Updated: Sep 7, 2021
You ask many professionals in the Sports Performance industry what their thoughts are on Keto and most of them will laugh in your face or walk away without responding- which in truth is response enough. Many of my colleagues think it is a fad diet, it’s unhealthy, and athletes shouldn’t be doing it. And in many senses they aren’t wrong. For many years I felt the same way. Until I didn’t anymore.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a bit. Let me share with you a variety of seemingly disconnected conversations that were in fact a part of my path to healing my body. Something I didn’t even know I needed at the time.
“YOU’RE FINE. IT JUST HAPPENS TO SOME WOMEN AND WE DON’T REALLY KNOW WHY”
The year is somewhere between 2012-2013 and I am sitting in my Doctor’s office. For the first time in my life I finally had the courage to admit to someone else, besides my closest friends, that I had this patch of hair growing on my neck. I mean who wants to admit that they have a section of their neck and chin, that if not groomed religiously, looks like a man’s beard. At the time, in my younger years and MUCH lower levels of self-confidence I was extremely embarrassed by this.
I finally worked up the courage to bring it up to my Doctor at the end of a routine check-up, to shyly ask about the patch of hair. She all but laughed at me, asking why I was even there, as a young healthy woman. “You’re fine. It just happens to some women and we don’t really know why. I wouldn’t worry about it”. Read between the lines: Stop worrying, you’re healthy and you’re not sick. You don’t event need to be here. So I pushed down the creeping feeling that there was something more going on and left the office happily believing that my instincts weren’t accurate and I could live worry free. Because the doctor said so right?
But that creeping sensation kept lurking. Throughout the next few years, I brought it up to several health and medical professionals I was working with as a competitive athlete. Each time it was casually brushed off as just a cosmetic concern and nothing to actually worry about. Until one day, I was having lunch with several girlfriends and brought it up again, asking if anyone had gone through the same thing. One of my good friends at that meal happened to be a Doctor and she said outright, “Cait if you were my patient I’d at the very least have you do bloodwork to see if there are any underlying concerns”. And she was right, our bodies don’t just do things to mess with our cosmetic insecurities, as much as it may feel that way at times. Symptoms like the hair growth I was experiencing are usually just the tip of the iceberg of the health iceberg.
WE’LL HAVE TO DO BLOODWORK BUT I CAN ALMOST GUARANTEE THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE.
It took me almost three more years after that conversation to actually get my bloodwork done. I mean why would I be in a rush? I was the healthiest I had ever been. Was training 5-6 days a week as a competitive weightlifter, had lost over 70 pounds in the span of 5 years, and figured life was good. Until it wasn’t.
Suddenly its 2016 and I am gaining weight again, even with the same level of nutritional monitoring I had been before. i no longer have the energy or desire to compete or even train for that matter. I am experiencing significant levels of stress, anxiety and mood swings. It was time.
I braced myself for a difficult conversation with a new Doctor to demand bloodwork. After the usual check-ups and sitting through him lecturing me on my nutrition (yes Doc I actually know a whole lot about nutrition- its not working though- I promise Im not making that up), I finally asked. He took one look at my neck and said “I bet you have PCOS. We’ll have to do bloodwork but I can almost guarantee this is what you have.”
EXCUSE ME, PCO-WHAT?
Turns out this is in fact what I had, do have. PCOS. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. The bloodwork confirmed it and all the lovely additional symptoms it can produce for many women. In March of 2017 I was finally diagnosed with something I have had since my early teens. I was finally told that I am a part of the statistic that according to the CDC “…affecting 6% to 12% (as many as 5 million) of US women of reproductive age” Kind of a broad statistic, right? Well that’s because PCOS still isn’t very well understood. What we do know it is a hormonal disorder and a metabolic syndrome. A woman with PCOS can have some or all of the following symptoms/repercussions:
Higher level of androgens (male hormones)
Insulin Resistance (can lead to diabetes) —> weight gain or difficulty losing weight
High Blood Pressure
Cysts on the ovaries
Increased episodes of depression and Anxiety
Hirsituism (male pattern hair growth)
Excessive hair loss
And this began my two year journey to figuring out what my PCOS actually meant for me and how to manage it. I am grateful for that Doctor who believed me and did bloodwork, and his humbleness to send me to a different doctor that in his mind could help me more than he could. He sent me to a gynecologist, but what many people don’t realize is that PCOS isn’t a gynecological issue, yes it has to do with women’s reproductive systems but not JUST that. Shortly after being diagnosed I walked out of another Doctor’s office frustrated, overwhelmed and a little bit scared. Very much like that doctor I had seen back in 2012, she blew me off and just said that I could start taking metformin and some of my symptoms would go away. But I wanted more than that. I flat out asked her if that would actually treat the PCOS. She didn’t know how to handle that question, because in fact it wouldn’t, it would only treat a few of my symptoms, not get to the root of the problem.
So I left and I found someone who would work with me to understand and treat the underlying hormonal imbalances that were leading to all of the symptoms. I began managing the symptoms with gentle exercise (super hard for a former competitive athlete), significant stress reduction (eventually changed my career path), and took vitamins & supplementation based on my bloodwork. Yet it still wasn’t quite enough.
MY COUSIN SAVED MY LIFE.
As I was quietly working on managing my PCOS, finding my own healthy path, my cousin JJ was battling stage a stage 4 GBM brain tumor. He and his wife were utilizing a variety of alternative methods to support his body and complement the treatments his doctors were recommending. In the Fall of 2018, one of those approaches was Keto. As a strength coach for competitive athletes, I didn’t believe in Keto, if Im being honest, the coach in me still doesn’t. We need carbs to perform. But I wanted to support him with where he was. I wanted to find ways to use my meal prep and macro knowledge to help is wife prepare meals he could eat.
And it was during this time that I was exposed to the world of Naturopathic Doctors (NDs) and Keto not as a quick fix weight-loss fad. But Keto as it was originally intended when it was first created in the mid- 20th century- to manage seizures for epileptic patients. As I started to dig into the research and reading on keto for cancer patients I kept coming across nods to keto helping regulate hormones and manage insulin resistance. It was like a lightbulb went off- these were my two biggest PCOS symptoms. What started out as a way of eating to support my cousin who was eating in such a restricted way, turned into a long-term additional tool to help me manage my PCOS. I like to think that it was helpful for JJ to know someone else was doing Keto with him, but in reality the conversations he and I had that fall, and the ongoing conversations his wife and I have had around nutrition are a big part of my ability to manage my PCOS.
On Friday, I got off a video call with my ND in tears. For the first time in almost two years, none of my bloodwork was showing signs of PCOS. My hormones were back and level, and my insulin resistance was nonexistent. It’s been a long slow winding path with some elements of the rollercoaster ups and downs, but for the first time Im feeling hopeful that I can continue to manage the PCOS and the ongoing healthy risks that come with that. It has taken sacrifices and standing back up after mess ups. It has taken hard conversations with family and friends. And most of all it has taken FINALLY listening to that little voice inside (that isn’t so little anymore), continuing to advocate for myself, seeking out support, and putting my health first as one of my biggest priorities. Im not saying that my PCOS is gone, I think that would be a naive assumption to make, but I am saying that I have found a balance of tools and approaches that have worked for me.
I wrote this post for a few reasons. To give myself a space to get everything down in one place. In hopes that my story may resonate for other women with PCOS or hormonal health issues. To bring to light, that while Doctors and experts are a huge support for us, second and sometimes even third opinions are important and necessary. I want other women to know that it is ok to advocate for themselves even when it isn’t easy.
I don’t push or support Keto for everyone, none of my competitive athletes follow that way of eating, but I have found and lived the benefits of it for such a scary and intense hormonal disorder. I have successfully used it as one of my tools in my own management of PCOS and have had success guiding other women through their own approaches to nutrition, PCOS management, and longterm health.
Like my journey in weightlifting from novice, to athlete, to now coach and educator, I am excited to see where my journey with PCOS can help other women facing their own battles with this disorder. Im excited to continue to research and seek out knowledge and guidance around these topics, begin to provide education opportunities for women looking to take control of their own health journeys, and offer coaching to women and others on ways to manage PCOS (with support from their medical practitioners of course).