Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) in women is caused by a hormonal imbalance, or an excess of androgens (a form of male hormone that’s found in the female body). An excess of androgens can lead to multiple problems for women, including ovarian dysfunction, infertility and insulin resistance.
Women with PCOS may experience problems with acne and hirsutism, or unwanted male-pattern hair growth in women, such as on the face, chest and abdominal area. PCOS can also result in abdominal weight gain, which is already a source of frustration for so many women.
PCOS is a complex disorder that affects many areas of the body. Learn more about the symptoms of PCOS and how to treat it.
Symptoms of PCOS
Symptom onset for PCOS tends to vary from person to person. PCOS mainly occurs in women of childbearing age, mostly between the ages of 15 and 45. Many women don’t experience any symptoms at all, until they try to get pregnant and have trouble. Other women start to experience symptoms within five to 10 years of starting puberty.
Most patients with PCOS notice irregular periods, the absence of periods, excess hair growth and abdominal weight gain that they just can’t seem to get rid of despite exercising and adjusting their diet.
Some physicians place younger women with irregular periods on birth control to regulate their hormones, which tends to cover up a lot of the PCOS symptoms. Irregular periods can be common in women going through puberty, and that’s certainly not diagnostic of PCOS. But if irregular periods continue into your 20s, then PCOS may be the culprit.
Other women don’t experience any symptoms at all until they have trouble getting pregnant. Doctors start looking at their ovaries and ovary function, and notice they have multiple follicles (small collections of fluid) on their ovaries.
PCOS Link to Infertility and Type 2 Diabetes
The link between diabetes and infertility is integral to PCOS, because both are a direct result of excess androgens. When you have excess androgens floating around, it leads to ovarian dysfunction and inevitably the absence of ovulation.
Lots of follicles develop each month, and in a normal ovary one follicle becomes dominant and ovulation occurs. Ovulation causes a cascade of hormonal changes to occur in the second half of a woman’s cycle, which ultimately ends in a period if pregnancy does not occur. In women with excess androgens, the condition of PCOS inhibits a single follicle in the ovaries from becoming dominant each month.
Women who fail to ovulate get all of these follicles maturing and floating around, and they look like a bunch of little cysts on your ovaries, hence the name Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. If you’re not ovulating, that can lead to infertility or at least trouble getting pregnant. It doesn’t mean you’re completely infertile, but it does reduce the chances that pregnancy will occur normally or easily.
The same thing occurs with insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes, because androgens tend to interfere with insulin function. With excess androgens floating around, your body must make more insulin to get the same job done. Once your body starts producing more insulin, that can lead to sugar cravings and weight gain, and it becomes this self-perpetuating cycle. In the long run, insulin resistance can turn into diabetes if it goes untreated long enough.
PCOS Diagnosis and Treatment
If you think you are experiencing symptoms of PCOS, make an appointment to see your primary care physician. Most times, PCOS can be diagnosed through a physical exam, a pelvic ultrasound and bloodwork. The symptoms of PCOS are easily treatable but getting the diagnosis right in the first place is key.
Difficulty with losing weight in the abdominal area seems to be what challenges most of my patients. It’s harder to lose abdominal body fat when you have PCOS, because it’s one of those cases where you truly have a hormone imbalance that causes the weight gain.
Women with PCOS need to work harder at exercising, cutting out carbohydrates and following a low-calorie diet to lose weight. Periods can be regulated with birth control and the excess hormones can be controlled with certain other medications. So, steps can be taken to manage the symptoms, but some women are going to fight a few battles they wouldn’t otherwise fight.
Exercise is the most efficient insulin sensitizer. The more exercise you do, the more efficiently your insulin will work. It also controls weight loss. Current recommendations to increase insulin function call for 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes a week of high intensity exercise.
I tend to think that’s not enough. Our bodies are really meant to move all day long, so I would normally recommend a full hour of exercise a day. It doesn’t need to be anything super intense, but you should be moving your body consistently for a full hour every day to get good insulin function. The better your insulin is functioning, the better your ovaries are going to function.
As a direct primary care physician, I take the time to truly educate patients on this complex disorder. With hormonal, fertility and metabolic implications, PCOS affects all areas of the body, including the hair, skin, abdomen, pancreas, body mass and ovaries.
Contact my office today, and let’s work together to correctly diagnose your PCOS and develop a plan to treat it, which may mean changes to diet, exercise and medications, if necessary. Women don’t need to suffer alone, and I’m here to help.