Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels.
Women with PCOS produce higher-than-normal amounts of male hormones. This hormone imbalance causes them to skip menstrual periods and makes it tougher to get pregnant.
PCOS also causes hair growth on the face and body, and baldness. It can contribute to long-term health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Many women have PCOS but don’t know it. In one study, up to 70 percent of women with PCOS hadn’t been diagnosed.
PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small amount of male hormones called androgens.
The ovaries release eggs to be fertilized by a man’s sperm. The release of an egg each month is called ovulation.
Studies show that PCOS runs in families.
It’s likely that many genes — not just one — contribute to the condition.
PCOS is a “syndrome,” or group of symptoms that affects the ovaries and ovulation. Its three main features are:
- Cysts in the ovaries
- Irregular or skipped periods
Up to 70 percent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells can’t use insulin properly. When cells can’t use insulin properly, the body’s demand for insulin increases. The pancreas makes more insulin to compensate. Extra insulin triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones. Obesity is a major cause of insulin resistance. Both obesity and insulin resistance can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.
Women with PCOS often have increased levels of inflammation in their body. Being overweight can also contribute to inflammation. Studies have linked excess inflammation to higher androgen levels.
6 symptoms of PCOS
- Irregular periods: A lack of ovulation prevents the uterine lining from shedding every month. Some women with PCOS get fewer than eight periods a year.
- Heavy bleeding: The uterine lining builds up for a longer period of time, so the periods you do get can be heavier than normal.
- Hair growth: More than 70 percent of women with this condition grow hair on their face and body — including on their back, belly, and chest. Excess hair growth is called hirsutism.
- Acne: Male hormones can make the skin oilier than usual and cause breakouts on areas like the face, chest, and upper back.
- Weight gain: Up to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese.
- Male-pattern baldness: Hair on the scalp get thinner and fall out.
- Darkening of the skin: Dark patches of skin can form in body creases like those on the neck, in the groin, and under the breasts.
- Headaches: Hormone changes can trigger headaches in some women.
Diet and Health tips to treat PCOS
- Treatment for PCOS usually starts with lifestyle changes like weight loss, diet, and exercise.
- Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can help regulate your menstrual cycle and improve PCOS symptoms.
- Weight loss can also improve cholesterol levels, lower insulin, and reduce heart disease and diabetes risks. Any diet that helps you lose weight can help your condition. However, some diets may have advantages over others.
- Studies comparing diets for PCOS have found that low-carbohydrate diets are effective for both weight loss and lowering insulin levels. A low glycemic index (low-GI) diet that gets most carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains helps regulate the menstrual cycle better than a regular weight loss diet.
- Studies have found that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise at least three days a week can help women with PCOS lose weight. Losing weight with exercise also improves ovulation and insulin levels.
Exercise is even more beneficial when combined with a healthy diet. Diet plus exercise helps you lose more weight than either intervention alone, and it lowers your risks for diabetes and heart disease.
PCOS treatment starts with lifestyle changes like diet and exercise. Losing just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight if you’re overweight can help improve your symptoms.
See your doctor if you’ve skipped periods or you have other PCOS symptoms like hair growth on your face or body. Also see a doctor if you’ve been trying to get pregnant for 12 months or more without success.