I’m like, is my brain stupid? How did it just forget my periods’

First, they wouldn’t let her forget that she needed to lose weight after gaining 8 kg in five months. And then the gynaecologist – explaining polycystic ovary disorder (PCOD) in an over-cautious, but friendly, effort to simplify the condition – told Anoushka Parikh that her brain might be swamped and forgetting something: To instruct the body about the monthly menstruation.

The former international doubles shuttler recalls sitting across the doctor, taking in the diagnosis, that didn’t join the dots immediately to why she had suddenly gained weight. “So, she’s trying to explain PCO Disorder to me in a very colloquial manner. I still remember, she tells me, ‘Your brain is so occupied doing your routine and other things, that it is forgetting to produce all the functioning hormones.’”

“I’m like, is my brain stupid?”

“How did it just forget or miss out on doing something that it is bound to do?” Anoushka chuckles narrating what was a nightmare even back then, because women grow up knowing one thing from the literal pit of the stomach: Periods don’t ‘forget.’ Now, the brain was playing truant on her. “So basically, I was not ovulating, or it was not regular. So, I would get my period, but only for a day,” she says, recalling her struggle with comprehending what was going on with her body, though the world only fixated on her weight gain.

 

Anoushka had moved from her home in Ahmedabad to the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad in 2016, and as it happens for elite athletes prepping for international rigours, her training had altered. “Mainly what changed was the intensity of training. From 3-4 hours, it went close to 8 hours a day. And it was a new environment. Food changed big time. And in terms of my cycle, I started getting my period only for one day. I would get it regularly, but only for a day. And I had started to gain a lot of weight – 8 kilos in 5 months is not healthy for a badminton player. It affects your movement directly. And everything else. Everyone would just tell me that ‘you need to lose weight.’ But I wondered how do I lose weight. I’m training 8 hours. I can’t train more than that!”

Angelica Hirschberg, writing for the national library of medicine in National Centre for Biotechnology Information, highlighted the prevalence of the more severe PCOS in the topmost tier of athletes. “PCOS appears to be a common disorder among elite female athletes and is, indeed, the most frequent cause of menstrual disorders among Olympic sportswomen,” according to Hirschberg.

Researcher C. Fruhling, writing on the same, said that amenorrhea (absence of period) “is highly reported in athletic populations, with studies identifying the prevalence occurring in 3.4-66% of female athletes, compared to 2-5% of women in the general population.”

Mumbai-based gynaecologist Esha Chainani, specialising in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), writing in The Swaddle, noted a host of fallouts of the condition, including insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, dyslipidemia (imbalance of lipids), heart disease, and infertility, a higher rate of developing mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders and eating disorders. Chainani also quoted hirsutism (hair growth on the face), and at the same time, hair-fall issues, as arising out of PCOS.

“The results of the study more than confirmed my suspicion that Indian women with PCOS were facing massive mental health challenges. 38 percent of these women were suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder and 18 percent were screened positive for a depressive disorder; this is significantly higher than the average prevalence of mental health disorders in India (4.7%),” she wrote. “Women with PCOS have an almost 7x risk of developing anxiety disorders and a 3x risk of developing depression. 50 percent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance (regardless of their weight), which basically means low energy,” she added.

For athletes, weakness, fatigue, and sleepiness can amplify their troubles. Chainani reckons seeing it as a “purely physical problem that occurs a few days a month, as opposed to a chronic condition” can affect the overall quality of life.

Jibes galore

For Anoushka – competing in a fitness sport, day in, day out – the PCOD diagnosis began to answer some of her questions. But the fixation with her weight went on unabated even when she returned to Ahmedabad post the lifting of the 2020 lockdown.

“I went to the Ahmedabad club courts to play one day. I was sipping on water and a random person comes to me. I don’t know who he is, he’s an uncle. And he comes up to me and says ‘you are Anoushka, right?’ and I say yes. He said, ‘aapko PBL league mein dekha tha (saw you in PBL) when it happened in Ahmedabad. Udhar dekha tha, phir abhi dekh raha hoo (Saw you there, after that now)’. He said something like, ‘haan par abhi aapka weight thoda badh gayaa hai, na? Abhi aise khaate-peete ghar ke lag rahe ho (But now you seem to have put on some weight, no? Now, you look someone from a well-off family).’ He said that! I do not know him,” she recalls, still shocked at being cornered like that. “In that moment, I wanted to just give it back to him, but chose not to. Maybe I should have. I just turned around and just started playing again. I wanted to say, ‘main khaate peete ghar ki lagti hoon, toh tumhara kya jaata re?’ Like, I am from a khata peeta ghar, so why does that matter to you?” she recalls.

The problem of dealing with PCOD without knowing how to deal with it brought mental and emotional stress. “I think that was more of the burnout eventually than the weight,” she says. Not that those around her could look past the addition of kilos. “Unfortunately, everyone saw only the weight gain. And that became the focus, rather than my game. I would come back from a tournament, and they’d be like, ‘achha aur kitna weight badhaanaa hai (how much more weight do you plan to add)?’ Instead of asking me how my match went. Their focus was that. My thought was that my weight is not something you can deal with. But my skill is something you can deal with. So work on my game, so I can play without having to move so much or I can improve my strokes. But that’s not how the thinking goes,” she recalls the vicious cycle.

“Then my focus also went from my game to my weight. Everything I was doing was around my weight.” Trying to measure how deep a hole one is plunging into is always a bad idea.

Anoushka remembers being Miss Sunshine, happy and hopeful and dedicated to doing well, in an earlier time. A hyperactive child whose parents tried out the two months of tennis, then swimming, then skating, she loved badminton at the first clutch of the racquet at a local club when 6. “It just clicked, right from Day 1 I loved it, my racquet-shuttle coordination was good. Somehow, I was passionate right from Day 1, so I would not miss a single day. Parties and social, you needn’t even ask me. I’d never go.”

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