Quick Facts about PCOS
- Around 5 - 10% of women of reproductive age have PCOS.
- Women are more likely to develop PCOS if a female blood relative has also experienced it.
- Obesity is a risk factor for PCOS and the other health issues associated with it.
PCOS affects up to 10% of women after puberty, though many of them remain undiagnosed. This condition is closely tied to hormone levels, both sex hormones and metabolic hormones. Women with PCOS may experience more regular periods as they transition through menopause, but other symptoms of PCOS may remain.
PCOS is only identifiable by its symptoms, as special medical equipment is necessary to detect cysts on the ovaries. Especially in teens, the symptoms of PCOS may be conflated with symptoms typical of puberty, such as acne. In fact, these symptoms may be caused by the same types of hormonal imbalance in both puberty and PCOS. However, certain symptoms - such as skin tags - are more closely connected to PCOS than puberty.
Continue to the next section for information on what causes PCOS.
While PCOS has not been fully explained, it is known that the primary cause of the condition is an imbalance in the levels of various hormones. Other factors can also contribute to the development of PCOS.
Hormonal Causes of PCOS
The symptoms of PCOS are largely produced by excess androgens in the body. “Androgens” is an umbrella term for sex hormones typically associated with males, such as testosterone. It is normal for the female body to produce some androgens - since these hormones play an important role in sex drive, among other functions - but less than what the male body produces.
The excess androgen levels associated with PCOS also stop the ovaries from ovulating and impact levels of female sex hormones. The cysts in PCOS are actually the follicles of the ovaries filling with fluid. Follicles are sacs in the ovaries from which an egg is released each month in normal menstrual cycles. However, an egg is not released when the follicles are filled with fluid. This lack of ovulation interrupts the normal flow of female hormones that regulates the menstrual cycle, which results in yet more symptoms related to hormonal imbalance.
Insulin - a metabolic hormone that influences how the body uses glucose for energy - is also thought to play a role in the development of PCOS. Women whose bodies make excess insulin due to insulin resistance or another metabolic disorder may experience increased androgen levels as a result. This is because excess insulin can cause the ovaries to produce more androgens than usual.
Other Causes of PCOS
Other factors, like genetics and inflammation, can also influence the development of PCOS.
Keep reading to learn about the different signs and symptoms of PCOS.
Signs and Symptoms
In women with PCOS, symptoms typically appear sometime after the midway point through puberty. Not all women will necessarily experience each of the following symptoms, but most will have at least some. These symptoms are highly associated with excess androgen and insulin levels.
Symptoms of PCOS
- Irregular periods, especially infrequent or absent periods
- Excess hair growth, namely on the chin, upper lip, chest, or lower abdomen (i.e., hirsutism)
- Infertility or difficulty conceiving
- Darkened, velvety skin patches around the armpits (i.e., acanthosis nigricans)
- Difficulty losing weight
- Hair thinning on the scalp
- Trouble sleeping
- Skin tags
What other symptoms might accompany PCOS? Because of excess androgen levels, some women may develop masculine features. However, these symptoms are not a normal part of the condition, but are instead associated with extremely high levels of androgens.
Signs of PCOS
- Excess androgen levels
- High blood sugar levels
- Blood pressure over 120/80
- Body mass index over 25
- Polycystic ovaries
Diagnosis of PCOS
The signs and symptoms of PCOS can be hard to pinpoint, as they may overlap with some symptoms of puberty, insulin resistance, diabetes, or other hormonal disorders. To diagnose PCOS, a physician will typically perform three procedures: a review of the patient's medical history, a physical exam, and laboratory tests.
Complications of PCOS
PCOS raises a woman's risk of developing other health problems. The condition often coincides with metabolic issues, which can turn into more serious conditions.
Because PCOS has generally undesirable symptoms and impacts so many aspects of health, treatment is a priority. Continue reading to find out more about lifestyle changes, supplements, medications, and surgery in the treatment of PCOS.
PCOS treatment is often approached from several angles because of the complexity of the condition. Since the symptoms are all connected to hormonal imbalance, it's important to treat this root cause and also take steps to prevent complications.
Three Approaches to Treat PCOS
Three levels of approaches can be considered for treating PCOS symptoms. These are categorized as: (1) Lifestyle Changes, (2) Alternative Medicine, and (3) Pharmaceutical and Surgical Options.
Depending on the severity of the symptoms, lifestyle changes are generally recommended as the first course of action because they entail the lowest risk and also benefit overall health. If they are not enough to relieve the symptoms, a hormone-balancing treatment may be attempted. Medications and surgery are typically considered the last resort because they involve the most risk and cost.
Lifestyle Changes for PCOS
Lifestyle changes are a wholesome way to approach the many facets of PCOS. In some cases, the implementation of the right healthy habits may even completely eliminate the symptoms of the condition and any associated disorders. Healthy eating, weight loss, and regular exercise are the pillars of lifestyle adjustments for treating PCOS.
Because nutrition and weight loss are integral to the treatment of PCOS, lifestyle adjustments are the first recourse. However, if they alone are not enough to alleviate symptoms, they can be combined with other approaches. Alternative medicine offers a safe and natural option for balancing hormone levels.
Alternative Medicine for PCOS
While “alternative medicine” spans a wide range of remedies, certain dietary supplements in particular can help with PCOS because of the effect they have on hormone levels. They are divided into two types: phytoestrogenic and hormone-regulating herbal supplements.
Phytoestrogenic herbal supplementsBlack cohosh, soy, red clover, dong quai, and other such supplements are known for their phytoestrogen content. These plant-based, estrogen-like compounds act like weaker forms of estrogen the body, which can help raise estrogen levels when they are low. While this can assist in balancing the low female sex hormone levels associated with PCOS, it does not directly address excess androgen levels.
Hormone-regulating herbal supplementsThese supplements, such as Macafem, do not contain any hormones, whether natural or artificial. They work by stimulating the hormonal glands thanks to the action of their unique alkaloids. This nourishment of the hormonal glands helps them produce the hormones that the body needs at balanced levels, thereby raising female sex hormone levels while reducing androgen levels in the case of PCOS.
Additionally, other herbal supplements may help in the treatment of PCOS.
For many women with PCOS, the combination of healthy lifestyle changes and herbal supplements is an effective way to treat the symptoms and balance hormone levels. However, in more severe cases of the syndrome, medical intervention may be necessary to relieve the symptoms and prevent associated disorders.
Pharmaceutical and Surgical Options for PCOS
Medications generally involve more risk, and they require a prescription. Pharmaceutical options include inventions to increase female sex hormones, as well as anti-androgen medications, antidiabetic drugs, and fertility medications. In the most severe of cases, removal of the ovaries is a surgical procedure that may be required.
The above approaches can be combined to form a personalized treatment that is best suited to treating the symptoms and other problems an individual woman is having. Many women with PCOS find relief from their symptoms with a blend of healthy lifestyle changes and alternative supplements.
- Harvard Health Publications. (2014). Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from http://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/polycystic-ovary-syndrome
- International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10. (2017). 2017 ICD-10-CM Diagnosis Code E28.2. Retrieved from http://www.icd10data.com/ICD10CM/Codes/E00-E89/E20-E35/E28-/E28.2
- Johnson, N.P. & Wang, K. (2003). Is ovarian surgery effective for androgenic symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome? Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 23(6), 599-606. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14617458
- Mayo Clinic. (2014). Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Retrieved March 5, 2017, from http://www.mayo.edu/diseases-conditions/pcos/basics/definition/con-20028841
- Office on Women's Health. (2016). Polycystic ovary syndrome. Retrieved March 5, 2017, from https://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/polycystic-ovary-syndrome.html
- Rasgon, N. (2004). The relationship between polycystic ovary syndrome and antiepileptic drugs: a review of the evidence. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, 24(3), 322-334. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15118487
- Sheehan, M.T. (2004). Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome: Diagnosis and Management. Clinical Medicine & Research, 2(1), 13-27. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1069067/
- UCLA Health. (n.d.). Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). Retrieved March 5, 2017, from http://obgyn.ucla.edu/pcos