What is PCOS?
PCOS, or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is a complex hormonal disorder, that can be difficult to diagnose. The reason it is so complex, is that there are a number of symptoms, and you don’t need all of them to be diagnosed with PCOS. In fact, different women with PCOS may have different symptoms. Further, the name is slightly misleading, because ‘polycystic’ suggests there may be multiple ‘cysts’ on the ovaries. However, not everyone with PCOS has ‘cysts’ and not everyone with ‘cysts’ will have PCOS. Not only that, but using the word ‘cysts’ isn’t completely accurate either, because what is being referred to are actually partially formed follicles which contain an egg. Phew!
So now that we have gotten that out of the way, you probably want to know a bit more about the symptoms of PCOS and why the symptoms occur in the first place.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of PCOS can include the following:
- Excess hair on the face and body
- Hair loss
- Weight gain
- Difficulties with fertility
- Increased anxiety and depression
- Symptoms associated with periods – such as irregular or no periods, or heavier or lighter bleeding during periods.
Why do the symptoms occur?
The main culprit causing many of the symptoms of PCOS is having high levels of androgens in the body. Androgens are a group of hormones, including testosterone. Under normal conditions, all women produce some androgens from the ovaries and adrenal gland. However, in PCOS, higher levels of androgens are prevalent, which can prevent ovulation and also disrupt the monthly menstrual cycle. The actual cause of PCOS is unknown, but there appears to be some connection with family history, insulin resistance and lifestyle.
The weight/insulin/PCOS cycle
For some women, being overweight and suffering from PCOS can go hand in hand, as being overweight can make insulin resistance and PCOS symptoms worse. This is because the more abdominal fat in the body, the more likely that insulin resistance will be present, causing the pancreas to potentially release more insulin. The more insulin released, the more the ovary is likely to produce excess androgens. This may all sound a bit overwhelming, but the important take home point, is that through lifestyle modifications you may be able to make a real impact on your PCOS symptoms. This is because insulin resistance is often partly caused by lifestyle factors, such as being over weight, having a diet high in sugar and fat or being physically inactive.
What can be done to treat my PCOS symptoms?
There are many different options for treatment of PCOS and PCOS symptoms. One of the main strategies likely to be discussed between you and your doctor will be a healthy diet and physical activity. Your GP may also discuss options of various medications with you, such as the oral contraceptive pill, or medications for insulin sensitivity or to lower testosterone levels. Each patient will be different and there won’t be a one size fits all, so it’s important to have these detailed discussions and come up with a tailored action plan for you.