Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is considered a hormonal problem stemming from an internal imbalance. It is a leading cause of female infertility and is responsible for a host of unwanted symptoms.
Despite PCOS being a prevalent health condition among women, the exact cause is still unknown.
Just how prevalent? According to the PCOS Awareness Association, it affects about 10 million people in the world or about 1 in 10 women. Girls as young as 11 can get PCOS.
Genetics and environmental factors are believed to be involved in the development of PCOS. Furthermore, despite the name, many people do not have cysts on their ovaries.
The primary hormones involved in PCOS are androgens, insulin, and progesterone.
Androgens- Often referred to as the "male hormone"; All females make androgens. Women with PCOS will often have higher than normal levels of androgens. These androgens are primarily produced in the ovaries, but also in the adrenal glands. Excess androgens cause a host of symptoms in women such as thinning hair, irregular periods and unwanted hair.
Insulin- This hormone absorbs glucose (blood sugar) into the cells for energy. Women with PCOS are less responsive to insulin.
This can lead to elevated blood glucose levels and cause the body to make more insulin. Having too much insulin can cause the body to make more androgens.
Progesterone- In PCOS, a lack of progesterone contributes to irregular periods.
What are the signs of PCOS?
- No periods, irregular periods, or very heavy periods
- Pelvic pain - primarily during the period, but can occur outside of period.
- Extra hair on your face or other parts of your body, called “hirsutism”
- Acne or oily skin
- Weight gain or trouble losing weight
- Patches of dark, thick skin
- Mood swings- Having PCOS can increase the likelihood of mood swings, depression, and anxiety.
- Fatigue - Many people with PCOS report increased fatigue and low energy.
- Sleep issues- including but not limited to sleep apnea
These are some of the primary symptoms of PCOS. Women with PCOS will not necessarily have all these symptoms.
For example, one person may suffer from obesity, while another may have a healthy BMI but suffer from hirsutism and acne. Some individuals with PCOS may not even show any physical symptoms and primarily suffer internal complications, such as low energy levels and elevated blood sugar levels. Because there are so many variances in this condition, a "one size fits all" general recommendation or solution is not very helpful.
It is important to verify that these symptoms are caused by PCOS and not something else. Common tests used to diagnose PCOS are physical examinations ( measure BMI, waist size, skin check, pelvic exam, pelvic ultrasound), an examination of genitals and possibly other parts of the reproductive system and blood tests to check hormone levels and blood sugar levels.
Health Problems associated with PCOS:
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Infertility - PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility. but can usually be treated. Treatments include lifestyle changes, medications to lower insulin levels and to help ovulate.
- Pregnancy/ Delivery complications- Increase in miscarriage risk in early pregnancy compared to women without PCOS, gestational diabetes and preeclampsia.
- A thickening of the endometrium, or the lining of the uterus, which can eventually lead to cancer if you don’t get your period regularly
Treatment for POCS
- Healthy Habits
One of the best ways to deal with PCOS is to eat well and exercise regularly. Read more about the PCOS diet.
Many women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Losing 5% to 10% of body weight may ease many symptoms and help make periods more regular.
Since PCOS could lead to high blood sugar, its important to limit starchy or sugary foods and eat plenty of fiber, which raises blood sugar levels slowly. Staying active helps control blood sugar and insulin, as well as helps with weight management.
- Hormones and Medication
Birth control is the most common PCOS treatment for women who don't want to get pregnant.
Hormonal birth control -- pills, a skin patch, vaginal ring, shots, or a hormonal IUD (intrauterine device) -- can help restore regular periods and manage PCOS symptoms.
These birth control methods may also lower the chances of having endometrial cancer.
Furthermore, medication is also prescribed to aid women in getting pregnant and maintaining a healthy pregnancy.
Metformin is recommended many times by many doctors to manage insulin levels. This can help manage weight and may prevent one from developing type 2 diabetes and help with fertility issues.
Despite these methods being the primary ones utilized to manage PCOS, it is but a temporary solution and not a cure. Many consider them band-aid solutions.
It is clear from this high-level overview that PCOS is a very complicated condition, that can cause stress and considerable problems in a woman's life. It is important that if one has been diagnosed with PCOS or even just has the suspicion or concern of having PCOS, to be proactive in taking care of one's health.