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Can Stress Make PCOS Worse?

After More Than a Decade of Battling PCOS, I'm Finally Free — Here's How

As a teenager, my periods were excruciating and irregular. I was blindsided with crippling cramps, so intense that I'd have to miss school or leave my after-school job — sometimes I'd even vomit. The thing was, I never knew when it was going to come, so the pain was always a surprise, and I was almost always caught off guard.

Symptoms compounded and worsened over the years, and by the time I was 22, I was finally diagnosed via ultrasound with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS — a chronic illness that (thanks to hormonal imbalances) affects weight, mood, skin, and hair and can cause severe pelvic pain and rupturing cysts. It can even result in infertility.

Over the years, I've used hormonal therapy treatments, diet, and exercise to treat my condition. Terrified that I might lose my chance at having kids someday, I turned to a combination of Western medicine (read: birth control pills and IUDs to manage my hormones) and Eastern medicine (read: acupuncture), while adding rigorous exercise to my routine to keep things balanced.

For a while, it seemed to be working just fine. In fact, there were seasons of life in which I forgot I had PCOS. It wasn't until the past few years that my symptoms returned, intensified, and literally came to a head with a rupturing cyst, and I ended up in the emergency room. The pain was so severe, I needed a double dose of morphine and was in the hospital for 12 hours.

My OBGYN took a blood panel and deemed me "marker free." The PCOS was gone.
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I didn't know what else to do, and neither did my doctors. My acupuncturist had a hunch, though — she was pretty certain my stress levels were significantly impacting my health, particularly the PCOS.

She was right; I was stressed, and this alarm sounding in my abdomen wasn't the only indication that my health was deteriorating. I decided to do a hard reboot on my life to get a hold on stress and see if I could turn things around.

Fast forward from November 2017 (the hospital visit) to the first week of June 2018: my OBGYN, who had diagnosed me years prior and has been my doctor for 10 years, took a blood panel to check on my condition and deemed me "marker free." Read: the PCOS was gone.

Stress can do insane things to the body, but can it contribute to chronic illness? "Absolutely," said Dr. Habib Sadeghi, DO, author of The Clarity Cleanse. "Research clearly shows stress suppresses the immune system, making us more vulnerable to everything from colds to cancer; the less stress we experience, the stronger we are."

"Controlling chronic stress is beneficial for any medical condition," said Dr. Stephanie Long, MD at One Medical. Though she noted not many studies have been done on the subject, Dr. Long told POPSUGAR that "stress may drive cortisol levels up [and thus] negatively impact insulin resistance." Why does this matter? "PCOS is driven by the impact of insulin resistance on the hormones controlling our menstrual cycles, egg maturation, and release from the ovaries. Thus, one could postulate that reducing stress is beneficial [for PCOS]."

"Becoming clear about the issues from our past that are driving us in the present and resolving them eliminates a lot of stress."

My acupuncturist, Dr. Magnolia Ng, agreed: "Stress can definitely intensify PCOS," she said. "Your adrenal glands produce hormones like DHEA, cortisol, and progesterone; therefore, when you are under stress, you may want to look into why you might be growing facial or chest hair, gaining weight, haven't had a menses in two to six months, or are having infertility issues — which are all signs and symptoms of PCOS."

With PCOS, your hormones are already working against you, so it's imperative to get your stress levels under control. And knowing all of this, you'll have to try it yourself; you have nothing to lose from reducing stress and so, so much to gain. Dr. Sadeghi — who's received the highest praises from Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, and Gwyneth Paltrow — told me that by reducing my stress and finding clarity, I allowed my body to heal.

"Much of our subconscious stress is due to issues from our past, some of which we may even have forgotten about," he said. "Becoming clear about the issues from our past that are driving us in the present and resolving them eliminates a lot of stress and helps the body respond better to illness and treatment."

Dr. Ng suggested five steps for treating stress and beating PCOS yourself:

  • "The first line of treatment for PCOS is to figure out your emotional triggers and traumas: chronic and acute, past and present."
  • "Eat a low-glycemic diet," she said. Sugar raises insulin levels, which may increase production of male hormones (called androgens), disrupting ovulation.
  • "Restorative exercises are important in bringing cortisol levels down; high-intensity exercises are not always recommended when your body is already exhausted and fatigued." So skip HIIT and get to Pilates or yoga, or take a walk!
  • "Acupuncture can help alleviate stress, calm the body and mind, and rebalance the body's blood and energy, known as qi. Studies have shown that low-frequency electroacupuncture is also very effective in relieving chronic tension from the body."
  • "Meditation," she said. An excellent way to quiet the mind and balance the body for just a few minutes each day — that collectively has a profound effect.

I've followed all of Dr. Ng's advice, all of Dr. Sadeghi's advice (including following his Clarity Cleanse), and then some. I made stress reduction and healing my number one priority and threw myself into self-care books, quiet time in nature, and a full-blown digital detox. And as you know, the results have been so much more than I could've hoped for.

Now it's your turn! If you've been battling PCOS yourself, or another chronic condition for that matter, take as much time as you can to mitigate stress and anxiety. Try meditation, and definitely consult a licensed therapist.

"Thankfully, now many means for mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy are quite literally in the palms of our hands with a variety of apps," Dr. Long said. If you prefer in-person stress-management support, she said, "One Medical has been offering a group-based stress reduction class in many of our markets for a few years with great success on reducing stress and anxiety symptoms on standardized measurement tools; it's such a great benefit for our patients and for me to have access to as a physician."

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