My fertility journey began early and abruptly. I got my first — and only — period at age 13.
When it hadn’t returned by high school, I sought the help of an OB-GYN fertility specialist. A sonogram revealed I had cyst-covered ovaries: one of the worst cases of polycystic ovary syndrome my doctor had seen. They told me pregnancy would only be possible with the most advanced fertility treatment — and until then, birth control pills would be my only hope for a regular cycle. There was nothing else I could do, I was told. So I accepted the diagnosis, owned its consequences and joined the 1 in 10 women the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Women’s Health Office says are affected by infertility.
Yet as I sit here years later, I feel my baby move wildly in my belly. In a few weeks, she’ll make my 20-month-old a big sister. Conceived without the aid of fertility treatments (and quickly!), my girls are a living testimony to the power of lifestyle choices and the ability of our bodies to heal naturally. Of course, there is no magic fertility switch, a choice we can make to undo what our bodies have decided. But for me, I believe changing my lifestyle did indeed change my fertility. However, my fertility journey is my experience alone, and far too many women aren’t as lucky.
How did I get here?
In college, I came down with mysterious neck stiffness, back pain and loss of motor skills that stumped medical specialists across the country, leaving me on a slew of painkillers and antidepressants. Desperate for answers, I turned to my aunt, Marilee Nelson, an environmental and dietary health practitioner. She asked me questions no one else had: What are you eating regularly? Do you use pesticides? What cleaning and body care products do you use? Have you recently moved or remodeled? She explained how toxins in our food, air and products undermine our health and that their removal is crucial to our body’s innate ability to heal no matter the symptom or illness — an issue often discussed in detail by the Environmental Defense Fund.
Suddenly, I felt the holistic path offered me hope the hyper-medicalized path hadn’t. After all, it gave me something to do about my condition. Plus, I really had nothing left to lose.
I went off my birth control pills, cut out refined sugar, started eating whole foods instead of processed and switched to natural home and body products. After a few months, my pain had drastically decreased. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to understand why and to learn more and just to keep going. I was all in.
After graduating, I moved to Marilee’s home in the Texas Hill Country for the summer, a decision that would change my life — and my family’s — forever. Because after eight weeks in a living environment that was completely free of toxic pesticides, cleaners, synthetic fragrances, processed foods and even Wi-Fi, I was off all medication and virtually pain-free.
A year later, I revisited the fertility clinic, and a sonogram reflected what I had been feeling: whole-body healing. The doctor rushed into the room holding the new images next to the ones taken six years prior; he said he had never seen anything like it. I no longer had PCOS, and my ovaries were virtually spotless. When asked what I had done, I told him all I had done was stopped taking birth control pills, removed all harmful chemicals from my home and switched to a real-food diet. He was simply amazed.
While my focus had been to end chronic pain, my efforts included removal of xenoestrogens from my daily life, something I had been completely ignorant of despite their omnipresence (and my taking birth control, a synthetic hormone, daily!). I learned through personal experience and insight from organizations like the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies that the fragrances in my cleaning and body care products, detergent, dryer sheets and candles were made with chemicals that mimic our natural hormones and disrupt our delicate endocrine system. EPA-registered pesticides, present in many everyday cleaners, are some of the worst offenders, according to a 2013 independent study by the Environmental Working Group. BPA and phthalates, perhaps the most well-known endocrine disruptors, made their way into my body through plastic food storage, PVC shower curtains and canned foods. These chemicals have been linked to early onset or delayed puberty, breast and prostate cancers, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects, diabetes, thyroid issues and — you guessed it — ovarian cysts and overall hormone imbalance. Ick.
All my doctors — and the National Institute of Child Health and Development — have said there is no cure for PCOS. But all I know is my own experience: that of my cysts disappearing, my cycle returning on its own and conceiving two healthy babies without the assistance of IVF or other fertility treatments. (I even had a home water birth… but that’s a story for another day.)
I grew up, like most people did, eating the standard American diet, taking over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs when it seemed necessary and using conventional products. But all the while, my health was deteriorating. Understanding what’s safe for my particular body and what’s not — that’s brought me here. I now live free from pain and free from the constraints of an “incurable” diagnosis. And best of all, I see the undeniable effects this has on my growing family.
This journey has opened my eyes to a world in which we play a vital and active role in our own health. We are not helpless, passive pawns. The choices we make every day do have significance; ignorance is not bliss, and we are not the victims of our genes or a dire diagnosis. I no longer see common symptoms such as headaches, dry skin, allergies and PMS as something I just have to suck up and deal with. I no longer see disease as just a “normal” part of getting older.
For me, making everyday choices that heal, restore and nourish me made all the difference. And now, as a mom, there are few things more empowering than knowing my own efforts and choices can and do have an impact on my health — and my family’s.