You can have it all planned out and be a responsible couple focusing their financial, social, mental, emotional and physical energies into preparing for a baby, and Mother Nature can throw a giant roadblock in your way. You quickly discover that everything is not like they tell you in middle school sex ed (or, like my favorite line from Mean Girls, "Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die").
I share this information today not to be TMI but to raise awareness of the fact that not everyone gets pregnant in the first month of trying, and that lots of people struggle silently with infertility. Seeing my friends and family around me getting pregnant in the first month or two made me think everyone must be that way, even though based on my reading and common sense I knew better. Dealing with this chapter in my life has been the worst thing I've been through to date, which I guess on one hand signifies that I've lived a rather fortunate life, but on the other hand reveals the lack of knowledge, lack of resources, and lack of tact lots of people possess when it comes to all things related to fertility. I hope that by sharing (the edited version of) what I've been through it can help others who are suffering silently. I know that in just the last week I've helped no less than four women who, it turns out, were either suffering themselves or have friends going through a similar struggle.
My own struggle with infertility began long before I received a diagnosis. When we started trying to conceive and we had no positive pregnancy test to show for it, I started to suspect something was wrong. I started reading up on causes of infertility and came across articles, blogs and message boards about a condition known as PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome). The more I read, the more I suspected this could be my condition. PCOS is the leading cause of female infertility, with an estimated 1 in 10 women suffering from this syndrome. Its most common symptoms include non-cancerous cysts on the ovaries, whacked-out hormones, and irregular periods. To be officially diagnosed a woman must have two out of the three criteria. It also carries with it a variety of other markers, none of which apply to all women, but some of which apply to many, such as weight control issues (nearly 75 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese) and insulin resistance.
After many months of trying, I called my doctor's office and spoke with the nurse, who reassured me that I'm "young" and that I need to "relax" because these things take time. She treated me like I'm a moron and disregarded the specific information I shared about myself and my experiences. So I emailed my doctor, who gave me a slightly better response, something along the lines of, "Keep track of things and be in touch in a few months." After a few more months I got back in touch with my doctor, who this time seemed actually concerned and brought me in rather quickly for testing. The test results were in a week later, and I could see the results online. I read up on what my results meant, and by that point I knew my fate: I officially had PCOS. When my doctor called me a day later and told me the news, even though I was mentally prepared it still stung to hear her say the term "PCOS" out loud, but it stung way more to hear her tell me that my chances of conceiving a child on my own were slim to none. She asked me what I wanted to do next: I could do nothing or I could start infertility treatment. I said I needed to process all this.
Instead of processing I went and I cried. A lot. At home, at work, in the car, in the middle of the night. I had a pity party. I ran a stop sign in my neighborhood and got pulled over by a cop for the first time in my life. In these Pits of Despair moments I obviously looked like a pathetic creature because the cop let me go rather quickly (after checking my perfect driving record) with a comment that I need to promise to take care of myself.
Then I decided it was time to take action. I asked my doctor what kind of lifestyle adjustments I could make to naturally control my PCOS. She said that because I do not fit with the majority of PCOS women who need to lose weight, there was nothing I could do except run more tests, take fertility drugs, and if that didn't work start IVF. So I made an appointment to have more tests and start drugs.
In the meantime I researched our library's offerings of fertility books. Turns out there are a lot of books about IVF and adoption, but only three books in the system about PCOS. One book was about dealing with obesity and PCOS, one wasn't available, and one was titled A Patient's Guide to PCOS: Understanding and Reversing Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. So I checked it out and read it in a couple hours. Then I read The Fertility Diet, PCOS and Your Fertility, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, Making Babies, and The G-Free Diet. I realized I wished I had spent winter break of 2008 reading about fertility rather than pregnancy.
As I did my research I realized that there is a link between PCOS and insulin resistance for virtually every woman diagnosed with the condition, even thin women like me with no detectable glucose intolerance nor insulin resistance in my blood work. One way to combat insulin resistance is through diet and exercise, more specifically a closely regulated gluten-free diet. So I contacted my doctor again and presented her with questions about the information I found. She again assured me that nothing I did in terms of diet or exercise would help me conceive.
Then I met a friend of a friend who learned to completely control her PCOS through a really strict diet that involves gluten-free eating, among many other things. I met with her one evening where she laid out for me (in Gold-Star-Award-Winning-Literally-Organized-Fashion) a packet of information she compiled about her experiences, her daily diet, and resources she's found over the years. I left our multi-hour meeting armed with knowledge (and, among many new book recommendations, one that particularly caught my attention called Nourishing Traditions). I also cancelled my first infertility appointment with my doctor the next day, telling the snotty nurse that I wasn't ready to be labeled infertile. I started 2011 with a new attitude (and a new bag).
So I plunged headfirst into a world of major lifestyle adjustments. I had never been on a specific diet before, and I had never had a reason to exercise every single day, but grappling with an infertility diagnosis and being determined to fix it certainly lit a fire under me.
Here's what I did in a nutshell:
- Fertility Friend daily charting -- If you want to conceive naturally but you're having difficulties, it's worth considering charting your basal body temperature (your temperature when you wake up each morning before you get out of bed). This is what you'll learn about in intense detail if you read Taking Charge of Your Fertility and you'll understand how temperature corresponds to the different stages of your cycle. Honestly, it does give you back a small feeling of control in an otherwise soul-crushing experience. For it to work, though, you have to temp at the same time each day. I would wake up at virtually the same time on the weekends as during the weekdays. I think my body was so stressed about conceiving that I had an internal clock that would jolt me awake at the same ridiculously early time of 5:15 Monday through Sunday. A word to the wise: DO NOT sign up for Fertility Friend VIP, which costs money and makes you insane. I only experienced FF VIP when I had it during a free trial period. Looking at its pregnancy symptoms analyzer will make you insane, constantly thinking, "This is the month!!!" only to face horrible disappointment soon after.
- Daily exercise -- at least 30 minutes of aerobics (in the form of Just Dance 2, of course), sometimes more, plus 45 minutes to one hour of strength training 2-3 times per week (in the form of Core Fusion Body Sculpt)
- Gluten-free diet with an emphasis on limited processed foods, lots of protein, plenty of fresh veggies and fruit and minimal sugar
- Green tea a few times a week
- Pomegranate juice a few times a week
- Whole-dairy products, such as organic whole milk
- No caffeine
- Extremely limited alcohol (like maybe one drink a month)
- Herbal supplements: vitex, red raspberry leaf (capsules, not tea)
- Vitamins: prenantal vitamin, B6, B12, D, E, cod liver oil, evening primrose oil (before ovulation)/flaxseed oil (after ovulation)
- scrambled eggs made with whole-fat milk and cheddar cheese (eggs are supposed to be one of the best foods for fertility, which seems fitting I suppose)
- fruit (usually blueberries or another "super food")
- hot chocolate w/ whole-fat milk OR orange juice OR both :)
- Greek yogurt (good for protein, especially)
- fruit (apple, orange, berries, melon, etc.)
- string cheese
- almonds and walnuts
- carrots, sometimes with hummus
This was the tricky part....I don't eat a ton of gluten to begin with, but we had to eliminate pasta (that we tend to make with our basil sauce) and pizza, two weeknight staples, so we had to try new stuff....Here are some example meals:
- grilled salmon with sweet potato baked fries and Brussels sprouts
- steak with asparagus and salad
- chicken tacos (with corn tortilla shells) with bean and corn salad
- shrimp with white beans and bacon
By the end of April I had my positive pregnancy test, so after about four months of following this plan I completely changed my PCOS symptoms and conceived naturally. And I never went back to my doctor who told me it was highly unlikely that I would conceive on my own. Instead, once I got pregnant I found a really proactive doctor very close to my house, and she's done an incredible job treating me as an individual (and talking to me on my level) and even bringing me in for extra appointments and blood work.
Through this ordeal I've learned:
1) Everyone is struggling with something.
2) It's impossible for me to cope with bad situations without relying on my closest friends for support, so thank you to you few special ladies who comprise my inner circle and helped keep me sane through all this.
3) Most people, myself included, know nothing about fertility, and many doctors are quick to rush to a one-size-fits-all treatment plan without addressing the root causes of an individual's fertility struggles.
4) You have to advocate for yourself.
5) You should NEVER ask ANYONE when they are planning to have children, because maybe they don't want kids, or maybe they've been struggling for months or years to conceive (or maybe they're already pregnant and smiling inside at the little secret within). And you definitely shouldn't complain if you've been trying to get pregnant for only a month or two and it hasn't worked yet. Someone might want to punch you in the face.
I am now somewhat of an advocate in my small way for PCOS awareness, and perhaps over time I will find more ways to become a more organized advocate. For now, though, I'll say that if you're interested in talking to me more, be in touch (if I know you in real life) or leave me your email address (if I don't know you personally). Just as I received help along the way, I hope I can serve as help along the way for others.
(Oh, and if you're like one of the people who thinks I am not teaching journalism anymore because I'm pregnant, sorry to break it to you but having a baby and not teaching journalism have nothing to do with each other. Everything I said before is true. I was done with teaching the class, baby or no baby [and when I decided to stop teaching it I had no idea if I would ever have a baby], and I wanted my afternoons back.)
UPDATE: Here is another strong woman's account of her struggle with PCOS. I am thrilled that we both made it to the other side and have due dates almost a month apart!