Pregnancy, PCOS, and Paleo

The Gummy Bear Files, Part II

Let’s talk about some girl problems today. And perhaps you’ll start to see just why I consider me getting pregnant such a miracle. I have never had normal periods. From the time I was 14 years old I always struggled with debilitating cramps and pain, so bad that I would even stay home from school some days. Obviously this wasn’t normal. Soon after, my first gynecologist discovered that I had some cysts on one of my ovaries, and at the tender age of 14 I was put on oral contraceptives because this was the only way to make the cysts go away and achieve some sort of normalcy in my cycle.

Fast forward 10 or so years and I had more or less been on the pill consistently THIS. WHOLE. TIME. In fact, it got to the point that any months I spent not taking the pill I simply wouldn’t even get a period. I sometimes would stop taking it because of worries that long term use would affect my fertility. After one of these 3-4 month stretches of consciously not taking my pill and not having a period, I decided to bring it up at my annual check up.

I was about 23 or 24 and this time I was officially diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS). Again, my new doctor told me that the only way to control the cysts is to consistently take an oral contraceptive. He also mentioned at this appointment (and I will never forget these exact words) “That when I am ready to start trying to get pregnant we will need to have a whole other conversation.” He made it very clear that it would be difficult for me to get pregnant naturally with PCOS.

This is not surprising, as infertility or complications with getting pregnant is one of the most common PCOS symptoms. My aunt suffered from PCOS and had to undergo many stressful and expensive fertility treatments before finally getting pregnant around age 35 or 36. Once pregnant, she also developed gestational diabetes. Not sure if these are necessarily related, but maybe. Insulin is one of the hormones involved in PCOS so it would make sense that these two conditions would be comorbid (comorbidity, noun, the presence of two or more simultaneous medical conditions, for you non-science geeks out there).

So with a familial history of PCOS (my maternal grandmother also had it) how did I manage to so easily and unexpectedly find myself expecting a little one?? Could LIFESTYLE have anything to do with it? Honestly, I 100% believe that this is the case. Let’s discuss further, but first a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: I AM NOT A DOCTOR, JUST SOMEONE WITH ANECDOTAL EVIDENCE WHO HAPPENS TO ENJOY EDUCATING MYSELF ABOUT NUTRITION AND THE MEDICAL COMMUNITY.

For those of you that don’t know, the symptoms of PCOS can include the following:

  • Abnormal menstruation – either a lack there of or extremely heavy menstruation; lack of ovulation
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Pelvic pain
  • Unwanted hair growth
  • Mood changes – mood swings, depression, anxiety (my adolescence was definitely wrought with plenty of depression…)
  • Acne
  • Infertility
Source

By no means did I experience all of these, but many of them have affected my life at one time or another. The depression was a big factor in my life up until the last couple years or so. I’ve suffered with mild acne, fatigue, and most definitely the complete absence of periods for months at a time. In fact, the doctor had a hard time determining my due date because I had been off the pill since about January 2018, had my first “normal” period on March 28 and then never had one again after. Yet there I was in early September already 9 weeks pregnant. That means I had gone at least 3-4 months without having a seemingly “normal” cycle. Yet apparently I was.

Around the same age I was diagnosed I had also become addicted to crossfit. And as so often happens when one discovers crossfit, my eyes were opened to a whole new universe of nutrition, fitness, and lifestyle changes. I didn’t embark on my crossfit journey without rearranging almost every aspect of my life to supplement that journey.

I started consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night. I began educating myself about the structure of the human body and about how sports performance is affected by nutrition. I read books about the paleo diet and that evolved into me following a low-carb ketogenic diet for almost 2 years straight. I cut out ALL processed foods, sodas, almost all sugar. I couldn’t even touch a food item in a plastic wrapper without cringing. I taught myself how to cook (and VERY WELL, I might add) so that I could make all my healthy food at home. If I was ever in a situation where I didn’t know the exact ingredients present in the food I was eating, I almost couldn’t even bring myself to put it in my body.

Every day for breakfast I had scrambled eggs with spinach and bell peppers, with 1-2 strips of bacon. For lunch I would always have chicken or ground turkey with kale or broccoli and carrots or cauliflower or some combination of vegetables. Every night we would cook dinner at home which always followed a simple formula: one type of meat, one vegetable, and a serving of healthy fats. One of my favorite examples of this is a little grass fed steak served with roasted Brussels sprouts and half an avocado. It became so incredibly simple to eat healthy. I just tried to include as many vegetables as possible, and the more I tried the more I loved them and loved experimenting with different ways to prepare them.

I was DISCIPLINED. I denied myself desserts, and the more I did the easier it became. It’s crazy how the more you eat vegetables and lean proteins and other healthy foods, the more your body craves that sort of food and rejects what was previously deemed “normal”. I was disciplined and I saw results. I lost that little bit of extra body fat (I was never super overweight), but more than that I saw my body composition changing completely. I developed muscle tone and I looked and felt FIT. Even more importantly, I felt STRONG and HEALTHY.

I started getting sick less and less and my stamina in my day to day life improved. I had (and more or less still have, despite growing a human inside me) SO MUCH MORE ENERGY. Two or three years into this lifestyle change I went back to my gyno and never had the cysts again. At this point I was still on (and occasionally off) the pill. So obviously, that had to be the reason for the management of my PCOS symptoms right?

There are plenty of anecdotes on the internet of women who have decreased or even reversed PCOS symptoms on a low-carb or ketogenic diet. I feel like I am one of those anecdotes. I genuinely believe that my fertility health was positively affected by my long term and consistent dedication to health and eating good quality foods. I spent so much of the first half of my twenties so anxious that I would never be able to have my own children. That I would never be blessed enough to get to experience growing a life inside of me. Even after hearing countless nutritionists and even Robb Wolf himself (go check out his podcast The Paleo Solution, it is geeky, informative and all-around awesome) declare the link between the ketogenic diet and improvement with PCOS symptoms.

For all the anecdotal evidence, there has unfortunately not been many scientific research studies done on the subject. One such study was conducted by researchers at Duke University, on eleven women with PCOS over a 6 month period. The women followed a low carb, ketogenic diet (less than 20g of carbs a day) and by the end of the study had improvements in body weight, percent testosterone, and fasting insulin levels. Two of the women in the study even became pregnant, despite suffering from previous infertility problems!

Now, as someone who’s respectful of the scientific method it’s important to point out that one study (or even a few studies) does not necessarily prove causation. At best, this study reinforces the link between insulin levels and PCOS and warrants more extensive research. Despite this, I think the myriad examples of anecdotal evidence of women whose lives have been changed by following a low-carb lifestyle merits giving it a try for yourself.

If you’re trying to get pregnant but have been finding it difficult, whether due to PCOS or not, take a look at your lifestyle. Maybe it’s time to evaluate some of your habits and change them for the better. It’s never too late to start exercising and it’s never to late to follow a diet rich in quality foods, and low in processed, sugar “foods”. (I put that in quotations because an apple is a real food. The unpronounceable chemicals in the ingredient list on a plastic wrapped cookie are NOT real foods.)

I believe that you have the power to create lasting, positive changes in your health based on your daily habits and the nutrition choices you make each day. Day to day it may be difficult to detect any differences, but then all of a sudden three years have passed and you realize how much weight you’ve lost, or that you can run three times farther than you ever were able before, or that you have a baby on the way when you never even thought you’d be able to conceive. Little changes add up to make a BIG DIFFERENCE.

Thus concludes part II of my pregnancy journey. (To read Part I click HERE). I’m so ecstatic to be sharing my emotions and experiences with you all. If you continue to follow along, even if you don’t learn something I hope to at least provide some entertaining reading material. Thanks for reading, and look out for my next post on DEALING WITH SUGAR CRAVINGS IN PREGNANCY in a few days.

Happy holidays and happy new year!!

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