As women, our hormones can be a little bit of a mystery - and that's even more the case for the 1 in 10 women who have or are diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Commonly abbreviated to PCOS, polycystic ovarian syndrome affects girls as young as 11 and women of childbearing age are at risk of developing it at any time after puberty.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, the term, refers to cysts (sacs of fluid) that fail to regularly release eggs Â However, not all women who have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome have polycystic ovaries, and not all women with cysts have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Since the understanding of this syndrome is still developing, itâ€™s better to think of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome as an overall hormonal and metabolic issue that has less to do with cysts and more to do with the female hormonal systems. Of note, in this syndrome, is that women with PCOS often have higher levels of androgen (male hormones), which can disrupt the menstrual cycle and impede ovulation.
PCOS is a varied syndrome and shows up slightly differently in all of the women who suffer from it. Some may get cysts and some may not - some women may face weight gain and others may not. Some women get normal periods but their hormones show that they are affected by the disorder.
Generally, doctors still donâ€™t know exactly why some women get PCOS, but studies have shown that it is in some part determined by your genes. There is no single gene that causes PCOS, but there are suggestions that a series of genes, especially those that affect hormone levels and insulin resistance, contribute to it. Â A wide variety of other factors such as stress and diet can also contribute.
Many women with PCOS are resistant to insulin, and this is especially true in cases of women who are overweight or obese, have unhealthy eating habits, live sedentary lifestyles, or have a family history of diabetes. Insulin resistance describes a hormonal state in which your body is less able to send the proper amount of glucose to the cells. In turn, the pancreas produce more insulin to stabilize glucose levels. The extra insulin in your body causes several negative effects on the body, including the ovaries, leading to higher levels of male hormones.
No single test can diagnose PCOS. Instead, symptoms, blood tests, and physical exams help doctors to diagnose the condition. International criteria to diagnose PCOS say that a woman may have any two out of three of the major symptoms: high androgen levels, ovarian cysts, or irregular periods.
The potential long-term effects caused by PCOS
Though PCOS symptoms are mostly things that might be considered inconveniences, there are serious long term effects associated with the syndrome. The following are more serious symptoms and comorbid disorders that appear with chronic untreated PCOS.
Between 70 and 80 percent of women have issues with fertility due to PCOS, and are at greater risk for miscarriage and complications while pregnant. However, women with PCOS can still get pregnant through fertility treatments. Losing weight and improving overall health can also improve the chance of having a healthy pregnancy. PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women, but there are still ways to get pregnant. If you are concerned about how PCOS may affect your chances of a healthy pregnancy, talk to your doctor about ways to help you ovulate and raise your chances of getting pregnant. Fertilization treatments such as ovulation-inducing drugs and in vitro fertilization are also available to women trying to get pregnant with PCOS.
There is no cure for PCOS, but there are ways to manage the symptoms. Losing weight is the most important step you can take at home. Healthy eating habits and regular physical activity can greatly alleviate symptoms associated with PCOS. It can improve the way your body uses insulin, in turn helping your hormones to regulate better. Even a 5-10% loss in body weight can help to better regulate your period and improve ovulation. Studies have shown that a low-carbohydrate diet is effective in both weight loss and lowering insulin levels.
Birth control pills and other forms of hormonal birth control can also help regulate the menstrual cycle and treat other symptoms of PCOS such as hair growth and acne. Hormonal birth control also decrease the risk of endometrial cancer because they keep the endometrial lining very thin. Estrogen and progestin in hormonal birth control can help to restore normal hormone balance. Metformin, a drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, and other insulin-sensitizing drugs, have also shown to treat symptoms of PCOS by improving insulin levels.
If you are diagnosed with PCOS, talk to your doctor about the best type of treatments for you.