I’ll take 5-HTP with green tea and a high dose of CoQ10 ubiquinol (studies have shown that this supplement can reduce the recurrence of abdominal migraines). And I’ll manage my blood sugar and hormones with a high-potency inositol called Ovasitol.
- At night, I’ll take Vitex. And to manage my stress response, I’ll take another dose of 5-HTP and CoQ10, along with an herbal blend to nourish my HPA Axis, called HPA Adapt (it’s got Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, Eleuthero, Maca and Holy Basil leaf). And another dose of Ovasitol. I’m going to stop taking Evening Primrose Oil for now and see if my body does okay without it, but I think this may have been the key to raising my progesterone, so we’ll have to wait and see.
- During lunch and dinner, I’ll also start taking Digestive Enzymes again to help my gut better digest my foods and absorb their nutrients. And my doctor also suggested I start drinking electrolyte water to help with hydration, which could impact my abdominal migraines.
Some of the other ways I plan to supplement my diet is by eating lots of gut-healing foods, like apple cider vinegar, bone broth, fermented veggies (sauerkraut) and yogurt/kefir, and drinking kombucha and nourishing teas. My favorites right now are Traditional Medicinals Healthy Cycle and Organic India Tulsi Turmeric + Ginger. I also love adding collagen and adaptogens, like ashwagandha and licorice, and mushrooms, like reishi and lion’s mane, to my diet.
To be honest, I do struggle with taking so many supplements. It’s not that it’s that hard, but it can be expensive (the daily cost for the supplement routine listed above is $5.56) and I don’t love the idea of taking dozens of pills every day.
To be fair, they do work and there are worse things than taking safe and natural supplements, but I’d love to find a Chinese herbalist who could make me a custom tincture that blends a lot of the nutrients I need into one mixture, reducing the number of separate supplements I have to take. If anyone knows of a great herbalist, please leave a comment as I could really use some recommendations.
OK friends, thanks for sticking with me through another LOOOOOOOONG health post. I hope you found it helpful and that it inspired you to look more deeply into your own health and figure out natural ways to improve it.
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Photo Credit: Heidi Geldhauser
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