All day I had felt on the verge of tears and when I walked in the door, they all came tumbling out. My husband watched helplessly as I wept and sobbed uncontrollably, and when I was done he put his arm around me and handed me a cup of soup. But where were these emotions coming from? And why did they come on so suddenly?
What is PCOS?
To fully understand, we must travel back to 2008, the year I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, or PCOS. The syndrome, which affects nearly five million women in the United States, often goes undiagnosed and if left untreated can lead to high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease. The name Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome refers to small cysts that form around the ovaries, but it is really an endocrine disorder in which the sex hormones estradial and progesterone are out of balance. Women with PCOS typically have an increased production of androgens (the male sex hormone) causing acne, increased hair growth, irregular menstrual cycles, and male pattern baldness. This can also lead to weight gain and infertility.
Coming away from my doctor’s office I was left confused. What was Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome? My OBGYN had actually read me the disorder from her textbook and then handed me a prescription for birth control pills. Because PCOS has no documented cure and because doctors still know very little about the cause of the disease, patients are often left helpless, searching for answers on the Internet or among their peers. My doctor never once told me there might be a link between what I eat and my disorder. She never once mentioned that diet and exercise were important factors in controlling my PCOS symptoms. And because I was “thin.” she assumed I was healthy.
The truth was, I was far from healthy. I had come from a country where most food was prepared from scratch, ingredients were natural and from the earth, and dinners were bought from the butcher or farmer, not a box. When I moved from Kenya to the US in 1999, my diet drastically changed without me giving it a second thought. I went from rice and beans to TV dinners, from curry and vegetables to Ramen noodles. In college I existed on pasta, fried chicken, alcohol, caffeine, frozen meals, and anything I could lug across campus from the food store. Although outwardly I appeared fit, I was eating the kind of diet that leads to heart disease and high cholesterol.
After college, my diet consisted of pizza, pasta, canned beans, canned soup, and anything else I could fix up really quick on the stove. Because I was a terrible cook I turned to things that were high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat, all the while not understanding the link between these foods and my PCOS. I was at the top of my sugar wave and the more sugar and carbs I consumed, the more I was addicted to them. It was a vicious cycle that I was unwilling to break. I started gaining weight, losing hair, and developing acne, all the while working out as hard as I could and getting nowhere.
It was not until I began to read more about the disease and learn to cook for myself that I saw what I was really doing to myself.
PCOS and Insulin Resistance
In 2011, I began seeing a specialist at local fertility clinic. This was the first time that someone addressed my PCOS as a real syndrome that needed to be attended to. The doctor gave me a food chart and asked that I wrote down all that I ate for a week. She then sat me down and showed me on a diagram just how much sugar I was taking in and how little protein and fiber I was getting. She suggested I try a low carb, high protein diet similar to the Atkins diet. “Why?” I asked. She explained that PCOS has been linked to insulin resistance. “Let me explain it this way,” she said, “For example, if I eat a cupcake and you eat a cupcake, I will burn off that cupcake in a day or so. Whereas women with PCOS may eat the cupcake and it could take a week to burn off that cupcake.”
I was shocked. Why had nobody told me this before?
According to the PCOS Foundation, “Insulin resistance (IR) is a physiological condition where the natural hormone, insulin, becomes less effective at lowering blood sugars. The resulting increase in blood glucose may raise levels outside the normal range and cause adverse health effects.” If left untreated these high insulin levels can lead to a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, increased insulin levels causes the increase of androgen production, leading to excess hair on the body, loss of hair on the head, and acne. It also may lead to infertility.
Sugar Crash versus Hormone Roller-Coaster
So what caused my crash off the sugar wave? I believe that my sugar filled weekend, coupled with a sudden stop of food (I hadn’t eaten in 5 hours) lead to a dramatic drop in glucose. Although I am no doctor, I also think I was emotional because my hormones had been up and down all weekend.
Listening to my doctor, I knew right then and there that my sweet tooth had to be curbed, but it took a while to follow through on her advice.
Sugar Addicts Anonymous
It’s not easy being a sugar addict. Every day consists of riding the sugar wave: I wake up and have tea that is filled with sugar, for breakfast I have cereal or yogurt that is filled with sugar, at lunch I have something with carbs, in the afternoon I have some chocolate, at dinner I have carbs again and some protein, and then just before midnight I raid the fridge looking for something sweet. If I go out to dinner, I must order a dessert. I am, unfortunately, a card carrying member of the Sugar Addicts Anonymous.
How Much Sugar Per Day?
- Men should have no more than 37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons
- Women should have no more than 25 grams or 6 teaspoons
…according to the American Heart Association.
It’s not a real club but it really should exist. There are probably hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of us living in the United States. When we live in a country where even our bread has sugar in it – yes, even our bread, just read the labels for High Fructose Corn syrup – it feels like we have been set up to fail. But there is a way out!
The truth is, just like any other addiction, you have to work hard at it. My changes began with watching movies like Food Nation and Forks Over Knives and reading books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Women Code.” I came to realize that I needed to nurture my body and think about the things I was putting into it. At first I found sugar alternatives like agave nectar or honey, but then I realized I was using just as much (if not more) honey than I was sugar, so was I making that much of a difference?
Over the course of a year, I cut back on my sugar in small steps like instead of three spoons I had one spoon in my tea. Then I dumped out my yogurts with 18g of sugar and opted for one with 9 grams, and then one with no sugar because it was just natural yogurt (I just added fruit). I learned to read labels, I cut down on my alcohol intake (which was a huge factor), and I increased dark, leafy vegetables and grains.
I can’t say its been an easy road and weekends like this remind me what riding the sugar wave is all about. But I like to think I am riding the sugar lake now with an occasional wave coming up on the horizon. The PCOS symptoms have been under control for the past year and I know that my diet and a good exercise regime has helped to keep them at bay.
And although that chocolate cake might taste oh-so-wonderful as I scarf it down, perhaps this time I’ll give it a pass.
Read more about my sugar addiction on my blog.
Photo credit: Paul Patton