On Monday, I shared my personal experience with PCOS over the past four years but I didn’t go into much detail on WHAT PCOS actually is. I believe this is so important to talk about because (not hating on my doctors) my initial education was rather vague and uninformative. I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. If you don’t understand what PCOS is and why your body is doing what it’s doing, how can you solve the problem?
I can’t remember how my doctors explained PCOS on the day of my official diagnosis because none of it made sense to me at the time. I was given a lot of to-do’s without any real reason as to why they were helpful. What I do remember is something about a testosterone level being high, a written prescription for Metformin, and a verbal instruction to eat well & keep working out because losing weight would help to alleviate my symptoms. But wait, didn’t you say that my condition caused me weight problem? I’m confused.
It bugged me that I didn’t understand WHY. I didn’t like the idea of being on a prescription like Metformin for most of my life, seeing as I was only 23 at the time. I felt like we were just putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg.
Later on when I came across PCOS Diet Support and Tarryn (who has certainly done her research), the lightbulb finally went on. I now understood WHY.
With that information in hand, I’ve improved my understanding on HOW to alleviate my symptoms. So today I want to get into a bit of scientific detail and share the helpful facts that I’ve learned along the way, friend to friend. Then tomorrow I’ll share some tips on how to transform this information into an action plan that is best for you.
I am by no means an expert or your doctor, so please utilize this as a starting point for your own research. Please, please, please.
LET’S LOOK AT SOME DEFINITIONS FIRST.
Right off the bat we gather that PCOS occurs when your hormones aren’t balanced correctly. Your hormones are part of a perfectly delicate balance, so it doesn’t take much to throw things off. Because of the hormonal affiliation, we can technically label this an endocrine disorder.
HealthGrades online states that the Endocrine system “…produces hormones, which are chemical signals sent out, or secreted, through the bloodstream. Hormones help the body regulate processes, such as appetite, breathing, growth, fluid balance, feminization and virilization, and weight control.”
A disorder of the endocrine glands would cause a disorder of hormone production, causing a domino effect with other systems that are reliant on those hormones. To give you a better idea, the most common endocrine disorders apart from PCOS include: diabetes, hyperthyroidism, and hypothyroidism.
OK, SO WHAT CAUSES THE HORMONAL IMBALANCE IN THE FIRST PLACE?
From what I’ve gathered, there is one common thread among women with PCOS: an irregularity of Beta cells.
You would find these pesky little cells in your pancreas where they are doing all things insulin. Beta cells & insulin, it’s like a teenage celebrity crush—beta cell’s world revolves around insulin. They create, stash, and send the insulin out whenever it’s needed elsewhere.
I also found this explanation from Diabetes.co.uk to be especially helpful when trying to understand how Beta cells work, “The main function of a beta cell is to produce and secrete insulin – the two responsible for regulating levels of glucose in the blood. When blood glucose levels start to rise (e.g. during digestion), beta cells quickly respond by secreting some of their stored insulin while at the same time increasing production of the hormone. This quick response to a spike in blood glucose usually takes about ten minutes.”
LETS RECAP WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR.
PCOS is an Endocrine Disorder, or hormonal imbalance, caused by an irregularity of the Beta Cells in the pancreas which is directly linked to your body’s insulin creation, storage, and dispersal.
HOW DOES INSULIN WORK?
Merriam & Webster say that insulin is “a protein pancreatic hormone secreted by the beta cells of the islets of Langerhans that is essential especially for the metabolism of carbohydrates and the regulation of glucose levels in the blood and that when insufficiently produced results in diabetes mellitus”…blah blah blah.
In layman’s terms, insulin helps your metabolism by dispersing your recently digested food (aka carbohydrates & sugars) to various parts of the body for fuel & storage in order to regulate your blood sugar levels.
This is how I envision it: Beta cells are down there doin’ their thing, creating and storing insulin in their little pancreas warehouse, waiting for a call from the boss to send out a shipment to meet the consumer’s demand. Yes, I have a very active imagination.
This TED-Ed video does a great job explaining all about the pancreas & insulin. For us visual learners, this is spot on!
HOW DO THE BETA CELLS AFFECT MY INSULIN?
Let’s say we’ve eaten dinner and now the Beta cells are being notified that there is glucose or sugar in your bloodstream, in turn the Beta cells notify the pancreas that it’s time to release the insulin. It’s like a game of Telephone.
But here’s the rub, those troubled Beta cells send out way too much insulin in response. As a result, your body doesn’t know what to do with the extra.
It sort of goes without saying but the types of food you eat will only make this worse. Foods high in sugar or glycemic load will cause your insulin to spike and release EVEN MORE insulin. And yes, that does include those tauntingly delicious Pumpkin Spice Lattes.
When there is extra insulin hanging around a few things happens: the excess insulin that doesn’t have any food or glucose to metabolize & regulate is sent off to be stored as fat. Yes. FAT. How thoughtful! Thank you for assuming that decision for me, body! Then the ovaries catch wind of this (which Lord knows, they should just mind their own business) and they decide to overreact, because they’re just overly sensitive. Well, when the ovaries are upset so is the testosterone—it’s kinda like a marriage. So the testosterone goes into hyper drive and produces too much of itself, probably trying to make the ovaries feel better.
It’s important to note that women need such a delicate balance of testosterone in their bodies, so when there is too much of it, it really messes things up.
Before we move on to testosterone, I want to mention that a lot of women with PCOS are also Insulin Resistant. This is a condition wherein your cells are failing to respond like they should to insulin. So instead of insulin transporting carbohydrates to your cells for energy, your cells resist the insulin and basically reject the energy source causing high blood sugar.
HOW DOES THIS HORMONE IMBALANCE AFFECT MY BODY?
The result of too much testosterone, spiking insulin, and hormones off kilter is frankly, too obvious. It’s a vicious cycle really. The more that your hormones remain out of whack, your symptoms will only get worse.
In addition, PCOS & insulin resistance is connected to chronic inflammation which makes you feel in a word, crappy. This contributes to that achey, fatigued feeling.
(Random story: when I was 16 I went to the Dr. repeatedly because of feeling exactly this way. Unable to focus, sore muscles, and inevitably tired. Their answer was anti-depressants and then finally they tossed Fibromyalgia my way as an answer to all of the negative tests. Knowing what I know now, I am almost positive that this issue started to rear its ugly head even then.)
You should know that the symptoms vary with each woman; some women may not even have ovarian cysts or loss of period. No, ovarian cysts do not define PCOS. *Truth bomb*
Personally, I struggle with all of the above symptoms save hair loss. And that’s only the physical aspect. Yeesh! Way to kick a girl while she’s down.
Side note: Just because you are experiencing the above symptoms does not mean that you have PCOS. Like I said before, there are other similar hormonal disorders that can cause similar symptoms. Please take the time to meet with your Dr. and verify the problem.
HOW CAN I BE DIAGNOSED WITH PCOS?
Honestly, it feels a lot like going through the process of elimination. It isn’t necessarily easy to determine because so many of these symptoms can be rooted in completely different conditions. So there’s a lot of combing through your medical history, monthly cycle, and recurring symptoms followed by a few rounds of bloodwork. After all of the tests came back negative, ruling out other chronic conditions, my doctor only found a high level of testosterone in otherwise healthy bloodwork. That paired with my symptoms made it seem likely that it was PCOS. Still my doctor didn’t want to confirm until I had met with an OB-GYN for an ovarian ultrasound.
The ten plus cysts on each ovary confirmed it.
The rule of thumb is that you have to have at two of three things: high testosterone, ovarian cysts, and/or irregular menses.
Make that one test that I aced like a pro.
SO WHAT IS PCOS?
PCOS is a chronic, endocrine disorder wherein irregularities of the pancreas’ Beta cells create too much insulin for the body to manage, resulting in heightened testosterone levels and potential symptoms such as: ovarian cysts, irregular menstrual cycle, infertility, weight gain, acne, hirsutism, alopecia, low libido, and mood swings. While there is currently no cure, the symptoms can be successfully managed with medication, supplements, diet, and exercise. This disorder is also known as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.
That’s a LOT to take in and I’m hoping that I’ve explained it all in a way that is easy to understand. And hey, if you have more questions or research to share COMMENT BELOW, folks! I’d love to hear from you.
Tomorrow I want to talk about what we can do with this information to start improving our PCOS symptoms and also share a few of the awesome, worthwhile resources that I’ve found along the way.