Polycystic ovarian syndrome: What women need to know

what causes pcos

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can affect women of all ages to various degrees. This condition affects sex hormones, and commonly impacts women who are of childbearing age. How do you know if you have PCOS? We will discuss the basics of PCOS, including its causes, symptoms, and possible treatment methods.

What is PCOS?

PCOS, also known as Stein-Leventhal Syndrome after the gynecologists who first described it, occurs when you have an imbalance of reproductive hormones, in addition to a few of signs and symptoms. Women produce several different types of hormones including androgens. When you have a hormonal imbalance and produce more androgens than you should, this can impact several different areas of your body including your ovaries. With polycystic ovarian syndrome, you might have many cysts in your ovaries, elevated production of testosterone, and limited ovulation. To be diagnosed with PCOS, there has to be evidence of at least two symptoms associated with the condition.

Causes of PCOS

The underlying cause of PCOS is often unclear. There is some evidence that genetics can play a role. Other contributing factors include:

  • Insulin resistance: increased levels of insulin can increase androgen production
  • Luteinizing hormone (LH): stimulates ovulation and plays a role in androgen production
  • Weight: weight can contribute to insulin resistance
  • Low-grade inflammation: inflammation can result in polycystic ovaries producing an increased level of androgens

Polycystic ovarian syndrome can increase your risk of other conditions, including diabetes, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, and high blood pressure. Stroke or heart disease can also be a result of these conditions. Your risk of liver problems and endometrial cancer can go up as well.


Signs and symptoms

Symptoms typically begin in your late teens or early twenties. You may experience symptoms to varying degrees. Possible signs of PCOS include:

  • Menstrual periods that are irregular, light, or non-existent
  • Infertility
  • Hair growth on the face, abdomen, and chest
  • Adult onset acne
  • Pattern baldness
  • Obesity
  • Depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders
  • Gray-brown darkening of skin (most often to your neck creases, groin, or under your breasts)
  • Skin tags (extra skin on the neck or armpits)

PCOS can lead to several pregnancy complications. The condition increases your risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, or the need for a c-section. Your baby’s health can also be affected by PCOS.


Living with PCOS

Some symptoms overlap with those of other conditions, so several tests may be required to rule out other diagnoses. Possible tests include physical exams, pelvic exams, blood tests, and ultrasounds of your ovaries. Once you have a diagnosis, you can discuss possible treatment plans with your primary care provider.

Treatment for PCOS

Treatment does not provide a cure for polycystic ovarian syndrome, but it can help manage symptoms. Getting an early diagnosis may reduce long-term complications such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. It may be beneficial to visit your primary care provider if you’re concerned about your period, are experiencing fertility problems, or show signs of excess androgens (testosterone and other hormones that regulate male traits). You may need treatment for:

  • Insulin regulation: Metformin, a medication commonly used to treat type 2 diabetes, might be prescribed for insulin resistance. Speak to your primary care provider about your options.
  • Fertility: Clomiphene is commonly prescribed to trigger the release of mature eggs. Your primary care provider may recommend other medications or in vitro fertilization. The prescribed treatment may depend on your health and preferences.
  • Hair removal: There are several methods you can try to remove excess hair. In addition to shaving or waxing, you can use medicated creams, electrolysis, or laser treatments to remove unwanted hair.
  • Acne treatment: You can use regular acne treatments, such as facial cleansers, and you can speak to your primary care provider or dermatologist about prescription medications.
  • Regulating your menstrual cycle: If you aren’t trying to get pregnant, you can regulate menstruation with the pill. There are medications to stimulate ovulation if you are trying to get pregnant. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can also help regulate your cycle.


Lifestyle management tips

To best manage your lifestyle, consider your overall wellbeing. Aim to maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise, which can help regulate your period and lessen hair growth. Try to eat food with a low glycaemic index, which shows how certain foods affect your blood sugar. Low glycaemic foods include green vegetables, many fruits, and legumes such as lentils. For information specific to your condition, we suggest discussing options with your primary care provider.

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