My personal journey with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) began at the age of 15 when I found myself growing a beard. For an inherently anxious girl, this was the ultimate blow to my already poor self esteem. PCOS travelled with me for the next 25 years while I explored treatment options in both the orthodox and alternative medical fields. Fortunately I found the answer, and suffer virtually none of the symptoms any more – except one, which is looming as my next major health challenge for the second half of my life.
What can you do as a teenager when you look in the mirror and see hairs sprouting on your face and neck? Why is this happening? What am I doing wrong? How can I stop it so I can look ‘normal’? No-one was allowed close to my face. Several other women in my extended family had also suffered from hirtsuism (that’s the medical term for the hairy masculine features that some women with PCOS develop). The unspoken family policy was that it was something you just had to live with – and start saving up for electrolysis sessions because you’re going to need lots. To be fair, in the late 1970s not much was known about PCOS or how to treat it. I’m not sure it even had an official syndrome ‘name’.
In the meantime, I became an expert ‘tweezer’, individually and painfully plucking out every single hair that appeared. My tweezers and my lighted mirror became my best friends. I picked up a razor at one stage and pondered shaving, but put it down again. I just couldn’t face the concept of shaving like a man when my beard already made me feel like I was all too masculine. No-one was allowed to stand close enough to me that they could spot the hairs (I hoped). I even avoided standing in strong light. At one stage I gave up completely, and still have a very disturbing photo ID from my first job where the beard is clearly visible. I’ve tried waxing too (ouch!) and eventually earned enough to start the long years of painful electrolysis. IPL laser hair removal has got to be the best invention yet!
My facial hair, and how to get rid of it, became the focus of my waking hours. Treatment with spironolactone (an anti-androgenic medication) didn’t make a dent in the seemingly endless hair growth that even weekly electrolysis couldn’t keep up with. I felt frustrated, alone, and helpeless. All of the doctors and endocrinologists I consulted with did their very best to help me within the range of their knowlege. Nothing was working. The emotional effects were devastating – I felt unattractive, lacked confidence, and avoided social contact.
But I kept looking for answers. My quest lead me to the field of natural therapies. I’d always had an interest in herbal medicine, but didn’t begin serious study in this area until my early 30s. It was while studying to become a clinical naturopath that I learnt about the effect that my diet (high fat, high sugar), my stress, and my level of fitness (poor) was having on my symptoms. I learnt about the hormones and the genetics that were driving my over-sensitivity to androgen hormones.
Then I applied the knowledge. I changed my diet. I got fit. I took herbs and nutritional supplements to curb the hair growth and improve my metabolism (insulin resistance is a feature of PCOS). My self esteem soared as I felt my body change. I learnt that my hair follicles were over-sensitive to androgen hormones, and now I had the tools to reduce my androgen levels to virtually zero. My new local doctor wasn’t convinced that I had ever suffered from PCOS until I showed her lab results and specialist letters from 10 years prior.
Its a joy to know that not only can I keep my own symptoms under control, but I know how to identify and treat PCOS in other women who are suffering. If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, I can assure you that there is a huge knowledge bank now about the disorder, and many different options for effective treatment.
But the genetic die has been cast for me, which is why I have a new androgen-driven health issue looming on the landscape of my journey with PCOS. The hairs on my head are also over-sensitised to androgens, which means that I am fighting off androgenic alopecia (female baldness). My head is threatening to go bald in a male-pattern if the thinning process isn’t halted before I reach menopause. Fortunately the outcome for me is more likely to be positive than my ancestors, as I have the tools and the knowledge to combat it. I’m sure the new field of laser treatment for hair regrowth is going to help me too. The future is bright.