PCOS affects as many as five million women, causing problems with their menstrual cycles, as well as making it harder to get pregnant.
If you are suffering from PCOS, knowing the causes, symptoms, and PCOS treatment options available to you are the first steps to improving your overall health.
What Is PCOS?
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is a condition that directly affects a woman’s hormone levels. It happens during their childbearing years – ages 15 to 44. With PCOS, a woman’s body produces higher-than-normal levels of male hormones.
Polycystic means “many cysts”. With PCOS, a woman’s ovaries begin to grow many tiny fluid-filled sacs. Each one of those sacs contains one immature egg that will never grow enough to trigger ovulation.
Without ovulation, a woman’s hormone levels are affected. As a result, the ovaries produce less estrogen and progesterone. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), a hormone that stimulates the ovaries to produce sacs that contain eggs, and luteinizing hormone (LH), which triggers the ovaries to release a mature egg are also affected. Levels of androgen, which is a male hormone, also start to rise.
As a result, a woman will skip menstrual cycles and have greater difficulty getting pregnant.
8 Symptoms of PCOS
Symptoms of PCOS usually begin to happen around the time a female starts her menstrual cycle. Surprisingly, most women who have PCOS don’t even know they have it, and often go undiagnosed until they find they’ve gained a lot of weight or they’re having difficulty conceiving.
The most common PCOS symptoms are:
- Irregular periods – Without regular ovulation, the uterus sheds its lining less frequently, resulting in less frequent periods.
- Weight gain – Weight gain is a very common symptom of PCOS. In fact, close to 80% of those who have PCOS are either overweight or obese.
- Heavy bleeding – Because the lining of the uterus is building up for a much longer period of time, when a period does happen, it’s much heavier than usual.
- Hair growth – Extra face and body hair can occur with more than 70% of women with PCOS. Known as hirsutism, this extra hair growth is usually found on the back, belly, or chest.
- Darkening of the skin – Many women can begin forming dark patches of skin in the creases of their body, including the groin, neck, and under the breasts.
- Acne – Due to the increase in male hormones, a woman’s body will have more oily skin. This can cause acne breakouts.
- Headaches – A very common symptom of PCOS are headaches which are triggered by the fluctuations in hormones.
- Male pattern baldness – For some women, the hair on their scalp may begin to thin and eventually fall out.
3 Causes of PCOS
The exact cause of PCOS is actually unknown, but many doctors believe it may be due to one of three different conditions that are linked to an increase in androgen production.
- Inflammation – Women who have PCOS have higher levels of inflammation in their bodies. Inflammation can be a result of being overweight. It’s been shown that increased inflammation can increase androgen levels.
- Insulin Resistance – Obesity is a direct cause of insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is common in women with PCOS. The pancreas produces insulin, which is a hormone. With insulin resistance, cells in the body aren’t able to use insulin properly, and the body compensates by making more insulin. More insulin causes the ovaries to produce more male hormones.
- Genes – For many women, PCOS is directly related to their genetic makeup. It tends to run in families. It is believed that there are multiple genes that can contribute to a woman developing PCOS.
7 PCOS Treatment Options
- Diet – Some diets have been shown to have a positive effect on PCOS. Diets that have lower levels of carbohydrates can reduce weight and insulin levels. A low glycemic (low GI) diet with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help to regulate the menstrual cycle.
- Exercise – Adding 30 minutes of moderate exercise 3 or more days a week can help you lose weight. Weight loss can help with ovulation and improve your insulin levels.
- Clomiphene – A fertility drug, also known as clomid, is prescribed to women having difficulty getting pregnant. One side effect of clomid is an increased chance of multiples like twins.
- Metformin – Used to help treat type 2 diabetes, metformin can improve insulin levels with women who have PCOS. Taking metformin, along with changes to diet and exercise, can help you lose weight, lower your blood sugar, and restore a normal menstrual cycle.
- Birth control – Birth control, which contains progestin, may be prescribed to regulate both ovulation and hormone levels. It can also help to relieve some symptoms of PCOS such as excess hair growth.
- Hair removal medications – Your doctor may be able to prescribe medications such as Vaniqa that prohibit hair growth or stop it from growing altogether. For women who don’t want to take medication, laser hair removal or electrolysis can help to remove excess hair permanently.
- Surgery – When common fertility treatment options don’t work, surgery may be an option to help you get pregnant. One type of surgery is ovarian drilling, in which tiny holes are made in an ovary using a thin, heated needle or a laser to try and restore normal ovulation.
If you believe you are experiencing PCOS symptoms such as weight gain or hair growth, you’ve skipped periods, or you’ve been trying to get pregnant for more than 12 months, it may be time to see your doctor.
Your doctor will be able to recommend the best treatment options for you that can help relieve symptoms, restore normal menstrual cycles, or help you to get pregnant.