Keto followers rave about the weight they've lost thanks to this high-fat, low-carb plan. But keto appears to offer other health benefits, too. Jordan Swain, 27, is one keto fan who credits the diet with helping her shed pounds and ease her symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Swain, who lives in San Antonio, was diagnosed with PCOS in 2014 when she was 21. Alarmed because she stopped getting her period six months earlier, she went to see her ob-gyn. "I was in a relationship with no sex at the time as well, so I knew something was up," she tells Health.
Blood work came back showing that Swain had a high level of testosterone in her body. High testosterone levels, in addition to her missed periods, led her doctor to diagnose her with PCOS—a hormonal disorder characterized by irregular, missed, or very heavy periods, as well as hair loss, acne, body hair, and weight gain.
PCOS isn't well understood; experts aren't exactly sure why an estimated 10% of women of childbearing age can expect to be diagnosed with it. What is known, however, is that women with PCOS tend to have a harder time getting pregnant, and the condition is a risk factor for developing diabetes, heart disease, and endometrial cancer.
When her doctor gave her the diagnosis, Swain didn’t understand what having PCOS actually meant, she recalls.
“I didn’t really know how bad it could be, so I kind of ignored it,” she says. “It was an out of sight, out of mind kind of thing. I was in denial about having PCOS, so I didn’t get an ultrasound of my ovaries done until five years after my diagnosis." (A pelvic ultrasound allows doctors to see if cysts have formed on the ovaries, another sign of PCOS.)
That all changed in May 2018, when she finally underwent a pelvic ultrasound. When she saw her ovaries on the screen, she was in shock.
“They were swollen and covered in cysts. I knew then I had to do something—my husband and I had just gotten married a month beforehand and had begun talking about having kids,” she says. “I was also almost 300 pounds, which was making my life difficult.”
Enter the keto diet. Swain says she first heard about keto on a podcast, and she decided to give it a try in June 2018. (Quick refresher: The keto diet restricts your carb intake to about 5% and increases fats to about 75% of your daily calories, with protein making up the rest.)
Within months, she had dropped a significant amount of weight and gained more energy. Her success helped convince her husband, Steven, to join her in her keto journey. Thanks to the diet, their intimacy has improved, and sex has been better than ever, she says.
“Keto has helped my confidence in the bedroom, mainly with being confident about myself,” says Swain. “We had a great marriage to begin with, but us both taking our health seriously has allowed us to connect on some deeper levels.”
But the biggest change for Swain was the way her periods became much more regular as she lost weight.
“I used to have menstrual cycles that would go three months or more between them," she says. "I’m happy to report that I have now had consistent, 28-day cycles for a little over a year now. I also used to have very painful periods prior to keto. Now since I have been eating keto, my periods are nowhere near as painful.”
The diet also alleviated other PCOS symptoms, such as facial acne and hair loss. "I used to get acne pretty often all over my face, especially on my jawline. Since keto, my skin has cleared up, with very minimal breakouts if any," Swain adds. "I was also losing a lot of hair….My hair is now growing back in fuller than it ever has, thanks to keto."
So what is it about keto that helped dial back her PCOS symptoms? While treatment for PCOS typically includes taking hormonal birth control to help regulate cycles, losing weight can also be beneficial, according to some doctors.
"Weight loss for obese women can help improve hormonal levels and insulin resistance and help regulate cycles," Angela Chaudhari, MD, a gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, previously told Health.
In fact, some research suggests that a low-sugar, low-dairy diet may help women manage PCOS. This kind of diet can "decrease inflammation and insulin resistance, which, in many cases, can be behind abnormal hormone levels seen in polycystic ovary syndrome," Ula Abed Alwahab, MD, an endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic, previously told Health. "Patients with PCOS who have issues with fertility may find that the diet helps restore regular periods and might help fertility by making the patient more responsive to fertility treatments."
While keto is low-sugar, it doesn't ban dairy, though some keto dieters end up cutting their dairy intake to meet keto's protein and carb restrictions.
Swain, who is down to 177 pounds, is currently trying to conceive. While she’s not sure if her weight loss from keto will affect her fertility, she credits the diet with giving her hope that a baby will be in her future.
To get more stories like this delivered to your inbox, sign up for the Real Wellness WomenIRL newsletter
The second Instagram photo was taken by Rebecca Jeanne Photography.