While there are some medications, including birth control pills, that can help with symptoms (see more PCOS basics here), many women still have to deal with the effects of PCOS on their own. And since there aren't often clinical studies of the effectiveness of DIY approaches to symptoms, women with PCOS may not know that there are at-home strategies that can help lessen fatigue, weight gain, and other PCOS problems. We asked four women who said goodbye to their symptoms to share their secrets. Here's what worked for them—read their stories and see what strategies might work for you:
PCOS Solution: "I became a vegetarian!"
—Lauren Norris, 28, graphic designer, Pittsburgh
How I Used to Feel: "When I was 17 I only got three periods in one year, so my gynecologist sent me to an endocrinologist for more testing. The skin on the back of my neck had thickened and darkened, which is a typical PCOS symptom; I was overweight; always felt hungry; and I was always sluggish—characteristics that, with my blood work numbers, confirmed PCOS."
How I Manage PCOS Symptoms: "Between diet and exercise, I've been able to control my PCOS. I've kept off the 25 pounds that I lost two years ago and have started losing weight again. How have I made it work? I became a vegetarian and I try to cut out white breads/starches and replace them with fruits and vegetables. Eating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and meatless protein has been a huge part of helping me lose weight and keep it off, along with clearing up my acne (a side effect of PCOS) and lowering my cholesterol (it dropped 20 points in three months). I focus on doing my best to stay on track and eat the right things. Plus, I notice that my energy level stays consistent all day with this kind of diet. I'm awake, alert and focused versus the multiple crashes I used to have during any given day. I also sleep much better than before."
[header = PCOS Solution: "I started teaching fitness classes!"]
—Jennifer Wasilisin, 28, ad agency account supervisor, Philadelphia
"I didn't get my period for five months after I stopped taking birth control pills, so my doctor did some blood work. I couldn't believe I had PCOS—I consider myself fairly healthy."
"I've always worked out, but now that I've been diagnosed with PCOS, I know just how important exercise is for controlling the side effects of the syndrome. I work out six days a week and teach spinning and Body Pump five times a week. Teaching classes and working out makes me feel so much better about myself and my body, especially since polycystic ovarian syndrome can have so many negative effects—it can lead to diabetes and heart disease. I know that by working out I can help control some of the PCOS symptoms. I've maintained a healthy weight and I feel great!"
—Michelle LaRowe Conover, 34, author and mother of 2, Hyannis, MA
"In high school, I began having heavy periods, my hair started to thin and I was gaining weight even though I played three sports and was drum major of the marching band. I felt hopeless. I was on diet after diet and nothing worked. After being told to lose weight to feel better, I did some research and sought out a top-notch reproductive endocrinologist in Boston. He advised a low-carb diet and prescribed metformin, a drug that increases your body's response to insulin, since many women with PCOS experience insulin resistance, which keeps your cells from getting the fuel they need."
"Before learning how to eat right, I felt hopeless because PCOS made it nearly impossible for me to lose weight. Now, I am in control of my weight and feel good about myself. Because women with PCOS can't process sugar efficiently I do everything I can to stay away from simple carbs, processed foods and white sugar. I never eat a carb alone; pairing a protein with a carb keeps blood sugar stable, reduces insulin spikes, reduces sugar cravings and lowers my risk of diabetes. So, for example, I always pair a complex carb like a baked potato with a protein, like a chicken breast. On the average day, I eat every three hours. Breakfast is two slices of 35-calorie light wheat bread with either egg whites or peanut butter. Then I have either an apple or berries and 15 almonds for a mid-morning snack. Lunch is a salad with chicken or turkey and vinaigrette dressing or sometimes a six-inch Subway chicken teriyaki sub. Dinner includes a lean meat with broccoli and a baked potato or sweet potato. In the evening, my snack consists of cottage cheese and berries. I stay away from dairy because it's so high in fat, drink only water or Crystal Light and have one cheat day per week—on Saturdays! I feel like I've made a real lifestyle change and that I've found something that works for me."
—Katie Humphrey, 26, PCOS Wellness Coach and author of Freedom from PCOS, Ocala, Florida
"Before I knew what was wrong with me, my life was a nightmare, and I didn't feel like anyone could understand what I was going through. After dealing with an absent menstrual cycle, excessive weight gain in a short period of time, and a host of other side effects of hormonal imbalance like night sweats, irritability and severe PMS, I was finally diagnosed with PCOS two years ago."
"I follow a 'triple-threat' approach that includes exercise, nutrition and supplements. I do cardio intervals, steady-state cardio and strength training. I eat every three to four hours, and I always combine a protein and carbohydrate, which slows digestion so I feel full longer and my blood sugar levels stay steady. I also stay away from harmful foods like white sugar, flour and fried foods because they contribute to diabetes, insulin resistance and obesity—not to mention how few nutrients they offer for the amount of calories they have. I do allow myself to have treats, since deprivation only leads to future bingeing. I've also started taking a few supplements that target many of the symptoms of PCOS and reduce insulin resistance. I take chromium picolinate (one 500 mcg pill per day) and evening primrose oil (about 1,300 mg a day), which help me naturally reverse symptoms and allow my body to further balance its hormonal systems. After I overcame my PCOS symptoms, I reconnected with my fiancé and we married three months later (we just celebrated our two-year anniversary). I quit my job and began working as a full-time wellness coach, traveled more, and I feel amazing in my body. There's nothing like the way I feel now, and it's what I stress to other women with PCOS—life can be different!"