POLYCYSTIC OVARY SYNDROME (PCOS)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels.
Women with PCOS produce higher-than-normal amounts of male hormones. This hormone imbalance causes their body to skip menstrual periods and makes it harder for them to get pregnant.
PCOS also causes hair growth on the face and body, and baldness. And it can contribute to long-term health problems like diabetes and heart disease.
Birth control pills and diabetes drugs (which combat insulin resistance, a PCOS symptom) can help fix the hormone imbalance and improve symptoms.Read on for a look at the possible causes of PCOS and its possible effects on a woman’s body.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a problem with hormones that affects women during their childbearing years (ages 15 to 44). Between 2.2 and 26.7 percent of women in this age group have PCOS
Many women have PCOS but don’t know it. In one study, up to 70 percent of women with PCOS hadn’t been diagnosed
PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small amount of male hormones called androgens.
The ovaries release eggs to be fertilized by a man’s sperm. The release of an egg each month is called ovulation.
Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH), which are produced in the pituitary gland, control ovulation.
FSH stimulates the ovary to produce a follicle — a sac that contains an egg and then LH triggers the ovary to release a mature egg. PCOS is a “syndrome,” or group of symptoms that affects the ovaries and ovulation. Its three main features are:
In PCOS, many small, fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries. The word “polycystic” means “many cysts.”
These sacs are actually follicles, each one containing an immature egg. The eggs never mature enough to trigger ovulation.
The lack of ovulation alters levels of estrogen, progesterone, FSH, and LH. Progesterone levels are lower than usual, while androgen levels are higher than usual.
Extra male hormones disrupt the menstrual cycle, so women with PCOS get fewer periods than usual.
What causes it?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes PCOS. They believe that high levels of male hormones prevent the ovaries from producing hormones and making eggs normally.
Genes, insulin resistance, and inflammation have all been linked to excess androgen production.
Studies show that PCOS runs in families
It’s likely that many genes — not just one — contribute to the condition
2. Insulin resistance
Up to 70 percent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells can’t use insulin properly
Insulin is a hormone the pancreas produces to help the body use sugar from foods for energy.
When cells can’t use insulin properly, the body’s demand for insulin increases. The pancreas makes more insulin to compensate. Extra insulin triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones.
Obesity is a major cause of insulin resistance. Both obesity and insulin resistance can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes
Women with PCOS often have increased levels of inflammation in their body. Being overweight can also contribute to inflammation. Studies have linked excess inflammation to higher androgen levels
Common symptoms of PCOS
Some women start seeing symptoms around the time of their first period. Others only discover they have PCOS after they’ve gained a lot of weight or they’ve had trouble getting pregnant.
The most common PCOS symptoms are:
How PCOS affects your body
Having higher-than-normal androgen levels can affect your fertility and other aspects of your health.
To get pregnant, you have to ovulate. Women who don’t ovulate regularly don’t release as many eggs to be fertilized. PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women
2. Metabolic syndrome
Up to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or have obesity Both obesity and PCOS increase your risk for:
Together, these factors are called metabolic syndrome, and they increase the risk for:
3. Sleep apnea
This condition causes repeated pauses in breathing during the night, which interrupt sleep.
Sleep apnea is more common in women who are overweight — especially if they also have PCOS. The risk for sleep apnea is 5 to 10 times higher in women who have both obesity and PCOS than in those without PCOS.
4. Endometrial cancer
During ovulation, the uterine lining sheds. If you don’t ovulate every month, the lining can build up.
A thickened uterine lining can increase your risk for endometrial cancer.
Both hormonal changes and symptoms like unwanted hair growth can negatively affect your emotions. Many with PCOS eventually experience depression and anxiety
How PCOS is diagnosed
Doctors typically diagnose PCOS in women who have at least two of these three symptoms
Your doctor should also ask whether you’ve had symptoms like acne, face and body hair growth, and weight gain.
A pelvic exam can look for any problems with your ovaries or other parts of your reproductive tract. During this test, your doctor inserts gloved fingers into your vagina and checks for any growths in your ovaries or uterus.
Blood tests check for higher-than-normal levels of male hormones.
You might also have blood tests to check your cholesterol, insulin, and triglyceride levels to evaluate your risk for related conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to look for abnormal follicles and other problems with your ovaries and uterus.
Pregnancy and PCOS
PCOS interrupts the normal menstrual cycle and makes it harder to get pregnant. Between 70 and 80 percent of women with PCOS have fertility problems
This condition can also increase the risk for pregnancy complications.
Women with PCOS are twice as likely as women without the condition to deliver their baby prematurely. They’re also at greater risk for miscarriage, high blood pressure, and
However, women with PCOS can get pregnant using fertility treatments that improve ovulation. Losing weight and lowering blood sugar levels can improve your chances of having a healthy pregnancy.
Diet and lifestyle tips to treat PCOS
Treatment for PCOS usually starts with lifestyle changes like weight loss, diet, and exercise.
Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help regulate your menstrual cycle and improve PCOS symptoms
Weight loss can also:
Any diet that helps you lose weight can help your condition. However, some diets may have advantages over others.
Studies comparing diets for PCOS have found that low carbohydrate diets are effective for both weight loss and lowering insulin levels.
A low glycemic index (low GI) diet that gets most carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps regulate the menstrual cycle better than a regular weight loss diet
A few studies have found that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 3 days a week can help women with PCOS lose weight. Losing weight with exercise also improves ovulation and insulin levels
Exercise is even more beneficial when combined with a healthy diet. Diet plus exercise helps you lose more weight than either intervention alone, and it lowers your risks for diabetes and heart disease.
There is some evidence that acupuncture can help with improving PCOS, but more research is needed.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
If your periods are already irregular or absent and you’re trying to get pregnant, do not wait 12 months to see a specialist to be evaluated.
Also, keep in mind that if you do not wish to get pregnant, irregular or absent periods are not birth control in themselves.
It may still be possible to get pregnant even under these conditions. It’s best to use contraception in this case even if you have PCOS.
If you have PCOS, plan regular visits with your primary care doctor. You’ll need regular tests to check for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other possible complications.
Low-dose FSH therapy is the second-line of treatment but laparoscopic ovarian drilling is also successful particularly for normal weight women with high LH levels. Most women whose cause of infertility is purely anovulatory PCOS will successfully conceive with one of these treatments but for those who have failed (and probably have an additional factor)
IVF is a relatively successful ‘last resort’ treatment.