Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): what you need to know

Read on to find out about the common, but commonly misunderstood, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Although nobody knows the exact numbers, it’s thought that PCOS affects around one in five women in the UK 1. Half of these don’t show any symptoms and many more struggle to get a diagnosis because it’s so poorly understood. PCOS can affect your fertility and overall health and wellbeing, and although it can’t be cured it can be well managed – so it’s important to be able to recognise the signs.

What is PCOS?

New research shows that cancer cases in women are rising six times faster than in men. According to Cancer Research UK, unhealthy lifestyles are causing more incidences of cancer in both men and women. However, the increase is more considerable in women.

PCOS is a hormonal condition affecting the way that women’s ovaries release eggs. It happens when the hormonal system is unbalanced, reducing the rate of ovulation or making it irregular.1 There are three main features of PCOS:

Diagnosing PCOS

  • Irregular periods: some women with PCOS find that their menstrual cycle is irregular, meaning their ovaries are not releasing eggs consistently.
  • Androgen: PCOS is associated with high levels of ‘male hormones’ in the body, which can cause extra facial or body hair to grow.
  • Polycystic ovaries: the ovaries of women with PCOS are enlarged and contain many harmless follicles (they’re not really cysts, just fluid-filled sacs). Eggs develop in these follicles but aren’t actually released, so ovulation doesn’t take place 2.

Do I have PCOS?

Around half of women with PCOS exhibit symptoms. They can vary from mild to severe, and not all women will experience the same range of symptoms. Most first notice the symptoms in their late teens or early twenties.2 The signs of PCOS include:

  • Irregular periods (or having no periods at all)
  • Problems getting pregnant
  • Growing extra hair on the face, chest, back or bottom
  • Experiencing depression or mood swings
  • Putting on weight
  • Losing hair from the head
  • Having acne and/or oilier skin than usual2

What causes PCOS?

It isn’t known exactly what causes PCOS, but there are various risk factors which increase your likelihood of having the condition:

  • Genetics - PCOS can run in families, so if a family member has it then it could increase your chances
  • Being overweight - Having higher levels of insulin has been linked to PCOS, and being overweight often means you have extra insulin in your body
  • Lower insulin sensitivity - If your body has become less sensitive to the effects of insulin, it will produce more in order to regulate your blood sugar level2

How does PCOS affect fertility?

Eating healthily

PCOS is one of the most common causes of female infertility. It can make it harder for some women to get pregnant, as it hinders ovulation and makes it rarer and less regular. However, with treatment most women with PCOS are able to conceive3

Women undergoing treatment for fertility issues are encouraged to be mindful of their mental and emotional wellbeing as well as their physical health.

Lifestyle changes

Whether they are mild or severe, the majority of PCOS symptoms can be improved by following a healthy diet. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to manage the symptoms of PCOS. A low-GI diet (based on foods such as brown rice, lean meat and fish) could be beneficial, as it helps the body respond to insulin 3.

Women who are overweight and trying to get pregnant will be advised to lose weight before trying fertility drugs or treatments. Losing weight might be enough to restart ovulation, and fertility drugs are also most effective on women with a healthy BMI. For women who successfully get pregnant, being a healthy weight helps to reduce the risk of complications.3

Are there any health risks associated with PCOS?

Women with PCOS have a greater risk of developing some health issues later in life, including type 2 diabetes. There is also a higher chance of having high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and stroke. Women with irregular or absent periods have a higher than average risk of endometrial cancer, but the risk is still very small.1

For women with PCOS who get pregnant, there is a greater chance of weight-related pregnancy complications including gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. There is also a greater chance of experiencing miscarriage. Pregnant women with PCOS receive a higher level of attention and care throughout their pregnancy, and are also advised to maintain a healthy weight to reduce their risk of the above complications.1

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Sources

1https://www.babycentre.co.uk/a7432/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos
2http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Polycystic-ovarian-syndrome/Pages/Introduction.aspx
3 http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Polycystic-ovarian-syndrome/Pages/Treatment.aspx
4http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/pcos-the-diet-that-can-help-treat-the-little-understood-fertility-problem-a7680166.html

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