What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Today, hormonal imbalances, anxiety and depression, and other health concerns are trending topics in women’s health. These issues increasingly affect many women, and doctors often advise them to lose weight, take antidepressants, or use hormonal contraceptives as treatment options.

But what if these issues were tied together for some women?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal disorder associated with various symptoms. Understanding of this syndrome is still limited. It is responsible for 75% of infertility cases in women and, if left untreated, can lead to long-term issues such as diabetes and stroke.

Current statistics show that PCOS affects approximately 1 in 10 women. However, it is estimated that 70% of women who suffer from it have not been diagnosed.

Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

PCOS symptoms arise from an imbalance of hormones like androgens, cortisol, insulin, LH, and SHBG. This imbalance can lead to acne, excess facial hair growth, hair loss, irregular periods, and other issues.

Here are just some of the symptoms you might experience if you have PCOS:

  • Irregular menstrual cycles or amenorrhoea (no periods)
  • Darkening of the skin or skin patches- especially between the folds of your neck, armpits, groin, and under the breasts
  • Stress
  • Excessive facial or body hair (or both)
  • Scalp hair loss or thinning
  • Heavy bleeding during menstrual cycles
  • Depression/ Anxiety
  • Acne or oily skin
  • Allergies/ sensitivity to nickel earrings
  • Weight gain or trouble losing weight
  • Skin Tags- often found in armpits or neck
  • Infertility – related to less frequent or absent ovulation

Are there different types of PCOS?

A common misconception about Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is that it always involves irregular ovulation, ovarian cysts, and being overweight. In reality, there are different types of PCOS, and not all involve these symptoms. Let’s check out the different types of PCOS:

Metabolic PCOS (also referred to as Insulin-Resistant PCOS) presents with insulin resistance and is dominated by symptoms like high blood sugar levels, patches of darkened skin around the neck and armpits, cravings for carbs and sugar, and weight gain or difficulty losing weight.

Reproductive PCOS (also referred to as Adrenal PCOS) is impacted by the adrenal glands producing too many androgens, primarily DHEA-S and testosterone. Research suggests that stress is a large factor in this type of PCOS, as excess stress can increase cortisol levels in the adrenal gland. Typically, this group will see symptoms of acne, facial hair, scalp hair loss, irregular periods, or polycystic ovaries. This group tends to have a normal BMI range, unlike metabolic PCOS.

Autoimmune PCOS (also referred to as Inflammatory PCOS) is dominated by symptoms of fatigue, joint pain, skin conditions, headaches, digestive issues, etc. This type can also have issues with hyperthyroidism, insulin resistance, vitamin D deficiency, and others.

Mixed PCOS is a mixture of reproductive and metabolic PCOS. While reproductive and metabolic PCOS have distinguished traits with BMI, insulin, SHBG, glucose, LH, and FSH levels, mixed PCOS does not have distinguished characteristics of any of these traits. Still, these traits continue to play a part in its symptoms.

What causes PCOS?

Though the exact cause of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is still unknown, evidence suggests that PCOS is genetic and symptoms will run through a family. Typically, PCOS is caused when too many androgens are produced or if insulin levels are too high. These abnormal levels in a woman’s hormones then disrupt the ovulation process- therefore causing, in most cases, irregular cycles or infertility.

Another theory suggests that there is a connection between vitamin D deficiency and PCOS symptoms. Vitamin D deficiency leads to hormonal imbalances, issues with ovarian follicular development, and insulin resistance- all hallmark features of PCOS.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “I have no interest in having a child at this time, why should I care if I am infertile or not having regular cycles?” While that may be true, PCOS is not just a syndrome causing fertility issues. It is linked to other serious health issues for women, too. It increases a woman’s risk for Type 2 Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, postpartum depression, psychological and behavioral disorders, and cancer such as endometrial, ovarian, and breast cancer. So, while fertility may not be your concern, normal ovulation is important for women’s overall health and wellness.

What do I do if I think I have PCOS?

If you think you may have PCOS or have any concerns about your hormonal balance or other health concerns, your next step is to talk to a medical provider. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome diagnosis and treatment are not something that all OB/GYNs may be familiar with or comfortable with. So, when searching for a provider, look for one experienced in hormone disorders, such as a reproductive endocrinologist.

Many medical providers have been taught to treat Polycystic Ovary Syndrome symptoms using hormonal birth control. And while hormonal contraceptives can mask symptoms certain symptoms like acne or irregular cycles, they alone do not restore a woman’s health or ovulation. When working with a provider, they should look to find the root cause of your symptoms and then help you make the medical and lifestyle choices you need to get the health outcomes you seek.

Although there are many articles and content out there these days that discuss how diet, exercise, and certain supplements may help reverse symptoms of PCOS, it is still important to work with a medical provider. Your medical provider helps to ensure that the types of supplements, exercise, or diet you are interested in trying are right for your body and its specific needs.

Not sure where to start? One organization featured on For Every Woman that specializes in comprehensive women’s health through hormonal balance is FEMM™. Offering telehealth and in-person visits, FEMM medical providers will access your hormones, clinical history, and cycle data to diagnose and treat the underlying causes of your symptoms.

You can find a provider who can make telehealth appointments at https://femmhealth.org/telehealth/

Or find a provider in your area!

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