What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)? Symptoms and Treatments

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Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), is a common hormonal disorder that interferes with the growth and release of eggs from a woman’s ovaries. Here's what you should know about this condition, its symptoms, and its affect on pregnancy.

What is polycystic ovary syndrome?

PCOS occurs when a woman’s body overproduces sex hormones, called androgens. The hormone imbalance prevents fluid-filled sacs in the ovaries from breaking open and releasing mature eggs. The ovaries become enlarged and appear covered with pearl-sized, fluid-filled, cysts.

PCOS causes complex changes in the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which can cause an imbalance of hormones that affect a woman’s ovulation. Those who suffer from PCOS are at higher risk for pregnancy complications, like miscarriage and preterm birth. One survey of relevant studies in Frontiers in Bioscience notes that PCOS may the cause of up to 30% of all infertility cases.

Although there is no cure for PCOS, symptoms can be treated with medical management and lifestyle modifications.

Who suffers from PCOS?

Up to 10% of all women of child-bearing age, one out of every ten, may suffer from PCOS notes the Office on Women's Health.

While anyone can develop this condition, those who have diabetes or are overweight/obese are at greater risk. There may also be a genetic component that's likely compounded by lifestyle factors. The U.S. National Library of Medicine estimates that "20 to 40 percent of women with polycystic ovary syndrome have an affected mother or sister."

Further, African American and Hispanic women may be diagnosed at higher rates. Hispanic women, in particular, may suffer from increased severity and rates of symptoms.

Common PCOS symptoms

The signs and symptoms of PCOS, range from physical changes to mental or reproductive cycle changes. Women who have PCOS may experience:

  • Weight gain or trouble losing weight
  • Excess hair on the face and body (called hirsutism)
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Darkened patches of skin
  • Skin tags
  • Acne
  • Thinning hair
  • Pelvic pain
  • An increase of stress levels
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Decreased sex drive

The production of excess male hormones, such as androgens, contributes to the symptoms of the condition.

Getting a diagnosis

As we noted in an earlier post, up to a third of women wait for two years or more before receiving a professional diagnosis.

PCOS is often overlooked and undiagnosed in many women because its symptoms are complex, vary from patient to patient, and can sometimes appear to be unrelated to one another. And, because PCOS is related to other medical conditions, it is difficult to diagnosis with a single test.

Early diagnosis is important, though, because those with PCOS are at a higher risk for developing:

  • Insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Sleep apnea
  • Heart disease

Those with PCOS also have higher rates of pregnancy complications, including:

  • Miscarriage
  • Gestational diabetes
  • Preeclampsia
  • Preterm birth or a C-section delivery

What is the best treatment for PCOS?

The first-line treatment for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a change in lifestyle, including a healthier eating plan, exercise, and active diabetes management, if present.

Routine exercise can assist the body in regulating insulin and in keeping off excess weight. Eating well, staying active, and maintaining a healthy weight can improve PCOS symptoms.

Although losing weight can be challenging for women with PCOS, weight loss is essential in reducing male hormone levels in the body and can assist in returning women to their natural ovulation cycle.

For those who suffer from severe symptoms or who are trying to get pregnant, more advanced PCOS treatments can also help.

The PCOS diet

A healthy diet that is low in refined carbohydrates is important for those with PCOS, as it helps regulate blood sugar levels.

The PCOS diet generally includes lean protein-rich foods such as beans, hummus, nuts, peanut butter, tofu, eggs, fish, chicken, lean meats, and vegetarian meat substitutes. You should incorporate a healthy balance of the following in your diet:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Plant-based protein
  • Healthy fats

High-fiber grains, such as brown rice and whole-wheat pasta, are preferable to low-fiber grains such as white rice, pasta, or white bread.

Further, some fats are much healthier than others, such as fats that are found in olive oil, canola oil, nuts, and avocados. These healthy fats and proteins are a better choice for the PCOS diet than butter, margarine, mayonnaise, full-fat cheese and red meat. Combining foods that contain protein or fat with a carbohydrate can help slow down the absorption of the carbohydrate and keep insulin levels low.

Becoming aware of the right foods to choose as well as the kinds of food to limit can help improve your overall symptoms and the way you feel.

Additional PCOS treatments

After a proper diagnosis, the treatment for PCOS will vary, depending on whether a woman is considering pregnancy, is menopausal, or does not want to conceive.

For those who are trying to get pregnant with PCOS, the treatment approach will depend on the patient’s current ovulatory cycles. Approaches may include:

  • Birth control pills to regulate menstruation
  • Insulin-sensitizing medications
  • Diabetes management
  • Ovulation induction to treat infertility
  • Androgen-blocking medications

For those suffering from other symptoms like hair growth and acne, the following may help:

  • Topical anti-hair-growth medications
  • Treatments for hair loss
  • Acne treatments
  • Removal of other skin problems, like skin tag removal

Getting pregnant with PCOS

When it comes to getting professional assistance with your fertility, it’s important that you discuss all of your options with a trusted medical provider. For many, though, it's still possible to get pregnant with PCOS. Women with PCOS who do become pregnant, both naturally and with fertility drugs, are at greater risk of having a multiple pregnancy.

With a proper diagnosis, changes in lifestyle and a PCOS and pregnancy treatment plan, The Fertility Institute helps our patients find relief from this condition and the overwhelming health problems it can cause.

If you're in the Gulf South, our doctors at The Fertility Institute will be more than happy discuss all of your fertility treatment for PCOS options in full detail. We've been making dreams come true since 1976!

We can answer any questions you have about fertility challenges, like PCOS. Contact us today!