“You've gained the Office 15! Try to exercise more and eat healthier, you’ll be fine,” my doctor—and virtually everyone—told me when I tried to find answers behind my steady weight gain that started a few years ago.
I had just started working my first full-time job out of college and was noticing a ton of changes in my body: major fatigue, anxiety, irregular periods, sharp pelvic pains and the most noticeable, weight gain. All of which I was told were issues related to my transition from college into the working world. So I listened and tried to exercise more and eat healthier, only to frustratingly gain more weight no matter what I did. I was also hospitalized twice for ruptured ovarian cysts, something I thought was an entirely separate issue, because when I told doctors and my OB-GYN about my mysterious, sharp pelvic pain that came every month, their response was simply “cysts are normal, go on birth control and you won’t get them.” No tests, no explanations—just birth control pills shoved in my face.
Thinking this was my only option, I tried going on birth control only to have bad reactions to the pills (extreme nausea and an insane spike in my hormone levels that left me feeling completely insane). I decided that, for me, I would choose dealing with painful cysts instead of feeling that way on the pill. Deep down, I also knew there was something serious going on in my body and I refused to use birth control as a quick band-aid fix to the symptom (cysts), instead of actually curing the problem. It took another two years and countless doctors to finally confirm that it wasn’t all in my head: I was officially diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a chronic hormonal endocrine disorder.
"I wasn’t given any information or guidance—just birth control pills shoved in my face."
Sadly, this isn’t uncommon. A recent study revealed that it takes, on average, two years and three doctors for women to be diagnosed with PCOS. (You must have at least two of its three key features—ovarian cysts, higher levels of testosterone, and irregular or missed menstrual periods—to be diagnosed.) Afterwards, I wasn’t given any information or guidance, except the recommendation of birth control and the cryptic, “you might not be able to get pregnant naturally,” message my doctor nonchalantly slipped into our conversation.
But my journey trying to treat PCOS on my own soon led me to Alisa Vitti, a hormone nutritionist, founder of Flo Living and the author of Woman Code, a guide for women on how to rebalance hormones through food-based programs. Vitti herself had been diagnosed with PCOS 20 years ago and has since treated her symptoms through food, supplements and self-care. After reading her book, I began working with Vitti to come up with a food-based plan to treat my symptoms.
During our first consultation, Vitti asked me for my symptoms along with an example of what my "normal day" of meals looked like. After I ran her through a typical day of eating (and by "typical," I mean I chose a healthy day instead of a day that ends in pizza and a night of drinking), I was shocked to hear that my idea of "eating healthy" was actually backfiring against me and my symptoms.
"You're cutting out an entire food group!" Vitti exclaimed when I proudly told her my normal breakfast (eggs), lunch (salmon and spinach salad) and dinner (chicken and veggies). "You can't just cut out carbs entirely. That's why you're always hungry and reaching for snacks like pretzels and chips," she explained. Instead, she suggested that I add half a cup of complex carbs like quinoa, brown rice or sweet potatoes to both my lunch and dinner. Along with fueling me, those carbs also help to manage blood sugar levels (women with PCOS typically have insulin resistance, so monitoring your blood sugar is key). So step 1: add in healthy carbs—check.
Another quick fix for my eating plan from Vitti was to bulk up my breakfast by adding a serving of (good) fat and vegetables to my eggs in order to keep me full until lunch. Dr. Kurt Waples of Bluestone Health Group backed up the theory of a high-protein, high-fat breakfast to start the day as a way to combat the high insulin spikes commonly associated with PCOS. "If you eat a breakfast that’s high in fat and protein (an avocado and wild caught salmon, for example), that helps to stabilize blood sugar throughout the day. So instead of having a breakfast of oatmeal with fruit or something carby that’s going to burn off fast, we have people do the opposite. The fat stabilizes blood sugar spikes that you’re otherwise going to get throughout the day."
Vitti also recommended snacking on six almonds (a good source of fat) instead of pretzels (which, okay fine, duh) and trying coconut yogurt with raspberries as an after dinner snack. Easy enough.
But then came time for the terrible, nightmare-inducing news: if I wanted this thing to work, I would have to quit caffeine. I'm not going to lie to you and say that when Vitti told me I'd have to give up my greatest love, iced coffee, I considered hanging up and forgetting this whole thing. But the founder of Flo Living is incredibly convincing and inspiring (as referenced in her TED Talk), so I gave the idea a chance. As it turns out, my coffee addiction (consisting of two to three large iced coffees a day) was apparently making all my PCOS symptoms 10,000 times worse. "Caffeine creates cysts," explained Vitti. "With PCOS you are already prone to cysts, drinking coffee will just help create a million more."
If you have PCOS or any hormone related issue, do me a favor: listen to Vitti and quit caffeine. This was the first change in Vitti's food-based plan that really changed the way my body felt immediately. While Vitti suggest weaning myself off caffeine and trying a week of black tea followed by a week of green tea, I decided that for me, it would be easier to quit cold turkey—rip it off like a band-aid. After five days of insanely terrible caffeine withdrawal (headaches, shakes and crying every time a coffee passed me on the street), I finally started to feel amazing: more energy, no more 3 p.m. crashes and even brighter skin. Every single person's reaction to this has been, "oh my GOD, I could NEVER do that," which is exactly what I would have said three months ago. But if I, queen of always having an iced coffee in hand, could do it—so could you. Step 2: Quit insane coffee addiction—check.
As for my other vice, alcohol, I had to make some changes in that department too. Vitti instructed me to stay away from beer altogether and to try to have as little hard liquor as possible. "Beer is full of gluten and pesticides—both of which are endocrine disruptors. Hard alcohol is super concentrated sugar and has a higher alcohol content. It will disrupt both blood sugar/insulin levels and make the liver more fatty," Vitti said.
"I finally started to feel amazing: more energy, no more 3 p.m. crashes and even brighter skin."
This was kind of a problem for me as I had just given up my coffee habit. I had to draw the line at giving up my beloved vodka sodas and margaritas entirely, too. So as a general rule of thumb, Vitti told me to keep my drink intake to no more than two drinks at a time. Having one glass of wine, champagne or sake with food is okay, she noted, because they have less sugar and less alcohol concentration—so they won't disrupt your blood sugar levels as much. But because sometimes one margarita turns into four and a glass of wine can turn into a bottle, she gave me a post-drinking routine to follow: Anytime after drinking two or more alcoholic drinks (which is often if you're a New Yorker), drink a serving of electrolyte enhancer (Emergen-C Electro-Mix is good) in a glass of water before you go to bed. Along with the drink, take an extra B-vitamin complex to help recover faster from dehydration. The bonus here is that along with keeping your body in check, I noticed that this little remedy also acts as a hangover preventer.
The types of food and beverages you're consuming isn't the only thing that matters, though—it also matters what time and how frequently you're eating. According to Vitti's Woman Code plan, I needed to eat my breakfast within 30 minutes to an hour of waking up. Lunch should then be consumed within three and a half hours of breakfast, followed by a mid-afternoon snack within two hours. Lastly, dinner should be eaten around three hours after your snack. Skipping meals is an obvious no as it ends up slowing down your metabolism and, again, screwing with your insulin levels. Step 3: get on a timed schedule of eating—check.
Just as important as the foods you're putting into your body are the supplements Vitti recommends adding into your diet. For me, she suggested five new supplements to start, along with a probiotic. The supplements included B-6 vitamins (which helps boost progesterone production), cinnamon pills (to stabilize blood sugar levels), magnesium (helps with insulin resistance and resets adrenal hormones) and milk thistle seed (to help detox the liver). Within just a couple weeks of starting these supplements, my body felt more energized and clear. Step 4: add the proper supplements to your diet—check.
After I got in the swing of these changes, it was time to follow Vitti's theory of syncing up your menstrual cycle to your entire life—which, trust me, sounds much more complicated than it actually is. In both Vitti's book and on her app, MyFlo, she guides you through the four phases of your cycle: the follicular phase (when follicles in the ovary mature as they get ready to release an egg); the ovulatory phase (when your ovaries actually release an egg); the luteal phase (when the lining of your uterus prepares for a possible pregnancy); and the menstrual phase (when you have your period). Based on where you are in your cycle, there are certain foods and exercises you should be focusing on. While this sounds like an incredibly difficult time commitment, it's actually really simple. For example, during your luteal phase, you should focus on adding foods rich in B vitamins to combat sugar cravings and leafy greens to reduce bloating. There is no strict diet plan to follow, it's all about weaving certain food groups into your diet based on what cycle your body is in.
A fun fact I learned during this entire process was that I truly didn't know anything about how my body changed depending on my menstrual cycle. And how would I? Girls are never taught this in school and once it's time for the OB-GYN, their advice is almost always to go on birth control and that's that. Regardless of whether you have a hormone imbalance, PCOS, or another period-related issue, Vitti's Woman Code is such a vital read to actually understand how our bodies operate as women. Step 5: sync your life to your cycle—check.
"Two months in, the most exciting result is that I finally cracked the code on losing weight with PCOS."
Two months into my diet and lifestyle change, the most exciting note to result is that I finally cracked the code on losing weight with PCOS. Weight loss—and control—with PCOS is nearly impossible due to hormone imbalances and insulin resistance. In just over two years, I gained a total of 20 lbs (a significant increase on my 5'2" frame). After three years of trying everything to lose weight (more cardio, Atkin's, cleanses, you name it) and not ever losing a pound, I managed to lose a total of four pounds in just two months—a huge feat for someone with PCOS.
At the beginning of my journey, Vitti told me that because I'm still in my twenties and have been suffering from PCOS symptoms for three years, it should only take about three months of being on her plan to reverse my symptoms. As I entered my third month last week, I felt distinctly better (both mind and body) and was finally able to lose weight for the first time in three years (which is HUGE), however I was still having painful cysts. When I told Vitti, she suggested upping my magnesium intake during my luteal phase along with taking Evening Primrose Oil as a fix, which I'm currently in the process of trying out.
As a full disclaimer, I am not someone who's good at sticking to diets, exercise or even remembering to take vitamins on a daily basis. In my first three months of trying to naturally combat PCOS, there were plenty of times I forgot to take my supplements for three days in a row, had too many vodka clubs after dinner, or totally forgot to add specific foods into my diet based on my cycle. But even following Vitti's plan only, let's say 60 percent of the time, I still managed to see results. And the entire process of working with a holistic nutritionist like Vitti gave me eye-opening insight into my own body. It's a reminder that, despite what your doctor tells you, birth control isn't always the only answer—especially to a problem like PCOS.
Bonjour Jolie understands the needs of all folks with PCOS and offers a period box geared to their dietary restrictions. Check them out today!