Lea Michele Sarfati: Wellness, the Importance of Self-care, and Living With PCOS

'The Side Effects Can Be Brutal'

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have higher-than-normal levels of androgens or male hormones and the condition is thought of as a reproductive disorder. Health learned more about what it's like to live with PCOS during its interview with actress and singer Lea Michele Sarfati. Sarfati has been living with PCOS symptoms since her early 30s. Learn more about how PCOS can affect daily life and about controlling some of the symptoms with self-care and a healthy diet.

"I wasn't always so great at asking for what I need—I was worried people would think I was demanding."

Lea Michele has just wrapped her Health cover shoot when she tells us this. It's funny because demanding is the last word our team would use to describe Lea during the planning stages of her shoot. In fact, she was nothing but kind, collaborative, and gracious. The only request she made throughout the entire process: was to have healthy, plant-based food on set.

Be Your Own Advocate and Self Care

"When I moved to L.A. from New York, I quickly found out that when women are firm, they get called a bitch or diva," she says. "So I retreated. As women, it's unfortunate that we are labeled when we are direct. I always lead with kindness, but at the same time can be my own best advocate."

This focus on self-care is very much a sign of where Lea is in her life right now. The 33-year-old has been working since she was 8 when she was cast as Young Cosette in Les Misérables on Broadway. That led to a slew of other Broadway shows. Then, in 2009, she landed the unforgettable role of Rachel Berry on Fox's groundbreaking Glee. That kind of intense ascent into stardom could have created a monster.

And the crazy tabloid coverage she had to endure during the difficult times that followed? Well, it would have dragged many others down. But not Lea. Instead, she stayed focused on her career—starring on more TV shows, writing two books, putting out albums, and touring. And, when she wasn't working, she became obsessed with learning more about wellness and taking care of herself.

Growing Into Her Own

Lea says she's never been in a better place. She's starting to delve into the world of producing her own projects, and she has a holiday album coming out soon. To top it all off, in 2018, Lea married Zandy Reich—a businessman who she says brings her immense happiness. Feeling stronger and more secure than ever, Lea opens up about her passion for wellness, being a newlywed, and what she wants in the future.

Yu Tsai

What is your definition of wellness?

For me, it's about being aligned in mind, body, and spirit, and striving to find that ultimate connection between all of those factors.

When did you start focusing on taking the best possible care of yourself?

My wellness journey began when I was doing Glee. During season 2, I started realizing I can't have eight coffees a day—it makes me feel jittery and not good. I can't have craft services late at night. Yes, it might fill me up, but if I'm eating a certain type of food that's not going to give me the fuel I need, it's going to make me tired in an hour. Our schedule doing that show was insane; it was, like, 17 hours a day—dance rehearsals, recording studio, everything.

I started to learn that the better I was eating and the better I was taking care of myself, the better I was looking and performing, and feeling. From there, it just started to snowball.

In what ways did it snowball?

I became obsessed with learning what was best for me, whether it was a workout or a type of cleanse. It continued to grow, and I realized I have this opportunity to share what I was learning with my fans on social media. I started Wellness Wednesdays by sharing the things I was learning.

Now, I feel like I am at the healthiest place in my entire life. It's not that I'm the thinnest because I'm not the thinnest I've been. But when I was the thinnest, I was not being the healthiest. I'm definitely the most mentally, physically, and spiritually sound that I've ever been.

Yu Tsai

Let's talk working out! Have you always been active?

Yes, especially living in New York. And I was always able to eat what I wanted. But when I finished Glee and crept toward my 30th birthday, everything just halted.

Around that same time, I also found out that I have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is a very common condition. [PCOS is a condition where ovarian cysts produce the hormone androgen which causes unusual hair growth and loss, infertility, acne, weight gain, and other symptoms.]

The side effects can be brutal—like weight gain and bad skin. I think because of my age, that diagnosis, and the fact that I wasn't working a job that kept me dancing every single day, I needed to integrate some sort of more formal workouts. I realized that I like workouts with a spiritual element—whether it's SoulCycle or hot yoga.

Have you ever had any of the signs of PCOS?

Growing up, I had terrible skin. I went on Accutane three times. I was put on every medication that you could imagine to help my skin. Luckily, birth control was a savior for me when I was in my teens. And then when I was in my late 20s, I realized I wanted to detox my body of all medications.

That's when everything happened—the return to bad skin and, this time, weight gain. I didn't know what was going on. All people wanted to do was give me more medication. I don't shun people for needing or wanting to take medication, but for me, I knew something wasn't right. I just felt medication wasn't going to be the final cure.

So you kept seeing other people to get to the bottom of it?

Yes. I went to a great doctor, and the minute she looked at me, she was like, "Oh, you have PCOS." It explained everything. Through diet, I have been able to manage it. But I am very fortunate.

There are way more extreme versions of PCOS that women have a lot of difficulty with—mine is not as intense. This is why I haven't really talked about it because there are women who have it so much more intense.

Before you started experimenting with your diet to help with PCOS, what was your relationship with food like?

I grew up in an Italian household; my mother's Italian and my father's Sephardic, which is Spanish Jew. But my father basically morphed into Italian when he married my mother. So it was, like, big Sunday dinners with pasta and meatballs.

We were a very carb-heavy household, but my mom kept a clean home. I wasn't raised eating candy or processed food.

Yu Tsai

So you've always been a healthy eater?

Yes. I'm very grateful that my parents raised me to have a healthy relationship with food. Food was family. It was happiness; it was a joy. I never looked at food as the enemy. But listen, I'm a New Yorker, and it was definitely carb-heavy—bagels and sandwiches. But I've never really been a meat eater. Even as a child, I didn't like the idea of it.

Do you enjoy cooking?

It's my favorite thing in the world. I love to make soup. I've been thinking about a cookbook—I really feel that everything you put in your body should be fresh and clean.

Where are you with body confidence?

I've never had a negative relationship with my body. However, I can lose and gain weight very quickly—as a woman in the industry I'm in, that can be very stressful. If I fluctuate one week, they'll say, "Lea Michele is packing it on."

Around 30, my metabolism changed, and I suddenly gained weight and felt out of control. That was a moment where I had to think, "OK, I'm older and things are not going to be the same as they were before." So I took the time to listen to my body and figure out what it needed. Now, I'm 33 and so happy with my body. My husband thinks I'm the most beautiful girl in the world, which is pretty great. But it's mostly about how I feel in my own skin—and I feel truly great.

Speaking of your husband, does marriage feel different to you?

I always had relationships where I needed to be the one holding down the fort, and it's wonderful to have someone who's in their own lane and has a foundation for who they are and where they are in their own life. We met at the same level personally and professionally. And to go on that journey now together is unbelievable.

Yu Tsai

From books to albums to TV projects, you're always working. Is that ambition part of your identity?

I work really hard; I pride myself on that. I've had a career since I was 8 years old. Glee was such a massive success, keeping that up is not the easiest thing. Having people see me as someone other than Rachel Berry—although I love and I miss her and the show—is a challenge. So I work hard to keep my career as strong as I want it to be.

Do you ever take breaks?

If I find there's a moment where I'm not working my best and I can't think clearly, I need to reset. Sometimes that's going away or going to my therapist—which I f---ing love. Other times, it's calling my mom or sitting outside and lighting a fire with my husband, pouring a glass of red wine under the stars, and playing music.

But more than waiting until I feel I need a break, self-care for me is a daily practice—it's a bath with magnesium salt, it's doing meditation, it's going to yoga. I think it's important to get something in every day to take care of yourself.

Looking back, what are you most proud of?

That I got through a lot of tough moments in my life, and I came out a lot stronger than I ever imagined. Glee, just as it was, would've been tough in and of itself. But then everything that I experienced in my mid to late 20s was very intense. I have great people in my life, and I really fought hard to get through that and come out stronger. That is my greatest personal accomplishment.

Where do you hope to be in five years?

Oh my gosh, I hope to be a mom of, like, 10 kids—if it's physically possible to pop that many out! Ha! I'm so excited about the thought of being a mom. I also want to continue making records, and I hope to return to Broadway. I also just really want to continue being my own boss—in the sense of creating content for myself on television and writing roles and finding projects that really serve me.

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