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PCOS Awareness Month 2021: Millennial Doctors and Activists Debunk Myths

By: Shaoni Sarkar

News18.com

Last Updated: September 07, 2021, 12:08 IST

 From body-shaming to discrimination, women suffering from PCOS have a hard time opening up about it.

From body-shaming to discrimination, women suffering from PCOS have a hard time opening up about it.

Millennial doctors and activists are taking to social media to dispel myths surrounding PCOS, and gradually changing the narrative.

September is PCOS awareness month and even though Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, earlier known as Polycystic Ovarian Disorder (PCOD), is one of the most common hormonal conditions that women of reproductive age suffer from, the discourse around it has been riddled with stigma for the longest time. The National Health Portal of India puts down the global prevalence of PCOS as “highly variable” – between 2.2% to 22%. From body-shaming to discrimination, women suffering from PCOS have a hard time opening up about it and the plethora of side-effects that accompany it. However, millennial doctors and activists are taking to social media to dispel myths surrounding PCOS, and gradually changing the narrative.

Can losing weight cure PCOS?

Obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr. Riddhima Shetty, who goes by “friendly neighbourhood ob-gyn” on Instagram, said that the most commonly heard myth about the condition is that thin people cannot get PCOS, or that one cannot get pregnant with PCOS. “Lean PCOS exists; and untimely ovulation can still occur,” she stated, dispelling both notions. “Patients are often just told to lose weight,” she said, “thereby resorting to crash diets, which only makes it worse. The emphasis should be on a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle.”

Obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr. Tanushree Pandey Padgaonkar, who is “gynae guru” on Instagram, agrees. Patients are told that a bad diet caused their PCOS, or even that not having children at the right time can give one PCOS. “Patients are told exercise can worsen the condition, or that unmarried girls cannot take the hormonal pill. The list is endless,” she said. “Patients are told they are lazy; they eat unhealthy and that’s how they got PCOS.”

Nidhi Singh, founder of ‘PCOS Club’ – a community-based project aiming to share the experiences of people suffering from PCOS and guiding them towards lifestyle changes to help with the condition – said, “Being overweight is only a symptom of PCOS, not the cause. Losing weight might very well end up not curing it.”

Should you say yes to the pill?

The prescription of birth control pills to treat PCOS comes with its own set of pros and cons. Its usage is often considered controversial, with many hesitant to take it and others swearing by it.
“There are so many myths surrounding the pill but we need to understand why it is used. The pill helps to regulate the cycle while controlling the high androgen levels and preventing heavy menstrual bleeding. More importantly, the pill also protects against the risk of endometrial cancer, by reducing the effect of ‘unopposed estrogen’,” said Dr. Shetty.

Dr. Pagaonkar said she swears by the pill. “It should be taken after proper testing and under the supervision of a gynaecologist. But, the ultimate treatment for PCOS is the pill and lifestyle modifications of course.”

Singh is an advocate for an alternative lifestyle treatment for PCOS for those with mild symptoms. “Not everybody needs the pill; we have to understand that it comes with a wide range of side-effects. For them, lifestyle changes might help tackle the condition.” The PCOS club is for the pill only when it is medically necessary. On this note, Dr. Shetty said, “When a patient comes to me with PCOS, I always insist on using lifestyle and diet modifications as the first line treatment for a period of 3-6 months. I usually advise a few supplements along with a specific sleep-diet-exercise regimen. It has worked wonders for many of my patients. Only if the lifestyle modifications do not show changes, I opt for hormonal therapy.”

PCOS and mental health

Mental health is in itself a taboo subject in India; couple that with gender discrimination and stigmatisation of PCOS, and almost no one speaks about the mental impact that the condition entails. Speaking on the impact of PCOS, Dr. Padgaonkar said, “It is a vicious cycle. Stress and anxiety worsen PCOS and PCOS worsens stress, anxiety and depression.”

“PCOS causes mood swings and psychological issues can be precipitated by the condition or by the social attitude towards it, too,” said Dr. Shetty.

According to Singh, the impact on mental health is the least talked-about aspect of PCOS. “We have had patients as young as sixteen having to be put on sleeping pills and medication to alleviate the effect of PCOS on mental health,” she said. Moreover, being told repeatedly to lose weight can also give rise to body image issues in patients.

The path forward

We need to understand that PCOS is primarily a lifestyle condition, and changing one’s lifestyle must be emphasized, Dr. Shetty said. “We need to destigmatise the condition, while also assessing mental health and giving psychiatric intervention when required,” she added.

Speaking from personal experience, Singh said she found it difficult to juggle her PCOS and a stressful corporate career, which is the story of many millennials. Whatever of PCOS was being discussed was catered towards international audience, she said, adding that these discussions could not address the concerns of an Indian lifestyle. That was when she started the PCOS Club in January of last year, taking a community-driven approach. The club now consists of trusted experts, products, validated by medical advisors, forums, content space, interactions, master classes and above all, an opportunity to educate oneself on PCOS from the experience shared by others.

“Don’t tell someone who is battling PCOS to lose weight straightaway. They know that. They are trying to do it, but have most likely failed and that’s why come to you,” said Dr. Padgaonkar, speaking on her experience of treating people with PCOS and how they should be approached by medical experts.
“Always and always take out a few minutes for your patients and understand their situation, their mental status and then give advice. It’s very easy to upset someone suffering from PCOS and put them in a shell and they will never come back to you. Be compassionate, patient and kind because the struggle is real!” she added.

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first published:September 07, 2021, 12:08 IST
last updated:September 07, 2021, 12:08 IST