Angry acne that just won’t go away, facial hair, a low mood that doesn’t quit, unexplained weight gain and issues with your fertility: PCOS symptoms can raid your self-esteem and leave you feeling a stranger in your own body.
If you think that Polycystic Ovary Syndrome could be affecting you, read on to learn the signs–and what should prompt you to head to your GP.
First off what is PCOS?
‘PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) is a condition which can affect the female reproductive organs,’ explains Mr Sachchidananda Maiti, our Consultant Gynaecologist and Obstetrician. It’s super common and is believed to affect one in 10 women in the UK. There is no cure, but the symptoms can be treated and managed.
‘A women’s ovaries contain immature eggs surrounded by a follicle. For women with a healthy menstrual cycle, each month an egg and its follicle matures and is released into the fallopian tube around mid-cycle, after competing with other few follicles, where it remains in the hopes of becoming fertilised.
‘For women with PCOS, the eggs with multiple follicles remain underdeveloped, and none are able to be released. Instead, the follicles remain in the ovary as small cysts.
What is the main cause of PCOS?
It’s believed this can be caused by hormone imbalances (high levels of androgens, the “male” hormones in your body, including testosterone), a resistance to insulin or genetics.’
So, if your mum dealt with PCOS, then that might be an indicator that you could develop the condition. ‘PCOS runs in families,’ says Professor Adam Balen, spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and chair of the British Fertility Society (BFS). ‘If a woman has a relative who is affected by the condition, her risk of developing it is often increased.’
It’s vital to note, though, that the exact cause of PCOS is not precisely understood. There may be a number of reasons for the condition, which would explain why different women can present with wildly different combinations of symptoms. Right now, there is also research going on to understand if diet and lifestyle factors might be at play.
So what are the main PCOS symptoms?
The symptoms of PCOS may include:
- Irregular periods or no periods at all
- An increase in facial or body hair, particularly on the chin and abdomen (thanks to the higher levels of androgens)
- Acne, particularly on the jawline
- Thinning of hair on the head
- Weight gain (that’s hard to shift)
- Mood changes and depression
- Symptoms of exhaustion
- Fertility problems
‘Symptoms usually develop in adolescence, but can go undiagnosed for many years,’ says Rachel Hawkes, chair of PCOS charity, Verity. ‘This can lead to long-term health implications such as Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and endometrial cancer (caused when the lining of the womb thickens due to fewer than three periods a year),’ Hawkes says.
How do you get a PCOS diagnosis?
For a PCOS diagnosis to occur, you need to present with two of the following: irregular periods or no periods at all; polycystic ovaries (as shown by an ultrasound scan); and high levels of androgen hormones (as determined by a blood test).
Your doctor may book you in for lab tests – checks on blood sugar and androgen levels – are common. Plus, an internal scan may also be done to evaluate the ovaries.
Can PCOS go away?
It’s important to stress that, as yet, there is no cure for PCOS. But, that said, hope is not lost because symptoms can be managed through changes to lifestyle, as well as certain medications.
‘Maintaining a healthy weight through good balanced diet, probiotics and exercise regimes along with a variety of medications, such as the contraceptive pill, can help to alleviate your symptoms,’ says Mr Maiti.
When it comes to getting pregnant, if that’s something you want, then you can increase your chances of conception. ‘Exercise and a good diet along with a normal body weight can boost your fertility. By managing the condition correctly, most women will be able to conceive either naturally or through the help of specialised medication. Your gynaecologist will work with you to decide upon which treatments would work best for you.’
Does PCOS make you gain weight?
The role of body fat is a weighty issue when it comes to PCOS, with many women reporting weight gain and difficulty losing it.
Some evidence suggests that women with polycystic ovary syndrome are more prone to gaining weight, but what we do know, is that the bigger someone gets, the more severe their symptoms become as excess fat increases the level of male hormone testosterone that’s available to the tissues. Testosterone is carried around in the blood, buffered by a protein called sex hormone binding globulin, so the higher your SHBG, the less free testosterone can affect the tissues. When you’re overweight, your SHBG levels tend to be lower.
The bottom line: track your symptoms; get to your GP; treat your body well throughout – and try not to beat yourself up over changes that are beyond your control. Kindness is key.