September is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) Awareness Month. PCOS is a hormonal disorder common among women of reproductive age. It is estimated that between 5-10% of women of childbearing age have PCOS, which is about 5 million.
Obesity is one of many possible risk factors for having PCOS, among other reproductive health problems. Some people believe that their weight is entirely to blame if they have this disorder, or that weight-loss will cure their PCOS and erase symptoms. But this is not always the case. That’s why we wanted to take some time during PCOS Awareness Month to provider a better understanding of this condition and how it can be managed.
What is PCOS?
Women with PCOS have a hormonal imbalance that affects their metabolic and reproductive health. They might have infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods or have excess male hormone levels (androgens). This hormone imbalance can cause the ovaries to develop small collections of fluid (follicles) and prevent them from releasing eggs.
Symptoms of PCOS can include:
- Non-existent or irregular periods
- Small cysts along the outer edges of enlarged ovaries
- Weight gain or trouble losing weight
- Excess facial hair or male pattern baldness
- Infertility or difficulty getting pregnant
- Chronic fatigue and low energy
- Headaches and acne
- Pelvic pain
There is no one test to make a diagnosis of PCOS, so your physician should ask questions if the condition is suspected and order a blood test to measure hormone levels. They can also do an ultrasound to look for the presence of follicles on your ovaries.
What Causes it?
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but several factors are believed to play a role:
- Genetics – Certain genes may be linked to PCOS. A woman is more likely to develop PCOS if others in her family have it (mother, sister, aunt).
- Insulin Resistance – If your cells become resistant to insulin, your blood sugar levels can rise and your body might produce more insulin in response. Excess insulin can increase the production of androgens.
- Excess Androgen – The ovaries might be producing high levels of androgens which can result in hirsutism (excessive, unwanted hair growth) and acne.
- Obesity and Inflammation – The presence of obesity can result in inflammation in the body that stimulates the ovaries to produce androgens.
While PCOS does not have a definitive cure, lifestyle changes and some treatment options can help you manage symptoms and regulate your hormones. This can improve your menstrual periods, reproductive health and overall wellness. Talk to a healthcare provider such as your primary care physician or OB-GYN to talk about available options and your best course of treatment. Recommended treatments may vary among women.
- Quitting smoking – Lowers your androgen levels.
- Regular exercise – Improves your body’s use of insulin.
- Maintaining a healthy diet – A diet rich in healthy carbs, fruits, vegetables and low-fat foods can help balance hormones and support your overall health.
- Weight-loss – If you have obesity, losing as little as 5-10% of your total body weight can improve your health significantly.
- Birth control pills
- Androgen-reducing therapies
- Fertility drug treatment for help getting pregnant
- Blood sugar and insulin regulation medication
If you struggle with a PCOS diagnosis, you know what a complex condition it is. If you don’t, you probably know at least one close woman in your life who has it.
However, with the help of a physician and proper treatment, symptoms can be relieved. If you suspect you might have PCOS, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your physician. Early intervention can make your journey more manageable and prevent other chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and others. For more information on this topic, visit the PCOS Awareness Association at pcosaa.org.