My journey with PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, began when I decided to stop taking hormonal birth control in September of 2016. I made this decision after a nutritionist told me that the pill might be disrupting my digestion and mood. I found out very quickly that she was right about my mood being affected. As soon as I went off hormonal birth control my mood became more stable and positive, and I became less prone to anxiety and intense sadness. I was incredibly thankful to the nutritionist for suggesting this change that improving my experience of daily life. A residual effect that I couldn’t have predicted was uncovering the symptoms of a hormonal imbalance that had previously been masked by the effects hormonal birth control.
Before this journey, I actually didn’t know that on birth control you don’t have a real period. On the pill you have what is called a “withdrawal bleed” because your period isn’t initiated by the breaking down of an unfertilized egg, but rather, the drop in artificial estrogen circulating your body when you take the ‘sugar’ pills. When I stopped taking the pill, it took me three months to get my period because my body was dependent on those artificial hormones to know what to do. And that was normal, but what wasn’t normal is that it disappeared again for nine months. It took me two of those months to notice that something was off. It then took another 4 months to be taken seriously by a doctor, and finally receive a diagnosis (via ultrasound) of PCOS. My blood work also showed my estrogen was slightly low, my testosterone was slightly high, and my LH/FSH ratio was out of balance. I occasionally had intense pain in my ovaries. However, all those things were beneath my skin - they weren’t visible. While those issues concerned me, they weren’t of immediate concern because I wasn’t looking to have kids any time soon. What really upset me on a daily basis was the condition of my skin. I always had acne-prone skin, but now I was getting a new breakout every single day. Not only was this damaging the little amount of confidence I had at the time, they were also deep and painful. These breakouts would mainly occur on my chin and around my mouth, an area where acne is a sign of a hormonal imbalance according to Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines. I don’t have any photos from when my skin was the worst because I didn’t like to be in any photos at that time.
Although all the doctors I spoke to seemed to want me to go back on birth control for my skin issues and to “regulate” my cycle (as not having a regular period can become a risk for developing uterine cancer), I chose not to. This was a personal choice, based on the following:
I went on birth control at a young age to help my skin. One doctor explained that because of this, my body never had time to learn how to regulate my cycle on its own before artificial hormones regulated it for me. This was significant to me, because I wanted to let my body figure out how to have a menstrual cycle without the regulation from artificial hormones.
I already held existing knowledge and passion for nutrition and holistic methods of healing. This gave me confidence that I could access, understand, and apply the information I needed to heal my hormones without medication. I view this as a privilege that I obtained due to my education in kinesiology, ability to access the internet whenever I want, and financial capability to afford specialists like nutritionists. I don’t want to take away from the fact that my ability to go the “natural” route was heavily dependent on the privilege I hold.
Finally, I chose to go without medication because I had relatively mild symptoms. My symptoms were a missing period, occasional pain, and hormonal cystic acne. However, some women gain weight (developing the metabolic syndrome component of PCOS), are dealing with fertility issues, grow facial hair, or develop insulin resistance (also a symptom of the metabolic syndrome that can arise from PCOS). I felt that because my symptoms were more manageable, it was a safe decision to continue without medication. While my health issues were never life-threatening, I believe my symptoms were mild because I noticed I had PCOS relatively early. Many women don’t realize they have PCOS until they go off birth control when they are ready to have children, and by then the symptoms are worse. My symptoms aren’t a concern for my livelihood right now, but my condition is something I need to be mindful of in order to avoid it developing into something that does impact my quality of life.
I would never judge other women for taking the medication route, it just wasn’t a path that suited my interests, values, and goals. Every woman should have the option on how she wants to handle her own reproductive health. I want to make it clear that this is my story of my experience, and not medical advice on how other women should heal. This is not the only “right” way to balance hormones. I essentially went the route that I did because I wanted to know when my body was healing or reaching balance, instead of covering my symptoms like I had before. Even after I got my period back, it still took over a year to make my cycle regular. Nowadays, I am overjoyed to say that I have a regular cycle, between 28-32 days, naturally. While I am thrilled about clearing my skin, I am even happier with the close relationship I’ve developed with my body. I understand my patterns and cycles more intimately now, in a way I couldn’t while on birth control. I’m really proud of my body and the work I put in to get to this point. I know it can feel like a long and tireless journey, but I promise, it’s worth it.
My skin transformation is shown in the photos above, from left to right. The photo on the left is not the worst my skin was. As stated earlier in this post, I don’t have photos from when my skin was at its worst. At this point, most of my forehead acne had cleared, but around my mouth was still a problem. Not only that, but I was constantly embarrassed and ashamed of the condition of my skin. I felt judged, because I put so much effort into my health, yet I still appeared to be unhealthy. The middle photo is about 4 months after the photo on the left. Most of my acne had cleared, and I occasionally got a breakout around my mouth. The final photo on the right was taken in November 2018, 7 months later (with some good lighting, but no makeup ). I rarely get breakouts, and when I do, they no longer leave scars and are easily manageable. I still have, and will always have, acne-prone skin. That’s just my skin type. My skin isn’t perfect, but I am happy with where it is at now.
With my little personal history out of the way, there’s a big question that remains: if not through medication, what did I do to balance my hormones? The answer falls into 3 main categories: diet, skincare, and lifestyle. All the facts I share in this post are gathered from multiple sources like blogs, youtube videos, scientific articles, and conversations with a nutritionist. The information I use here is updated to my very best knowledge, but always feel free to fact-check health columns! There is plenty of research out there, much of which contradicts previous studies. It’s good to be accountable for the information you consume, especially if your health is concerned. If something I share here is incorrect or doesn’t align with your beliefs, leave a comment below to add to the conversation. With that, let’s get into what exactly I did to balance my hormones, and clear my skin.
left to right: maca hot cocoa, 'Berry Friendly Smoothie', basil alfredo zucchini noodles made with a cashew-based sauce
I ate a low sugar diet. Because many women with PCOS have insulin resistance, it is recommended to eat a diet low in sugar in order to avoid insulin spikes, which mess with the way testosterone circulates your body, and ends up worsening the symptoms. I avoided processed sugar, but also decreased my consumption of fruits high in sugar, like bananas and mangoes, and swapped them for low-sugar fruits like berries.
I ate more healthy fats. Like, lots. Probably 50% of my calories came from fats. Fats are required for hormone regulation, because hormones are fat-soluble and therefore rely on fats to enact on cells. Fats are your friend! My favourite sources are avocado, coconut yogurt, nut butters, seeds, hummus, and avocado oil. Add in a fat to every meal to make it easier to get enough, e.g. frozen avocado and coconut yogurt in your smoothies instead of banana, pumpkin seeds and homemade salad dressing into salads, and using cashews or tahini to make creamy sauces for roasted veggies or pasta! It’s all in those little swaps. Chia seed puddings and energy bites are also great healthy fat snacks - you can find recipes for both of these under the ‘Recipes’ section of Joy&Wild.
I decreased my gluten intake. Yeah, I’ll be honest, I don’t really know the science behind this, but it was recommended by nearly every source I looked at. I absolutely love gluten. But to me, eliminating some of the gluten in my diet was a way to replace bread with something more nutrient-dense like collard green wraps. Which takes me to my next point.
I focused on micronutrients. Everything in the body is connected. Certain nutrients become more bioavailable, or easier for the body to absorb and utilize, if they are consumed in conjunction with other nutrients. A classic example is how iron becomes more bioavailable if taken at the same time as vitamin C. So by focusing on consuming as many micronutrients as I could through leafy greens and lots of veggies, I was aiming to ensure my levels of vitamins and minerals in my body were sufficient for optimal health. While this isn’t a direct route to balancing hormones, I figured that if my body had the nutrients it needed, it would be able to spend energy on balancing my hormones. I have no idea if this concept is legit, but it made sense to me, and I think it helped.
I don’t consume dairy. There’s really not much that dairy has going for it in terms of balancing of hormones. In fact, many people have cleared their hormonal acne solely by eliminating dairy. I have many reasons that I personally don’t consume dairy, but if you need more info on the reasons to avoid it when healing your skin, I encourage you to do your own research!
I emphasized healing my digestion. Your gut health has an undeniable effect on your overall health. Research has shown neural pathways directly from your gastrointestinal tract to your brain, making what you eat and how that’s absorbed have a huge influence on your mental health. Not only that, but whether or not you’re absorbing your food is dependent on pre and probiotics in your diet. Without a healthy microbiome (the bacteria in your gut - the good and the bad), it won’t matter if you’re eating healthy foods, because your body can’t absorb the nutrients. I noticed a huge improvement in the acne on my forehead (the zone of your face where digestion-related acne shows up) by consuming a probiotic pill every day, trying to eat fermented foods, and including prebiotic foods such as garlic, onion, and asparagus in my meals.
I supplemented with herbs, like Vitex and maca root. It’s important to understand that Vitex is a fairly aggressive herb and therefore is not recommended for teenage girls because it has the potential to impose on proper development of their cycles. That being said, I believe Vitex played a large role in getting my period back. The research is pretty well in favour of it being effective IF it’s taken very regularly for at least three months. I took Vitex every day as soon as I woke up for three months, finally getting my period back in October 2017. As for maca, I wasn’t totally convinced that it was legit. However, when I stopped taking it I noticed my cycles were longer (49-65 days long) and when I was taking it regularly, I started seeing more regular-length cycles (less than 39 days). Maybe it was the maca, maybe it was something else. I personally believe it was the maca, and I love the taste of it anyways, so it was a win-win. I recommend adding it to a chocolate-flavoured smoothie or homemade hot chocolate!
Exfoliation, turns out, is pretty key for acne-prone skin. By chemically (not physically) exfoliating on a regular basis, you remove a lot of what clogs your pores in the first place. I found this made a huge difference. Make sure to protect your skin with SPF, as chemical exfoliants will make your skin more sensitive to the sun. My fave exfoliating products included AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or glycolic acid.
Double-cleansing is the best way to ensure you get all the makeup and dirt off your face before you go to bed. I would first use an oil cleanser to take off my makeup without stripping my skin of moisture, then use a normal cleanser or exfoliating cleanser to, well, clean my skin. I got fewer breakouts when using this method compared to using makeup remover, and was pleasantly surprised that oils didn’t have an adverse effect on my skin.
No makeup days can be difficult to build up the courage for, but my skin really appreciated the break from being covered up. I noticed my skin would breakout more on days I wore makeup, and less on days I went makeup-free.
Zinc was a very important ingredient for getting rid of a breakout and preventing more from occurring. I used a serum with zinc in it at night time, between cleansing and putting on moisturizer. I still use this tip today!
Don’t pick your skin (the wrong way)! I read an article that essentially said you shouldn’t pick your skin under most circumstances, but there are some circumstances and some methods that make it less terrible for your skin. For me, this was a more realistic goal, because completely avoiding picking my skin was impossible. I needed that sense of control. So, I don’t pick my skin if the breakout isn’t too noticeable. I don’t pick my skin if the breakout is still red or deep under the surface. I only pick my skin if I use a tissue over my fingertips, to avoid getting dirt into the pore. I always wash my face or apply a treatment after I pick my skin. Yep, I know it’s kinda gross, but I want to keep it real.
Routine - ya gotta stick with a routine to find out what works for you.
Herbal tincture for rough weeks only. When I am preparing for a trip or an important event, I use a herbal tincture from St. Francis Herb Farm called “ClearGlow Skin Conditions." It tastes like dirt, because it’s mostly made from roots. It also works really well! It’s not meant for everyday use, but for a week at a time.
I tried (my very best) to stress less. I know, this is easier said than done. Mindfulness exercises, spending time in nature, and establishing a calming night routine (hello, magnesium supplement) made the biggest difference in keeping my stress hormones lower, which made it easier for my other hormones to balance. Find ways that minimize stress for you - whatever that may be!
I focused on my circulation. By exercising and getting my blood flowing, I helped my bod get rid of anything that wasn’t useful. Moving regularly also helped with my mental health and lowering my stress levels. The benefits of exercising are nearly endless, so it can’t hurt to try. I also started dry-brushing to improve my circulation - not sure if the benefits are legit, but it feels really nice.
Talk to your people. This is so key, because dealing with a health issue can feel very isolating. I talked to friends who were also struggling with skin issues, and I found a sense of being understood. I felt like I wasn’t alone. I confided in my closest people about how I was worried I wouldn’t be able to have children because of PCOS, how I was so frustrated with the slow pace of my healing that I was considering going back on birth control, and how I was worried that if I gain weight I’ll get metabolic syndrome and need to take medication the rest of my life. Talking it out and utilizing my support network was a key factor in getting to where I am today. I am so grateful for all my friends and family who were there for me when I was figuring everything out.
That was a lot of information. Wow. If you made it this far, congratulations and thanks for reading! Take from my story what you will, but I hope that one thing you take away is that a health journey is just that - a journey. Do I obey all these rules all the time? Heck, no! I use these tips as guidelines, but I still go out for dinner with my friends and I still eat copious amounts of Alter Eco Quinoa Crunch dark chocolate and I still skip workouts for weeks at a time. Just do your best. Listen to your body. Understand that everyone is different and what works for somebody else might not work for you.
Prioritizing your health may not always feel convenient or easy, but looking back I can say with confidence that achieving my health goal of balancing my hormones, getting my period back, and clearing my skin was worth every struggle along the way.