I’m 23 years old and I am having my first panic attack. I’m about to complete my doctorate in physical therapy, move in with my longterm boyfriend and start my career. But none of that feels important right now because I feel like I’m breaking apart and my body is literally shutting down.
I feel extreme fatigue, brain fog, radically flipping emotions, and overwhelm.
What’s equally troubling is that my period is irregular and often absent for months and when I do get it, I’m bedridden with pain for days straight.
As I feel my health slipping away, I feel clueless, helpless, and alone in what is going on and how to help myself get back on track. I finally squeezed in a short break from school to see my OBGYN about my periods and she performed an intravaginal ultrasound.
The diagnosis? PCOS - polycystic ovarian syndrome. She found that I had a bunch of cysts that make my ovaries look like chocolate chip cookies.
What it Means to have PCOS while Trying to Conceive: Q&A with Dr. Don Aptekar
As the doctor comments on the text book appearance and implications I feel my mind go blank.
I am stunned.
As a runner, a healthy eater, and someone who has been studying health for 7 years how is my own health so out of whack!? But there it is clear as day on the intravaginal ultrasound - multiple cysts in both of my ovaries.
I thought I had it all figured out - I hadn’t even graduated yet and I was already being nationally recognized as a leader in the field of physical therapy. But I had been moving so fast with so much motivation I hadn’t even noticed my body showing the early signs of suffering.
When my OBGYN prescribed birth control (and no other changes), I simply popped the pill and back to school I went. The pill regulated my period but not my other symptoms and as I was finishing up my final internship things started to get worse for me - more physical symptoms, pain throughout my whole body, and debilitating fatigue.
The anxiety was so bad it pushed me to end what was the most significant relationship of my life at that point. The pain, fatigue, and anxiety were so debilitating I honestly didn’t know if after 7 years in school, if I’d be able to finish the last two months.
My internship had me working with a daily patient load of 30 + people and each day felt like a marathon of effort just to survive.
Turning Point -
Despite my best efforts to hide my exhaustion my mentor at the time noticed that I was struggling. He took me aside and sternly said to me that if I was going to help people get better and be successful in my career I needed to know how to take care of myself first.
At first I remember being really angry with him. I felt simultaneously insulted and guilty for not being more healthy and energized. More than that though, I felt shame. I was winning awards, graduating at the top of my class, and felt that I knew how to help people.
So while at first it felt like a slap in my face, really it was the wake up call I needed. I was suffering and I needed to first accept that and then make changes fast or else I was headed toward a full blown autoimmune disorder or worse.
More than anything I desired to have a fulfilling career helping people, a life full of adventure, and a loving partner to share it with.
But I had to face the facts:
If I was going to fulfill my dream of being a practitioner that helps others thrive in life, I first needed to heal myself and start to thrive in my own life. If I was going to have the happy, healthy relationship that I so desired, I needed to make myself happy, strong, and emotionally resilient first.
AND, I knew that taking more pills and suppressing the symptoms was not the long term solution. I became determined to find the ROOT CAUSE of these symptoms. I was young and scared and honestly didn’t see many alternatives out there, but I was DETERMINED to find a way to get off of medications, and restore my health naturally.
It was a difficult shift to make. And at first I didn’t know what I needed to do. I didn't even have any income, yet but I decided I was going to do everything it took to uncover the solution to my health problems.
I started to change the way I thought about health completely. The body is dynamic and fluid, and I made it my mission to help the body do what it does best - and that’s heal.
Building Momentum -
For the next several years, I altered my life to master everything about nutrition and hormones and what it means to have a healthy lifestyle.
- I flew to India and studied Ayurveda
- I studied yoga and became a therapeutic yoga instructor
- I studied nutrition, habit science, developed cooking skills
- I learned how to put myself to bed at night and fall asleep deeply
- I learned how to wake myself up in the morning and feel energized for the day
- I went on retreats, danced in healing drumming circles, took a dip in the dead sea
- Practiced qi gong in the woods
- Lit candles and meditated
- Worked with prayer and gratitude practices
- Held onto crystals and did a breathing practice that felt like lamazze on crack
- I worked with integrative health coaches, worked with counselors to understand my anxiety, worked with a shaman, studied reiki
- I took an 8 week course on Mindfulness Based Meditation
- I tried different diets - went vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, soy free, dairy free, paleo
I read books, listened to live events, listened to podcasts, I did EVERYTHING I could to learn about health and the impact of stress on hormones. The more I learned, the more I realized that I could reverse the health symptoms and challenges.
It took me years of searching and learning and discovering to finally get to the health I have now.
And, what I found changed my life forever. I was now thriving, healthy, strong, competing in half marathons and had the strength and vitality to have adventures, show up whole and happy to relationships, and live the life I wanted to be living.
The Solution -
It's not true that the only way to get a natural period is to go on birth control (which, of course, is not a natural period). I learned how to heal my body and fixed my hormonal health imbalance, PCOS, not getting my period, painful periods and feeling exhausted all the time. And I learned how to do this with out pills by finding the root cause.
At the core of my comprehensive program is an understanding that we each have a unique mind-body type. The protocol starts with learning our unique needs and creating a personalized diet and lifestyle prescription to support it.
I'd like to share with you a major component of the protocol for women trying to conceive, the fertility diet.
What to eat to boost your fertility + fertility menu
Lean Proteins - Iron is a key nutrient to aid in fertility and one of the best source of iron is found in eating lean meat such as organic, grass-fed poultry, bison, and lamb. Studies suggest that women who bump up their iron intake have a higher fertility rate than women who are iron-deficient. Increasing iron intake is especially important in the second half of your cycle. Vegan sources include lentils, pumpkin seeds, or an iron supplement.
Healthy Fats - Omega 3’s are linked with improving fertility in preconception. Foods such as salmon, sardines, and herring are great sources. They increase blood flow to the reproductive organs and serve to regulate reproductive hormones. Vegan sources include flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds.
Whole Grains - Healthy carbs support healthy fertility. Eating a modest amount of whole grains is one of the best ways to keep blood sugars regulated, energy stabilized, and hormones balanced. Bear in mind that a whole grain is one that is unprocessed (quinoa, brown rice, and whole oats). Stay clear of while rice, white bread, and especially simple sugars that will spike blood sugar and disrupt your ovulation cycle.
Fruits + Veggies - Fruits and vegetables, especially those that are high in fiber, help to flush out excess estrogen. Choose fruits and veggies that are low glycemic such as raspberries, pears, green peas, fennel, asparagus, and zucchini. These foods are also high in antioxidants and nutrients such as folic that help to balance out hormones.
Sample Fertility Menu
- Breakfast: Mini muffin frittatas with asparagus and mushroom or Two eggs scrambled with kale
- Lunch: Zucchini noodle bowl with quinoa, toasted pepitas and a sesame lime dressing
- Snack: Handful of walnuts or chia nut energy bar
- Dinner: Roasted salmon with sautéed zucchini with simple olive oil, lemon, S&P to taste
- Dessert: fresh raspberries
Notice that there isn't any dessert other than fresh fruit. Sugar can be a major contributor to causing hormonal imbalance and can even disrupt ovulation (learn more here). Follow the above diet guidelines and start healing your body today.
Dr. Kyle Willets, DPT, AT, RYT:
Kyle is a doctor of physical therapy with over a decade of experience. She received high honors as a doctoral level graduate from Ithaca College and went on to be nationally recognized as a leader in the field. Currently she resides in Boulder, CO where she specializes in women’s wellness and fertility. Click here to learn more about Dr. Willets and what she does for her patients.