Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition affecting a woman’s hormone levels. We give you the lowdown on signs, symptoms and treatment options.

If you’ve been doing research about fertility or hormonal conditions, you may have come across the term Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Women with this condition exhibit an imbalance of female hormones, preventing their ovaries from releasing an egg each month. The many unreleased eggs in the ovaries result in the formation of numerous small cysts (fluid-filled sacs). However, some women with this disorder do not have cysts present.

The ovaries also produce an abnormal amount of androgens (male sex hormones that are usually present in only small amounts). Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome may have irregular periods or periods that last many days. 

What causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

The exact cause of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is unknown, but it involves a hormonal imbalance. Some experts also posit that it may be a genetic disorder.

Insulin resistance may also play a part. Up to 70 percent of women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome have insulin resistance, where their cells cannot use insulin properly. When cells are unable to use insulin properly, the body’s demand for insulin increases. The pancreas makes more insulin to compensate. In turn, extra insulin triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones.

What are the signs and symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

- Menstrual irregularities: Approximately 60 to 70 percent of women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome exhibit menstrual dysfunction related to anovulation (when an egg does not release from the ovary during the menstrual cycle). Common abnormalities include infrequent periods (oligomenorrhoea) and absence of periods (amenorrhoea). Frequent and prolonged periods (polymenorrhoea) are less common.  

- Hair growth: More than 70 percent of women grow hair on their face and body, including the back, belly, and chest. This condition is known as hirsutism.

- Acne: Male hormones can also cause skin to be oilier than usual, with breakouts on areas like the face, chest, and upper back. 

- Darkening of the skin: Dark patches of skin can form in body creases on the neck, in the groin and under the breasts.

- Weight gain: Women with this condition are more likely to be overweight or have obesity issues.

Effects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome on the body

- Infertility: Women who do not ovulate regularly do not release as many eggs to be fertilized. This makes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome one of the leading causes of infertility in women.

- Inflammation: Women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome tend to have increased levels of inflammation in the body. Being overweight can also contribute to inflammation. 

- Metabolic syndrome: Up to 80 percent of women with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are overweight or have obesity. Both obesity and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome are S increase one’s risk for high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low HDL “good” cholesterol and high LDL “bad” cholesterol. Together, these factors are called metabolic syndrome, and they increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. 

- Cancer risks: A higher risk of endometrial (uterine) cancer. 

Getting diagnosed

If you are exhibiting symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, make an appointment with your doctor. They’ll work to rule out other possible causes, and check your blood pressure. They'll also arrange for hormone tests to find out whether the excess hormone production is caused by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or another hormone-related condition.

An ultrasound scan can also show whether you have a high number of follicles in your ovaries (polycystic ovaries). A blood test may also be required to measure your hormone levels and screen for diabetes or high cholesterol.

Treatment options 

- Making diet-related lifestyle changes:  Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a result of hormonal imbalances, which is further exacerbated by one’s body being insulin-resistant. Consider diet changes such as eating low glycemic index foods like whole grains. Add vegetables to make sure your body gets enough nutrition and less glucose spikes. Foods like broccoli, cabbage, beans, lentils, mustard leaves and seeds are also great to balance hormones. 

- Studies comparing diets for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome have also found that low carbohydrate diets are effective for both weight loss and lowering insulin levels. Another strategy is to keep a limited eating window. This gives your digestive system a break, and increases your body’s receptivity to insulin.

- Exercise: Combine diet with exercise to enhance your overall health. A few studies have shown that that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least 3 days a week can help women with losing weight. Losing weight with exercise also improves ovulation and insulin levels.

- Combination birth control pills: Pills that contain both estrogen and progestin decrease androgen production and regulate estrogen. Regulating your hormones can lower your risk of endometrial cancer and correct irregular bleeding, excess hair growth and acne.

- Metformin: Used to treat type 2 diabetes and improve insulin levels.

- Fertility medications: To help you ovulate for pregnancy, your doctor might recommend certain hormonal meds as well, such as clomiphene, letrozole or gonadotropins. 

- Acne treatments: Pills and topical creams or gels may help tackle acne. 

If you suspect that you may have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, a doctor’s visit will help get your starting on your treatment journey. Clinics such as Thomson Women’s Clinics offer a comprehensive range of women’s healthcare services, with specialities in such hormonal conditions. 

Photos: iStock

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