Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a medical condition caused by an imbalance of the reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone. Both hormones are produced over the course of a woman’s lifetime. They help to control things like the menstrual cycle, ovulation, fertility, and pregnancy.
Because these hormones are so important and because they can exert a huge effect on the body, the amount we produce is a tightly controlled process. But in PCOS, the normal regulation of these hormones is completely disrupted and the resulting hormonal imbalance is what leads to symptoms like acne, weight gain, and infertility.
Who gets PCOS?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a common medical condition. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age have PCOS. It is estimated that PCOS currently affects up to 5 million women in the United States1.
Most often, women find out they have PCOS in their 20s and 30s when they have problems getting pregnant and see their doctor. But PCOS can happen at any age after puberty1.
Women of all races and ethnicities are at risk for PCOS, but your risk for it may be higher if you are obese or if you have a mother, sister, or aunt with PCOS1.
What causes PCOS?
The exact cause of polycystic ovarian syndrome is still unknown, but doctors believe that hormonal imbalances and genetics play a role in developing it.
The symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome usually start after a woman’s first menstrual period. Yet, the type and severity of symptoms will differ from person to person. The most common characteristic of PCOS is an irregular menstrual period but some women may also experience the following2:
- Excess hair growth on the face, chest, stomach
- Decrease in breast size
- Deeper voice
Other symptoms may include:
- Weight gain
- Pelvic pain
Many women who have PCOS may also suffer from other medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
To diagnose PCOS, your doctor will take a full medical history from you and carry out a physical exam. In some cases, they may also order a blood test or ultrasound scan to confirm the diagnosis or rule out other possibilities.
There is no cure for PCOS, but there are many treatments you can use to manage its symptoms. The treatments you and your doctor decide on should take into account
- the severity of your symptoms,
- if you’re planning to have children in the future, and
- your own personal choice about what treatments you think are best for your lifestyle.
With that in mind, here are a few general treatment tips that many women have found success with:
- Change your diet. You don’t need to overhaul your diet but following a stricter, healthier diet is a great first step to managing your symptoms. Research shows that a low-calorie diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products can result in beneficial effects on your BMI and insulin metabolism3. Additionally, a healthy diet should include all your vitamins and minerals so be sure to think about adding supplements to your daily routine.
- Birth control pills. If you aren’t planning to become pregnant, your doctor may prescribe you birth control pills. These can help treat acne, regulate the menstrual cycle, and lower levels of male hormones, such as testosterone, in the body. If a woman with PCOS is infertile, fertility drugs may be prescribed to aid in ovulation2.
- Other medications. There are many other medications that your doctor may recommend that help control your symptoms. For example, some medications may reduce excess hair growth and clear up your acne. Diabetes medications may also be prescribed to lower blood glucose and testosterone levels.
What are the potential complications of PCOS?
Women with PCOS have a higher risk of developing the following medical conditions2:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Sleep apnea
- Endometrial cancer
- Breast cancer
Although there isn’t a cure for PCOS, by using some of the treatment steps above, women with this condition usually manage the worst of their symptoms and continue to lead normal, healthy lives with minimal disruption. For those who have been diagnosed with PCOS and want to get pregnant in the future, it’s worth visiting your doctor to make sure you’re on the right medications.
1- Womenshealth.gov. Polycystic ovary syndrome. Page last updated: June 09, 2017. https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/polycystic-ovary-syndrome
2- Healthline. Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. Medically Reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT on April 10, 2017 — Written by Jaime Herndon. http://www.healthline.com/health/polycystic-ovary-disease#overview1
3- DASH diet improves metabolic profile, BMI in PCOS Foroozanfard F, et al. Clin Endocrinol. 2017;doi:10.1111/cen.13333. https://www.healio.com/endocrinology/reproduction-androgen-disorders/news/in-the-journals/%7B3d662478-2f0c-4eeb-8e99-91ca2cfa08f2%7D/dash-diet-improves-metabolic-profile-bmi-in-pcos