Do you know that Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects about 1 in 10 women of childbearing age globally? Generally, this condition affects a woman’s hormone levels and may also lead to infertility. In fact, women with PCOS deal with hormonal imbalance and several metabolic problems.
Thankfully, there is a way out.
This article contains everything you need to know about PCOS; the causes, symptoms, effects, risk factors, and treatment. In addition, you’d also find info on how a healthy diet can protect you from polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Let’s Get Started!
Table of contents
- What Is PCOS?
- Causes of PCOS
- Symptoms of PCOS
- Effects of PCOS
- How to Treat PCOS
- Dietary and Lifestyle Treatment for PCOS
- Medical Treatment of PCOS
- When to Consult Your Doctor about PCOS
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition that affects women of childbearing age (12-51 years). In fact, studies show that about 2.2 to 26.7% of women in this age group have PCOS.
It is commonly characterized by abnormal hair patterns, obesity, menstrual irregularities, infertility, enlarged ovaries, and insulin resistance. Furthermore, women with PCOS are often at higher risk for cardiovascular diseases and breast cancer.
Causes of PCOS
No one really knows the exact cause of PCOS. However, experts believe that the presence of abnormally high levels of male hormones (androgens) in a woman’s body prevents the ovaries from producing enough feminine hormones. This restricts the ovaries’ ability to perform their normal function of ovulation.
Furthermore, any or all of the following factors have been linked to excess androgen production, and by extension, PCOS:
Recent studies show that PCOS runs in families. That is, if your mother or sister has it, there is a high chance that you would too. However, it has been observed that many genes (and not just one) may contribute to the condition.
Another potential cause of PCOS is inflammation. Studies show that women with PCOS usually have increased levels of inflammation in their bodies. Furthermore, excess weight can also contribute to the process of inflammation.
In most cases, excess inflammation is strongly linked to abnormal androgen levels in women.
3. Insulin Resistance
In plain terms, insulin resistance occurs when your body cells don’t respond to insulin as they should. Insulin is an important hormone that controls the conversion of food to energy in your body. If your body becomes resistant to insulin, its levels in your blood will become higher than usual.
Insulin resistance is really common in women with PCOS, especially those who are overweight or obese.
Symptoms of PCOS
Although the symptoms of PCOS vary in presentation, these are the most common ones:
1. Irregular Periods
One of the major effects of excess androgen production, and PCOS, is impaired ovulation. The delayed or total absence of ovulation prevents the uterine lining from shedding as it should during monthly periods.
In fact, women with PCOS may get less than eight periods annually. In other instances, an affected woman may not even menstruate in an entire year.
2. Abnormal Hair Growth
Due to the hormonal imbalance that comes with PCOS, women with this condition often experience abnormal/excessive hair growth on their face, belly, back, and chest.
This symptom affects up to 70% of women with PCOS.
Once again, the male hormones are responsible.
The increased androgen production which comes with PCOS can make the skin oiler than usual. Sometimes, this causes acne and breakouts on the face, chest, and upper back.
4. Weight Gain
This is another common symptom of PCOS. About 80% of women with the condition are usually overweight or obese. Some may even struggle with losing weight in this period.
Other common symptoms of PCOS include:
- Darkening of skin
It is also important to note that these symptoms appear at different times; some women may observe them during their periods, or after a missed period. In other cases, the symptoms come after excessive weight gain or while trying to conceive.
Effects of PCOS
Although PCOS is very common, it affects many organs and systems of the body. The major effects of PCOS are:
Here’s a fact: Ovulation is necessary to get pregnant.
To this effect, women who don’t ovulate regularly don’t produce as many eggs as they should for possible fertilization. As we mentioned earlier, PCOS affects ovulation, thereby causing infertility in women.
2. Metabolic Conditions
In addition to causing fertility problems, PCOS can also lead to any or all of the following metabolic syndromes/conditions:
3. Endometrial Cancer
Every month, the uterine lining sheds during ovulation. Women with PCOS don’t ovulate regularly, causing an abnormal build-up in the uterine lining.
Most times, a thickened uterine lining can increase the risk of endometrial cancer.
How to Treat PCOS
The treatment of PCOS depends on your symptoms, age, and desire to get pregnant. In most cases, treatment involves dietary and lifestyle modifications as well as certain medications.
Dietary and Lifestyle Treatment for PCOS
This is usually the first line of treatment for PCOS in most women.
In fact, losing just 5-10% of your weight may provide so much relief from the symptoms of PCOS. Healthy weight loss would also help regulate your menstrual cycle and solve the hormonal imbalance.
To achieve this, you can consider starting a healthy low carbohydrate diet. This is effective for both weight loss and reducing insulin levels.
Furthermore, a low GI diet that involves eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can also balance irregular menstrual cycles.
Medical research also shows that half an hour of moderate-intensity exercise conducted at least 3 times a week can improve weight loss in women with PCOS. This would also improve ovulation and lower insulin levels.
Medical Treatment of PCOS
1. Birth Control Pills
This is a viable treatment option for women with PCOS who are not trying to conceive. Hormonal birth control pills like progestin can:
- Restore hormone balance
- Regulate ovulation
- Reduce excess hair growth
- Prevent endometrial cancer
This is a drug used to treat Type 2 Diabetes. The mechanism of action of this drug revolves around improving blood insulin levels, and by extension, treating PCOS.
Clomiphene is a fertility drug used in the treatment of PCOS for women with PCOS who want to get pregnant. However, it is important to note that clomiphene increases your chances of having multiple pregnancies.
This is another option to improve fertility when other forms of medical and dietary treatments don’t work. The surgical procedure called ovarian drilling aims to reduce the number of cysts on the ovary by making tiny holes in them. The ultimate aim of this is to restore normal ovulation.
When to Consult Your Doctor about PCOS
Place a call to your doctor immediately if:
- You’ve missed multiple periods without being pregnant
- You observe any of the major symptoms of PCOS mentioned in this article
- You’ve been trying to conceive for more than a year
- You’re gaining a lot of unexplainable weight
Although PCOS can disrupt your menstrual cycles and make it more difficult to conceive, it can be treated easily.
As we mentioned earlier, lifestyle and dietary modifications make up the first line of treatment for PCOS. You can also consider medications as an option if these lifestyle modifications don’t work out.
If you’re concerned about the symptoms and effects of PCOS, please contact your doctor immediately.
- Lorenz, L. B., & Wild, R. A. (2007). Polycystic ovarian syndrome: an evidence-based approach to evaluation and management of diabetes and cardiovascular risks for today’s clinician. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 50, 226–243.
- Goodman, N. F., Cobin, R. H., Futterweit, W., Glueck, J. S., Legro, R. S., & Carmina, E. (2015). American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, American College of Endocrinology, and Androgen Excess and PCOS Society disease state clinical review: guide to the best practices in the evaluation and treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome – part 1. Endocrine Practice, 11, 1291–300.
- Boomsma, C. M., Fauser, B. C., & Macklon, N.S. (2008). Pregnancy complications in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Seminars in Reproductive Medicine, 26, 72–84