In a year when PCOS health projects have soared in my private practice, I have had the honor of meeting an amazing woman who has dedicated a website to her 12 month PCOS challenge.
On her website and Instagram account, Amber, from The Preggers Kitchen, shares lifestyle and nutritional tips and recipes that she has been using to regulate her cycles! A lovely bonus is that Amber also shares her Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) charts (from her Kindara app) to record her progress. All of which can be found at her beautiful website, The Preggers Kitchen.
Amber is inspiring many of us around the world as she shares in her pursuit of goals to reclaim her health and take back control of her cycles. So when Amber graciously agreed to let me ask questions about her quest, I was thrilled!
This article is one I highly recommend for all menstruators. Amber's experiences are encouraging to those with PCOS, but also quite helpful for anyone who is looking for motivation to balance their cycles.
For this article, you'll see many of my questions for Amber function to learn about her specific approach to setting goals and what her journey has been like with specific lifestyle changes. I highlight Amber's goal setting process because research shows setting S.M.A.R.T Goals (along with making Vision Boards, for example) exponentially increase one's success.
My hope for you is that you will also be inspired by Amber's PCOS challenge and take up your own set of goals and creative ways to pursue holding to them. As always, for individualized information please see your Health Practitioner.
• What is the personal goal you set for beating PCOS and infertility?
At the beginning of 2016 I set myself a 12 month challenge to regulate my cycles. My challenge was inspired by the book ‘Mum’s Not Having Chemo’ by Laura Bond. The author’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and declined chemotherapy in favour of healing her cancer naturally, without any harsh or toxic medications. Within 2 years she had completely reversed her cancer and was given the all clear. When reading this book was a light bulb moment for me. If it is possible to beat advanced cancer by taking control of your own health then surely I could beat infertility. So I designed and set myself the 12 month challenge with the goal that by December 2016 I would have cycles which are:
1. Are less than 35 days long
2. Vary in length by no more than 2 days from the previous cycle
3. Ovulation occurs before day 20
4. Have a normal luteal phase of 12-14 days
For some women these 4 aims may not look challenging, but for me they are my personal Mount Everest. For context, in 2015 I didn’t have a single cycle that met all 4 of these conditions and half my cycles met none of them. This was despite consciously focusing on my health in preparation for becoming pregnant and trying to lengthen my luteal phase. This was going to be quite a challenge, and I feared that I'd set the bar so high that there would be no chance of me clearing it.
· How did you decide to set a goal and what can you say to encourage others about the power of setting goals?
My main goal is to get pregnant, but anyone who has struggled with fertility will know how overwhelming that goal can seem and how powerless you feel about making it a reality. What has really helped me is to focus on the aspects that are within my control. I may not be able to control pregnancy, but I can control my cycles – and I have to trust that one will lead to the other.
Setting goals can be really powerful and the lesson I have learnt are:
1. Have A, B, C goals – I first heard about this in relation to marathon running and I have since applied it to fertility. You’re A goal is the biggie, your main aim, the one that seems completely out of your reach and brings you out in cold sweats. Your B goal also seems laughably hard, your C goal is an achievable challenge and any D goal is totally doable.
For example, my fertility A, B, C goals are:
• A – to get pregnant,
• B – to have totally regular and fertile cycles,
• C – to have all blood test results for fertility within the normal ranges,
• D – to be healthier and to fix my digestive problems.
You may miss one or two of your goals, but chances are you won’t miss them all. I’m not going to reach my A goal by the end of 2016, and my B goal is touch and go too. But that's OK because I met goal C and smashed goal D.
2. Be bold – I am a sucker for picking the low hanging fruit and setting tasks that are too easy to achieve. The first item on my to-do list is always ‘to write a to-do list’ so that when I get to the bottom I can immediate tick off the first task. Pointless! I've learnt to dream big with my goals. The temptation is always to make the goal more realistic so that you don’t fail, but if you have A, B, C goals you don’t need them to all be realistic. There is no point in putting effort into a goal only to achieve it and think‘so what’.
If someone waved a magic wand and you could wake up tomorrow in your new reality, what would that be? Those should be your A and B goals. When setting my 12 month challenge I looked at online medical research as to the characteristics of the most fertile cycles. This formed my B goal. Was it realistic? Nope. Was there a strong chance that I would fail? Yep. But I didn’t care. The only person I would be cheating by tinkering with the goal is the same person I would disappoint by not meeting it - me. And I’m OK with that.
3. Break it down – Breaking my goal down into small and manageable targets was essential for me not to feel overwhelmed. I researched and set out the steps I could take to meet my goal, which are the ten food and lifestyle steps set out on my website. Focusing on just one step at a time was really important for me in the beginning, as lifestyle changes can feel all too much if you try to tackle too many at once. In January 2016 I tried to go gluten free, sugar free and change my exercise routine. I crashed and burned. I needed to just focus on one small change at a time and once that change had become routine, then add another small positive step.
4. Go public with your goals – I publish my cycle results on my website each month and I can’t tell you the number of times that my hand has been kept out of the biscuit tin by the thought of having to post a bad cycle, caused by my inability to stop stuffing my face with sugar. We are all different, but for me having public accountability keeps me on track and reminds me why I am doing this during those moments of weakness. I know that fertility struggles and charting are very personal issues and many women would't want work colleagues, friends and family to know their goals. But if someone is looking for public accountability without revealing their identify they could join a local meet-up or support network, post cycles to the Kindara community, post progress on Instagram or Twitter, or start a blog. It has definitely helped to keep me on track.
5. It won't go smoothly all of the time - Be prepared for that and don’t panic. In January 2016 I was so excited and dedicated about starting my challenge that enthusiasm was oozing from my pores. And the result? My first cycle was an absolute shocker. I had a luteal phase of 6 days, my worst on record by a country mile. But I recognised that every challenge has its ups and downs, set backs and successes. I just had to trust in the process and have faith that all the research and advice on how to regulate cycles was right and would get me there.
• What are the top 5 changes overall that you have made in your diet or lifestyle that are impacting your cycle health?
1) Dietary changes: Fixing my gut issues and eating a home cooked, wholefood, organic diet with limited sugar and plenty of protein to balance the impact of carbohydrates on my blood sugar levels.
2) Reducing stress: I have calmed my mind and body through mediation (I love the Headspace app and Circle & Bloom meditation), yoga and breathing exercises. This helped me to reduce my abnormally high levels of prolactin (a hormone that can be elevated due to stress and can cause infertility) back to within normal range within 6 months.
3) Vitamins: High quality vitamin C, B12 and B6 (folinic acid not folic acid) has helped to increase my stubbornly short luteal phase when nothing else I tried seemed to make a difference.
4) Developing a sleep regime and getting plenty of kip has made me healthier and better able to cope with the stress of infertility, as well as giving me the energy to stay enthusiastic about my other lifestyle changes.
5) Increasing good fertility exercise (e.g. yoga, walking and gentle running) which raise my pulse and get me sweaty whilst reducing fertility unfriendly exercise (marathon running and endurance training) which overly stress my body and could mess with my hormonal balance.
• What types of cycle changes have you begun to see already in your fertility charting?
I started my challenge in January 2016 and in September 2016 I had my first cycle that met all of my conditions, which was extraordinary exciting for me. I now consistently ovulate in less than 20 days and my cycles are pretty regular, but where I am still working hard is to increase the length of my pesky luteal phase, which is stubborn.
If I compare my latest cycle (November 2016) with my November cycle the year before, which was just before beginning my 12 month challenge, the differences are incredible. In my last cycle I ovulated 12 days earlier (on cycle day 18), my luteal phase was 1 days longer (11 days in length), my cycle was 1 week shorter (30 days long) and varied by only 1 day from the previous cycle (in November 2015 it varied by 7 days from he previous cycle).
• Were you surprised to see changes so quickly?
The speed of change was both shockingly fast and frustrating slow in equal measure. I have been having long and irregular periods for 22 years and, apart from 4-5 years of fake periods when on birth control. So to be able to dramatically alter the cycle that I have had for all of my life in in less than a year is shocking.
But on the other hand, at times the changes seem to pass at a snail’s pace. All that hard work and dedication and my ovulation only moves forward by a day each cycle and the luteal phase, when it budges at all, is increasing only by around half a day per cycle. It has been important for me to look back at how far I had come from 2015. All the small accumulative changes each month, which don’t look much when compared to the last cycle, suddenly add up to dramatic progress.
• What are tips have you found to help with reducing your sugar intake?
1) Sarah Wilson, beautiful Australian cook-book author and my sugar-free guru, says to check the food labels in supermarkets and only buy foods that contain less than 6g per 100g's of sugar. This has been a real eye-opener and I was surprised by how many savoury foods that I would have happily munched on previously without a second thought fail this test. Condiments, pickles and cereals are real offenders, so be wary of those!
2) Going gluten free has helped with reducing my sugar in-take at work. In our office we have a ‘treats area’ in which co-workers deposit all sorts for delicious biscuits and cakes for anyone to help themselves. I no longer struggle to resist because you can guarantee that there will be nothing gluten free in the treat area and I repeat to myself “I do not eat gluten. I do not eat gluten” as I walk by on my way to making a cup of tea.
3) Not keeping sweet treats in the house has spared me many a weak moment of overindulging. By the time I have debated with myself whether to change out of my PJs (which I nearly always wear when I’m at home) and walk to the shops, my sugar craving has passed.
4) Drinking chai tea, which is sweet but not sugary, and having a tea break ritual of creating a nice cuppa can really help. Sometimes it isn’t so much that I want something sweet but that I want a break from my desk, or something to eat or drink whilst watching TV. Tea fills this gap for me.
5) Switching my chocolate bars and treats for 80%+ dark chocolate. It is so rich and bitter that after a couple of squares I have had enough. I am trying to train my taste buds to delight in 100% chocolate, but I have so far faced resistance. It is just so bitter!
• Did you struggle with implementing any of these self-care actions to restore fertility? Which one(s) took the most effort to change?
To be honest, I have struggled with all of my self-care actions at some point over the last year, but the most troublesome step for me was probably reducing my toxic load. This was a whole new world of which I previously knew very little and so I didn’t have a natural instinct for what was good or bad for me. I was beginning from a standing start. It was the most costly and time consuming action, cycling out the toxic personal care and household products (chemical cleaning products, hormone disrupting lotions, plastic food containers, to name just a few) and replacing them gradually over time with natural, non-toxic, non-plastic equivalents.
It has also been the most difficult action to ‘sell’ to my husband, despite him being 100% behind all my other health and lifestyle changes. The benefits of organic food, additional sleep, more exercise etc are much more commonly understood, but being particular about no longer using what are thought to be harmless everyday products is considered to be ‘taking it all a bit too far’. This seems to be based on the logical, yet unfortunately completely false, assumption that these products would not be allowed for sale if they harmed our health. There are thousands of chemicals for which the health impacts have never been tested and even for chemicals that are proven to impact on human health and fertility (e.g. BPA) they are still allowed in consumer products. And they are just everywhere!
It took time, effort, trial and error to find non-toxic personal care products that were effective and which smelt pleasant to me. Often they smell a little too ‘hippie’ for me and fail what is known in our house as the ‘Aunt Sheila sniff test’*. It takes considerable effort to keep these chemicals out of my body and my home, and this is something that I will be gradually improving for many years to come.
*Aunt Sheila is my husband’s Aunt who is wonderfully bohemian, sings to the sea, believes that mountains are sleeping dragons waiting to take back the earth and generally smells of lavender and calendula. Smelling like Aunt Sheila is an anti-aphrodisiac for my husband and does nothing to encourage baby making.
· What hope have you learned about reversing PCOS that you could share with someone who has PCOS?
In some ways I think I am lucky to have PCOS. Not as lucky as someone who has no fertility issues, obviously, but out of all the myriad of fertility problems that I could have, PCOS is one that I can entirely control, treat and manage myself. In my mind this makes it the best outcome in a bad situation, a bit like being run over by an ambulance.
22 years of periods has taught me that my long, irregular and infertile cycles, if left to their own devices, would happily rule the rest of my life. The passage of time would do nothing to fix them. But the past year has shown me just how achievable it is to get my cycles under control. Changes may appear slow at the time, but I kept at it and its making a dramatic difference. It may have taken me 9-12 months, and I still have some work left to do, but now for the first time in my life I can genuinely say "Regular cycles? Yep, I have those".
About the Author:
Amber is the founder of The Preggers Kitchen, a website dedicated to her 12 month personal challenge to regulate her menstrual cycles, beat PCOS and infertility through healthy eating and natural lifestyle changes. In addition to information, research, tips and recipes, The Preggers Kitchen also contains monthly fertility charts showing the impact of healthy lifestyle changes over the course of the year.
You can find Amber online at www.thepreggerskitchen.com