Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) might not be something that you know much about, but you should. It affects millions of women in the UK. Plus, it’s one of the biggest causes of infertility.
This PCOS Awareness month we've share everything you should know about the common condition, as there can be confusion about what is actually is, the signs you should look for and if/how the condition can be treated.
To ensure you have the right information, here to provide some clarity on the topic is fertility and PCOS specialist Dr. Israel Ortega from world leading clinic IVI Fertility:
What is PCOS?
“PCOS is a hormone related issue caused by small cysts growing on a woman’s ovaries, which subsequently cause a hormone imbalance. This imbalance causes problems with the regularity of women’s periods, and can also cause difficulties for women when trying to get pregnant. If not taken care of effectively, PCOS can also increase the chance of some more serious health concerns such as Diabetes and Heart Disease.”
What Causes the Condition to Occur?
“Unfortunately, there is still some confusion throughout the medical world as to what causes PCOS. It is widely thought to have a genetic link however, this is yet to be scientifically proven.
We also know that many women suffering from PCOS are found to have a hormone imbalance which is likely to be a contributing factor. In particular, women with PCOS are known to have raised levels of testosterone, Prolactin and LH, and are often deficient in SHBG – which also increases the effect of testosterone.”
What are the main Symptoms of PCOS?
“The symptoms associated with PCOS will vary from woman to woman, and some people will also suffer more severe symptoms than others. Generally speaking, though, the most common symptoms experienced by women suffering from PCOS include:
- Difficulty in getting pregnant due to a lack of ovulation
- Weight gain
- Irregular periods
- Hair loss from the head
- Excessive hair growth all over the body
In addition to the most common symptoms listed above, women suffering from PCOS can also find themselves susceptible to some more serious health problems later in life such as type two diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, depression and sleep apnoea.”
What should you do if you think you may have PCOS?
“If you are suffering from any of the symptoms associated with PCOS then in the first instance it is advisable that you book in to see your GP who will be able to carry out the necessary checks and rule out any other conditions. In some cases, they might also carry out an ultrasound scan, and/or a blood test as part of the exploration process. Following a diagnosis, you may be referred to a PCOS specialist who will be able to help advise you on the best way to manage the symptoms.”
How is PCOS Treated?
“Sadly, there is no cure for PCOS however, there are a number of ways in which patients can manage their symptoms effectively.
In some cases, a weight loss programme may be advised to help reduce the effect of PCOS. Studies have shown that in overweight women, a decrease of just 5% of their body mass can have a positive impact on PCOS.
For those suffering from missed or irregular periods, it is often advisable to go on the contraceptive pill which can help to regulate a cycle.
If you are trying to get pregnant and suffer from PCOS then it is recommended that you visit a fertility specialist who will be able to check if there are any further problems, such as blocked fallopian tubes, before advising on the best cause of medication. Clomifene is often prescribed in the first instance and is used to encourage the regular release of an egg from the ovaries. If this medication is found to be unsuccessful, then there are a number of other options which can be considered.”
Long-term effects of PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome can over time, increase the risks of developing health problems later in life. PCOS is also a common cause of female infertility - with many women discovering the condition when trying to conceive.
Women with PCOS are at an increased risk of developing:
- type 2 diabetes
- sleep apnoea
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- mood swings
Following a healthy and nutritious diet is thought to reduce the risk of developing symptoms of polycystic ovary symptoms. It also helps to regulate insulin levels.
Finding the right diet is completely individual to you, and what might work for some might not necessarily work for others.
Following a low GI (glycaemic index) diet
The glycaemic index is a way to monitor how quickly the blood glucose rises after eating carbohydrates.
Low GI foods improve and help balance insulin levels, and because women with PCOS are often resistant to the effects of insulin these foods can help control the levels of testosterone that are usually increased with the rise of insulin levels. The increase of both insulin and testosterone upsets the natural hormone balance in the body, often causing symptoms of PCOS to flare up.
Carbohydrates are found in grains (such as bread, pasta, rice, and cereal), most snack foods (such as crisps, biscuits, and sweets), sugary drinks such as soda and juice, and fruits and vegetables.
Foods to avoid
Starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn, and peas. Refined grained made with white flour, like white bread, pasta, bagels and white rice. Sugared cereals, sweetened grains like cereal bars and breakfast pastries should be avoided, as well as fizzy drinks, crisps, and cakes.
Foods to eat
Fresh fruit, vegetables like broccoli, spinach, and carrots. Whole grains like whole wheat pasta, brown rice, and oats. High fibre cereals can help control insulin levels too.
There is no definitive test for PCOS. Your GP will ask about your symptoms, ruling out other possible causes and checking your blood pressure too.
Hormone tests will be performed to find out if excess hormone production is caused by PCOS or another hormone-related condition. You may also need an ultrasound scan, which can show whether you have a high number of follicles in your ovaries (polycystic ovaries). The follicles are fluid-filled sacs in which eggs develop.
A blood test may also be carried out to measure hormone levels as well as screen for diabetes or high cholesterol.
A diagnosis of PCOS will usually be made if other rare causes of the same symptoms have been ruled out. It’s expected that you meet at least two of the following:
- You have irregular or infrequent periods
- Blood test shows high levels of ‘male hormones’ like testosterone
- Scans showing you have polycystic ovaries
If you’re diagnosed with PCOS you may be treated by your GP or referred to a specialist.