You don’t hear a lot about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and yet it is the most common cause of infertility problems for women in the United States. Put in fancy terms, PCOS is an endocrine disorder that affects women of reproductive age and there is no known cause.
Put in laypeople’s terms: PCOS is a glandular, hormone-disruptive disorder and we aren’t exactly sure what causes it. While some of the symptoms are present throughout a woman’s entire life, issues surrounding infertility only affect women of childbearing years for obvious reasons.
What Do We Know About PCOS?
A woman with PCOS often has several physical side effects, the bulk of which she will be familiar with because of the way they present themselves on her physical body.
Symptoms of PCOS include:
- Excess weight that is largely concentrated on the middle of the body.
- Difficulty losing weight.
- Irregular or absent periods.
- Thinning hair (male-pattern baldness).
- Excess hair on the face, back, chest and/or abdomen (some women with PCOS have to shave or wax their faces).
- More-than-normal numbers of skin tags.
- Darker patches of skin.
- Pelvic pain or discomfort.
- Sleep apnea.
- Ovarian cysts, typically appearing as a “string of pearls.”
- Insulin resistance.
- High blood pressure and/or cholesterol.
Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? Schedule an appointment with your OB/GYN and share your concerns. The good news is that more and more doctors are recognizing these signs/symptoms in their patients and referring them for blood tests and ultrasounds (which will show any ovarian cysts that are present) so the issue is diagnoses sooner rather than later.
An official diagnosis of PCOS is determined by your physical symptoms, combined with the results of blood tests and an ultrasound.
While there isn’t a “cure” for PCOS, diagnosis of the condition can help you to make lifestyle changes that will improve your health, reduce your risk for future medical diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and will set you up with the information you need when you’re ready to start a family.
What is the Treatment for PCOS?
There are also a few treatments that can make a difference, depending on how PCOS is being expressed in your body. Right now, most medical experts recommend making a few holistic lifestyle changes. Because insulin resistance seems to be a major contributor to PCOS symptoms, diet is a primary consideration, as is your blood sugar levels.
Focus on a Low Carb Diet. Once diagnosed, your doctor may recommend a diet that is higher in proteins and complex carbohydrates, and lower in sugars and processed carbs. Women with PCOS often fare well with diets like the Adkins or South Beach diets. These diets help them to minimize their cravings for carbs, inherently lowering their blood sugar levels – which are often quite high. Other research has shown that anti-inflammatory diets or the introduction of more cinnamon into your diet can also improve PCOS symptoms.
Exercise regularly. Not surprisingly, that new-improved diet will be enhanced with regular exercise. Not only does exercise help you to manage your weight, it also strengthens your heart, helping to prevent you from developing heart disease.
Hormone-Based Birth Control. Some women with PCOS find that taking a hormone-based birth control pill helps them regulate their hormone levels, which – in turn – regulates their menstrual cycles and periods. Birth control pills can help to alleviate pelvic pain and discomfort, and they can also help to control excess hair grown and acne on the face and body. Obviously this method of treatment has to be re-visited when you’re ready to get pregnant.
Diabetes Medication. Since insulin resistance and blood sugar levels are an issue, it’s no surprise that diabetes medications can help. Metformin, which is used to help control insulin and glucose levels for those with type 2 diabetes has also been shown to alleviate the symptoms of PCOS. At this time, Metformin is not approved by the FDA as a treatment for PCOS but your doctor may find you require a prescription based on your blood test results.
Anti-Androgen Medications. Women with PCOS typically have higher levels of androgens (male hormones), which is why they’re prone to thinning hair on the head, excess hair on the body and acne. There are medications specifically designed to lower male hormone levels. These can be discussed with your doctor.
Fertility Medications. Not all women who have PCOS require fertility treatments. Some get pregnant without much problem; others may have to try a little longer than normal. Ovulation is required to get pregnant; when you have irregular periods, it means you’re ovulating irregularly as well. When you don’t have a period at all, you aren’t ovulating at all.
If you are struggling to get pregnant, your doctor will talk to you about the use of fertility medications and other fertility treatments. Clomid is typically the first medication prescribed, in an effort to induce ovulation. However, women with PCOS must be very, very careful as a healthy young woman with plenty of eggs can wind up pregnant with higher numbers of multiples. In most cases, unless your OB is very familiar with treating PCOS using fertility medications, women with PCOS should consider working with a fertility specialist.
Suspect you may have PCOS? Contact us here at Overlake and schedule an appointment. Your health is always our primary concern. We work carefully with you to treat your symptoms and minimize your risk of future health conditions. We can also assist you with fertility issues, or refer you to one of our local fertility clinics.