A hormonal disorder, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may cause women to suffer numerous unpleasant symptoms, including infrequent or long-lasting periods, higher androgen levels, and impaired ovarian function. Common signs of this condition include acne, weight gain, hair loss, thinning hair, or unwanted hair on the body or face.
A women's health issue of increasing prevalence, PCOS affects a shocking 10% of women of childbearing age. Unfortunately, people know little about PCOS, and many women don't even know they have it. One study out of the United Kingdom showed that nearly 70% of the 728 women studied did not know they had PCOS.
Early PCOS diagnosis and treatment are the best ways to prevent this condition from affecting your health and quality of life. Know PCOS symptoms so you can get the treatment you need to reclaim your health.
The Ins and Outs of PCOS
The ovaries are the female reproductive organs that produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone that control the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce androgens, which are a type of male hormone, but in a small amount.
Every month during ovulation, the ovaries release eggs for fertilization by sperm. Ovulation is regulated by follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), which tells the ovaries to produce a follicle to surround the egg, and luteinizing hormone (LH), which tells the ovaries to release the egg.
Women with PCOS develop small, fluid filled sacs, or follicles, inside the ovaries that contain immature eggs not ripe enough for ovulation. And if ovulation doesn't occur, hormone balance is disrupted. Estrogen and progesterone levels dip way down and androgen levels shoot way up. These extra male hormones interfere with the menstrual cycle, which is why infrequent periods are a primary marker of PCOS.
What Causes PCOS
We know that high levels of androgens stop the ovaries from releasing mature eggs and producing an adequate balance of female hormones, but we don't know the exact causes behind PCOS. Still, there are theories, namely that excess production of male hormones and PCOS might be brought on by genes, insulin resistance, inflammation, or a combination of all three.
- Genes: While research shows PCOS has a genetic component, it is likely the result of several genes rather than just one.
- Insulin resistance: With approximately 70% of PCOS patients also having insulin resistance, the link between the two conditions is pretty solid. A resistance to insulin triggers the body to make more insulin...and excess insulin causes the body to produce more androgens. Obesity is the primary driver for insulin resistance.
- Inflammation: Levels of inflammation are higher in women with PCOS, and research suggests that increased insulin leads to higher levels of male hormones.
PCOS Symptoms to Know
Occurring in women of reproductive age, PCOS manifests symptoms typically in concurrence with the first menstrual period. However, women may also get PCOS later in life as a result of weight gain. Here are some of the principal symptoms of PCOS:
- Irregular or infrequent periods: Long-lasting, infrequent, or irregular periods are common PCOS signs. If you have fewer than nine periods a year, you might want to consider getting tested. Because the uterine lining builds up for a longer period of time, you may bleed heavier and longer than usual.
- Elevated androgen levels: Women with PCOS often have high levels of the male hormone androgen, which can lead to physical symptoms like excess facial hair, body hair, acne, skin tags, dark patches of skin, thinning hair, and pattern baldness.
- Polycystic ovaries: The ovaries are often enlarged and contain follicles around the eggs, a condition that can affect function.
In some cases, polycystic ovary syndrome causes relatively mild symptoms and has a minimal effect on daily life. However, the disorder can lead to more serious side effects and health problems, including infertility and premature birth, gestational or type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea, depression and mood swings, and endometrial cancer. To that end, early diagnosis of PCOS is crucial to protecting your long-term health.
A visit to your health care provider is in order if you...
- Have skipped periods and aren't pregnant
- Are noticing signs of PCOS, like hair growth in unusual places and hair loss on your head
- Have been unable to get pregnant after a year or more of trying
- Have noticed diabetes red flags, such as vision impairment, unexplained weight loss, or extreme thirst or hunger
While there’s no definitive test for PCOS, doctors typically make a diagnosis based on a variety of factors and criteria. If you think you may be suffering from the condition, your physician may perform a pelvic exam to assess the health of your reproductive organs and look for abnormalities. He or she may also assess your physical condition for excessive hair growth and the presence of acne.
Blood tests are a common element of PCOS testing. Doctors analyze hormone levels to look for menstrual and androgen abnormalities. They may also measure glucose and cholesterol levels and perform an ultrasound to examine the ovaries and the thickness of the uterine lining.
Once a diagnosis has been made, you and your doctor can work together to determine the best course of treatment.
Treatment of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Lifestyle changes are a common first treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with the condition, your doctor may suggest you lose weight by exercising and following a low-calorie diet. In some cases, losing a percentage of one’s body weight can have a positive effect on health and PCOS symptoms and boost fertility. This informative article explains how simply adding essential amino acids to your diet can help boost your metabolism and supercharge weight loss.
If these PCOS remedies aren’t enough to improve symptoms, your condition may require medication. Birth control pills that contain both estrogen and progestin can help reduce androgen production and regulate hormones, thereby limiting bleeding and other unpleasant side effects of the condition. Patients who prefer not to take pills can opt for a skin patch or vaginal ring instead.
Additionally, PCOS patients may benefit from progestin therapy. This treatment can help regulate menstrual periods and guard against endometrial cancer.
Effective PCOS Natural Remedies
Natural remedies can go a long way toward alleviating PCOS symptoms and improving quality of life. Along with cutting calories, including more anti-inflammatory foods in one’s diet can boost wellness. Some of the best foods for PCOS patients include fruits and veggies, salmon, nuts and seeds, avocados, and olive oil.
Scientists are starting to examine the connection between PCOS and amino acids. Building blocks of protein, amino acids can be helpful in alleviating PCOS symptoms such as insulin resistance and problems with weight loss. In particular, the amino acid N-acetylcystine (NAC) reportedly protects against free radical damage and supports a healthy immune system.
According to a study in the European Journal of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Biology, women who received NAC or another amino acid supplement 3 times a day for 24 weeks saw significant reductions in PCOS symptoms like excess hair growth and menstrual irregularity compared to those who received a placebo. Further studies involving Clomid and NAC demonstrated an improvement in ovulation and pregnancy rates among women with this condition.
Single amino acid therapy can, however, produce unwanted side effects. Your body is designed to keep amino acid concentrations in the blood stable. If the levels of a single amino acid are increased, it affects the optimal concentrations of others. Likewise, some amino acids act as precursors for brain neurotransmitters, and they hitch a ride on the same transporters to cross the blood-brain barrier. If there is more of one amino acid than another, then levels of associated neurotransmitters will drop off substantially and affect mind and mood. For this reason, it’s recommended to always supplement with a balanced and complete mixture of all the essential amino acids to keep the concentration of amino acids in the blood stable.
It may take time and effort to find the right PCOS treatment for you. However, with a little luck and some health management, you will eventually be on the road to recovery.