PCOS and pregnancy: It can happen
Heavy periods. That was really the only indicator that something wasn’t quite right. Each month my period would last 10 days, give or take, and was incredibly heavy. So heavy, in fact, that leaving the home became a meticulously planned event, in which I had to constantly keep an eye on the time to do a sanitary swap-out.
But still, even with the diligent attention to my nether regions, I experienced the dreaded leak-through on quite a few occasions. And before I even entered my 20s, I knew that on those few days when the flow was at its worse I had to always carry spare underwear and even trousers.
It wasn’t until I was 29 that a doctor decided that my heavy periods, along with the fact that I’d been on and off antibiotics most of my life for acne, might be a signal that something wasn’t quite right.
Blood was taken and tested and the results showed I had high levels of androgens, a group of hormones often thought of as “male hormones” as within this groups sits testosterone. I was also showing signs of insulin resistance, a precursor for type two diabetes.
Going through my results, the doctor finally stepped away from the medical jargon and, in the simplest terms, said that I was likely to be suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS for short.
He ran through what those androgens do to a woman’s body. For the one in five women in the UK who have PCOS, it makes it harder for them to lose weight. It triggers acne and excess hair on the face but hair thinning on the head. And it causes irregular periods, especially heavy and painful periods.
But I’ll never forget the moment he said that PCOS was the leading cause of infertility in women and that, to date, the medical world didn’t really know what caused it and there was no cure but only long-term management.
For a woman, like myself, who loves children, who never doubted that she would become a mum, I felt devastated. I kept turning the prospect of never having children around in my head and for the first few weeks, I just cried and cried.
But my tears soon turned to fury. It just seemed so unfair. Unfair that I had it. Unfair that I might not have babies. And definitely unfair that I had all the tell-tale signs for almost a decade and not one doctor looked into it my symptoms, instead I’d been on a rotation of contraceptive pills since I was 14.
It’s said that our bodies have a natural reaction to adversity. We go into fight or flight. And mine was to fight. I was going to give myself the best chance of getting pregnant by getting my body into tip-top shape and trying my best to balance my hormones.
But here’s the thing with PCOS, you could do all that and still not get pregnant. But my rationale was that infertility would always be a hard pill to swallow but it would be a little easier if I knew I’d made my body the best vessel for a baby it could be.
I started seeing a nutritionist who told me that insulin resistance meant my body was ignoring the insulin signal, which helps grab glucose out of the bloodstream and put it into our cells. That’s why I’d spent the best part of my life feeling constantly hungry and why it was particularly hard to lose weight.
So, I started following a high-fibre, high-protein but low-fat and low-carb diet, with at least 30 minutes of low-intensity exercise, like walking, a day for the next 12 months. And for the first time in my life, my weight stopped yo-yoing. I felt less erratic about my eating after spending most of my life swinging from trying to lose weight to giving up and eating whatever I wanted.
But most importantly, I finally felt less hungry. Or, if I’m really honest, hangry. And my skin started to clear up. My periods were still absolutely ruling my existence though but I felt more in-tune with body for the first time in my life.
In November 2015, I came off the pill. And all I could hear echoing in my head were those warning words from the doctor that those with PCOS had high levels of infertility. And if I did fall pregnant, there would be an increased risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including a higher rate of miscarriage.
Two months after trying, I fell pregnant but I couldn’t and wouldn’t count my blessings, fearing that at any point the pregnancy could be taken from me, until I was finally holding my whopper of a ten-pound baby, named Max, in September 2016.
Two years later, I got pregnant again and in April 2019 I gave birth to another healthy big baby called Georgie.
Two babies. Two healthy, chunky and adorable children. I was lucky. Extraordinarily lucky.
These days, living with PCOS is still a struggle at times.
I’m 36-years-old and have the spotty skin of a teenager. I’ve also made my peace with the fact I’ll always have to watch what I eat. And my periods are actually worse since having kids, where my stomach bloats to the size I was at seven months pregnant.
But I always think back to that day where the doctor said I had a high chance of not getting pregnant and that sinking feeling that I was having something so precious taken away from me so cruelly.
It’s not knowing if your body can fall pregnant that is harder than the excess hair or the raging periods or a bout of painful spots. But I wish I had told myself to take a breath and think, PCOS and infertility doesn’t automatically always go hand-in-hand.
You just really never know until you start trying.
Amy Nelmes Bissett is a British writer who has worked published in international titles, including Grazia, Refinery 29, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and The Independent.