What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

According to the NHS, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects 1 in every 10 women in the UK, but it’s still highly under-diagnosed. Some of the symptoms can be subtle or minimal, so many women have no idea that they have the condition. In this guide, we’ve put together everything you need to know about PCOS and how it can be treated.

In a rush? Read this quick summary:

  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects 1 in every 10 women in the UK.
  • Some of the symptoms include irregular periods, excess hair growth, and weight gain.
  • It's still not known what causes PCOS, but some theories include family history, insulin resistance and being overweight.
  • There is not yet a cure for PCOS, but it can be managed in different ways, including eating a plant-based diet and exercising regularly.

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that commonly affects women ages 15 to 44. In someone with PCOS, their hormones are unbalanced. They produce more of the male hormone testosterone than what is normal. PCOS can cause one (or all) of the following:

  • Tiny cysts to form in the ovaries
  • High levels of testosterone
  • Irregular or no periods

Having higher levels of the male hormone can prevent ovulation in some women, which can cause periods to become irregular or stop completely. PCOS is a serious condition that must be controlled to prevent it from leading to further complications.

What causes PCOS?

Unfortunately, doctors aren’t too sure what causes PCOS, but they do know that higher levels of androgens disturb ovulation. There are a few theories into what can cause it:

Family history

It seems that PCOS can run in families. People who have type 2 diabetes are also at higher risk of developing the condition. If you have a sister or mother who has PCOS, speak to your doctor about getting tested.

Being overweight

There’s not too much evidence here, but the idea is that being overweight puts strain on the body and can lead to inflammation. Diet can also go hand-in-hand with it. Despite this, there are many people who are not overweight and still have PCOS, so this should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Insulin resistance

The most likely cause of PCOS is insulin resistance. Most women who have PCOS also have insulin resistance, which means that an excess of insulin is produced to maintain normal blood sugar levels. Abnormally high levels of insulin can cause testosterone levels to rise, as well, which can cause problems with ovulation and fertility. 

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What are the symptoms of PCOS?

Not everyone who has PCOS will have symptoms. For some people, the symptoms might seem so subtle that they ignore it. For others, the symptoms could be more obvious and impossible to ignore. Here are the most common symptoms:

— Excess hair growth

Some body and facial hair is normal, no matter what gender you are. However, a sudden increase of hair on the face, stomach or chest could be a sign of PCOS. 

— Irregular periods

Problems with ovulation leads to irregular periods. If you are often missing periods or have less than 8 periods a year, it’s time to see a doctor.

— No periods

Some women with PCOS don’t have any periods at all. This can make it difficult for some women to conceive naturally

— Darkening of the skin

Insulin resistance, which often goes hand-in-hand with PCOS, can cause darkening of the skin. Common areas are the back of the neck, the armpits and the groin area.

— Acne

Having too much testosterone can increase sebum, which can often lead to spots and acne. It’s estimated that around 30% of women with PCOS will have acne.

— Weight gain

Around 80% of women with PCOS have trouble losing weight, which is often caused by insulin resistance. 

What can happen if you leave PCOS untreated?

If left untreated, PCOS can lead to very serious health complications.
Here are some of the most common conditions associated with it:

— Heart disease

As many people with PCOS struggle with weight issues, this can put you at higher risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. These health problems can lead to heart disease and stroke.

— Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a sleep disorder that can affect your mood, energy levels and overall health. Some people with PCOS are at higher risk due to weight gain.

— Infertility

PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility amongst women. Many women with PCOS have trouble ovulating every month and some don’t ovulate at all, which is often the reason for missed periods. 

How is PCOS diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms to confirm whether they think you could have PCOS. They might want to send you for a few tests to rule out other serious health conditions first. To diagnose PCOS, they will arrange for a blood test to check your hormone levels. This can tell them if you have excess hormones caused by PCOS. A pelvic scan and an ultrasound will likely be arranged to check for growths in your ovaries.

If blood tests confirm that you have high levels of testosterone and/or you have cysts on the ovaries, then your doctor will diagnose you with PCOS. They will also take into account missed or infrequent periods.

How do you treat PCOS?

Sadly, there is no cure for PCOS. However, there are treatment options to help you manage the symptoms. The first goal of treatment is to make changes to your diet and lifestyle. Eating a whole foods diet that involves a wide range of vegetables is recommended alongside getting 30 minutes of exercise a day.

The pill is often recommended to help manage acne and hair growth. It can also help to regulate periods and prevent the risk of endometrial cancer.

Can you still get pregnant if you have PCOS?

It’s a myth that women with PCOS can’t get pregnant. Even though it can be harder, it’s definitely possible. A medicine called Clomifene can be prescribed to help encourage ovulation. For women who don’t respond well to this medicine, IVF or surgery can be better options. Surgery involves using a laser or heat to prevent tissue from overproducing male hormones. Many women see huge benefits with these treatments and go on to have healthy pregnancies.

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