I grew up with irregular cycles. I would go months without a period. My doctor often reassured me that wild swings in cycle length is “normal” for a newly menstruating girl, which is true. But what I wish she would have told me is that if it continued past the first couple of years there might be something amiss. Instead, I just accepted my cycle irregularity and moved on with my life. It wasn’t until I came across Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler when my husband and I first started trying to become pregnant that I realized something actually was wrong.
After a few months of charting my cycles I began to notice that the patterns of my body did not align with the patterns I learned about in the book. And late one night while trying to decipher yet another confusing chart, I finally read the chapter I had been ignoring: “Troubleshooting Your Cycle.” What I discovered is the symptoms I had been ignoring for so long were signs of a deeper, much more complicated issue. I made the first available appointment with my gynecologist and she confirmed what I had feared — I have Metabolic Reproductive Syndrome (MRS), formerly known as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).
I was stunned and saddened by the news but my feelings quickly turned to anger. How could I be 25 years old and just now be learning about this?! With all the doctors I had seen, all the routine pap smears and physicals, all the times I discussed my irregular cycles with medical professionals and tried to be a whistleblower for my body, no one, not one single person said the phrase “Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome” (before it was changed to MRS). Not one. To this day I am so thankful to have come across Toni Weschler’s book. I shudder to think how long it would have taken me to get a proper diagnosis had I not gone to the doctor with my charts in hand and newly gained knowledge about my reproductive body.
In an effort to help shed light on a syndrome that has become so epidemic to reproductive aged women it inspired a name change, I want to share the five symptoms of MRS I lived with for years before receiving a diagnosis:
As I mentioned above, my cycle lengths would swing wildly from month to month. I would go from a 25 day cycle to a 43 day cycle to a 19 day cycle and so on. If you have been menstruating for at least two years and experience irregular cycles consistently and consecutively, I highly recommend charting your basal body temperature (BBT). Tracking your BBT can help pinpoint if/when you ovulate and are a great visual to help your care provider in making an accurate diagnosis of cause. Although irregular cycles are not exclusively indicative of MRS, they are a tell-tale sign of a hormonal imbalance.
Now, I don’t mean cramps. I mean ovarian pain. Pain that resides under or near your hip bones. It is sharp, sometimes severe. The pain shoots like a lightning storm and can be crippling. This pain is most likely associated with cysts or inflamed ovaries and can happen any time during your cycle. If you experience severe ovarian pain that is accompanied by nausea, vomiting, fever, dizziness or fainting go to the emergency room immediately, you could have a ruptured cyst or ovarian torsion. If not treated right away you are at risk of losing your ovary.
Inability to Lose Weight
MRS makes it nearly impossible to lose weight. This is due to your cells not being receptive to insulin. When your cells don’t absorb the food you eat as energy your body stores it as fat and, in turn, slows your metabolism. So if you find yourself eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly but the number on the scale doesn’t budge, MRS may be the culprit.
I experienced long cycles mostly when I was young but even now I have an odd cycle that lasts for 70+ days. Barring pregnancy, these long cycles occur because you are not releasing an egg during ovulation. When you do not ovulate there is nothing to trigger the production of progesterone that is dominant in the 2nd half of your cycle and your body sits in a sort of hormonal limbo. Your ovaries may try again and again to release an egg, but if they fail, it just prolongs your cycle until your uterus eventually sheds its lining. This type of bleeding is not actually a period, it occurs because the endometrial lining grew too thick and is literally falling off from the weight.
Indiscernible Cervical Fluid
This sign is subtle, but very telling. During a balanced menstrual cycle your cervical fluid will go through four stages as you approach ovulation: dry, sticky, creamy and slippery (then back to dry). When I was tracking my fluids I would notice I often had an abundance of fluid at times that didn’t make sense, like just before or after my period, for example, when my fluid should have been dry. I also noticed that my fluid never quite got to that slippery phase — slippery cervical fluid is a sign of impending ovulation. If you don’t ovulate, your cervical fluid, much like your hormones, gets stuck in limbo. Consistently creamy or cloudy cervical fluid should inspire a call to your doctor or midwife.
*Please note, these are not the only symptoms of MRS, nor are they confirmation you have it. However, as a woman who has been formally diagnosed and treated for MRS, these were the symptoms most often overlooked during appointments with medical professionals before I knew what was ailing me. Also, because ovarian cysts are not always present in women with MRS, tracking these symptoms can help you receive a proper diagnosis much more quickly.
Amy Sutherland is a period-positive advocate and graduate student at the University of Minnesota where she is currently researching and writing her thesis on how menstrual stereotypes and stigmas affect health outcomes in women and girls. Read her full bio here.