Talkin' 'bout an ovulation

One in five women suffer from polycystic ovary syndrome. It reduces fertility, is incurable and often misdiagnosed. The good news is that Colette Harris, in despair after a year of spots, putting on weight and exhaustion, has devised an astonishingly successful natural health-plan
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What would you do if your hair started falling out in big clumps and your face began to erupt in acne on a regular basis? In spring 1996, when it happened to me, I put it down to an excess of tinned spaghetti on toast and upped my weekly intake of fruit and vegetables. But chomping my way through acres of broccoli made no difference to my rabid spots and an overwhelming fatigue began to haunt my life.

By June, I was crying before work because simply getting out of bed demanded an effort that brought on dizziness, fainting and hot flushes. I chided myself about how unfit I'd become and drove myself to vomiting point with a punishing swimming schedule, then terrified myself with thoughts of a menopause at 23. As my PMS got steadily worse, I decided that whatever was wrong was hormonal. I had stopped taking the Pill at the end of l995, so maybe my body was taking time to recover from three years of drugs.

But as July came and went, my periods became unpredictable. I was occasionally floored by intense abdominal pains and my breasts were permanently swollen and sore. I was sleeping for 17 hours a night at weekends and enduring the latest symptom - aching joints. I thought I'd got arthritis because the intensity of the pain was such a reliable barometer. My flatmates started calling me "Old Mother Harris" and my doctor told me I was probably working too hard. I chose to believe her.

With persuasion from my stoic partner, I started to keep a symptom diary and made another appointment with the doctor. I talked to Mum, who confirmed my suspicions of an early menopause because we shared hot flushes - but she wasn't spotty or veering from manic laughter to black depression in the space of an hour. I felt like people suspected skive-itis. The doctor said take it easy and come back if it doesn't get better.

It didn't. In October I was back, and pissed off enough with a now non- existent social life, fear that my partner would bugger off (requesting a hot water bottle before EastEnders was as passionate as I could get), and the weakness of being constantly ill, that I insisted on blood tests. I was checked out for anaemia, thyroid function, liver function, arthritis, glandular fever and hormone counts.

I knew something was terribly wrong with my body and my emotional turmoil was hellish. I felt violent but didn't have the strength for therapeutic ornament smashing, and grotesquely unsexy because I'd put on a stone in a year, was spotty, and had sprouted a line of dark hair under my bellybutton.

The blood test results showed a hormonal imbalance, so the doctor referred me for a pelvic scan. She wouldn't say why. Of course, I imagined I was the host to a life-threatening disease. Mum had read somewhere that an excess of oestrogen could cause joint pain and dizziness. So, as I waited for the scan, I read medical encyclopaedias and health magazines, looking for anything pelvic, ovarian or hormonal. Finally, I found an article in Here's Health magazine describing how herbal medicine had helped a woman whose symptoms corresponded with mine. She had been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and the form I had to present at my ultrasound appointment had PCOS? scribbled on the bottom.

It didn't take a genius to work out that my doctor thought I had the same thing. It turned out I had. Each ovary was three times its normal size and covered in tiny cysts which were filled with fluid instead of eggs. I wasn't ovulating any more, so I was currently infertile (a fact that made me suddenly want children for the first time in my life). PCOS was caused by my body's inability to produce the right balance of hormones. But my doctor only gave me the option of going on the Pill to suppress my own abnormal hormone production and replace it with synthetic doses to prevent my strange variety of symptoms. But this would not help me to become fertile again. If I decided I wanted a child I would need hormone injections and then to wait and see what happened.

The idea of bombarding myself with drugs didn't appeal. I had already stopped taking the Pill because it had made me feel steadily less well. And what was the point of keeping my symptoms at bay if the root of the problem hadn't been addressed? I asked to see a specialist. The earliest I could see a gynaecologist was in April 1997 - it was December 1996. While I waited for my appointment, I found out more about PCOS, phoned herbalist experts and read as much as I could about nutritional medicine. Then, I designed and embarked on the following self-help plan, after checking with practitioners about its safety:

A vegan diet with no alcohol or caffeine to detoxify, plus lots of hormone-balancing soya in the forms of milk, mince and tofu.

Agnus castus, a herbal remedy for hormonal imbalances and irregular periods.

Genistein supplements (1,400mg) to balance oestrogen including B complex to help the liver metabolise oestrogen, including B6 to lift PMS mood swings.

Vitamin E (750mg) for the skin.

Evening primrose oil (1000mg) to ease hot flushes.

Magnesium to relieve PMS.

Rose, geranium, bergamot and lavender essential oils in baths or massages to balance hormones and regulate periods.

From December to March, I had four periods bang on time, lost half a stone, got 90 per cent less spots, saw my hair get shiny and thick again and my joint pain and PMS reduce significantly.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a gynaecologist who was amazed with my progress and advised me to carry on with my DIY plan, as she could only offer hormone pessaries with a risk of severe side-effects (no thanks!) or the Pill, neither of which would guarantee ovulation, or help my ovaries to produce the right balance of hormones. Needless to say, I am still on my natural health-plan, feeling tons better for it and a total believer in alternative healthcare.

For further information, send an sae to the PCOS self-help group Verity, at 30 Chalton House, Chalton Street, London NWI.

PCOS: the facts

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects up to one in five women. Those who are severely affected tend to be overweight, prone to acne, grow unsightly body hair, have no or very few periods, experience episodes of infertility and suffer mood swings. The cause is not understood but is related to problems within the ovaries themselves. The condition does not shorten life but causes distress and discomfort. But the original hormonal imbalance can be mild enough to keep symptoms minimal, with continued ovulation: not everyone with PCOS becomes infertile and there is a good chance of successful conception even for those who are, whether through artificial hormone injections or a natural health-plan.

Treatment depends on what the individual wants. Dr John Friend, consultant gynaecologist at Derrisford Hospital in Plymouth and a specialist in PCOS, says losing weight could help patients who have ceased ovulating regain a regular monthly cycle. "A lot of sufferers have difficulty losing weight and there may be metabolic reasons for that associated with the syndrome. The vegan diet followed by Colette Harris could assist weight loss."

Excessive hairiness can be treated with drugs that suppress the overproduction of androgen, the male hormone, by the ovaries, and prescribing the Pill can help to regularise periods. In extreme cases, an operation to remove part of the ovary, taking out the tissue responsible for producing the abnormal levels of hormone, can ease the symptoms.

Once over production of the hormones is controlled, patients who want to conceive can be treated with fertility drugs to stimulate ovulation. Dr Friend says: "There is no cure for the condition. All we can offer is symptomatic treatment. But it is up to the individual patient to decide what is appropriate for her."

Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor