Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)
What is it?
What you need to know about it.
What you can do about it.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a hormonal disorder that effects women of reproductive age. It is defined as a ‘syndrome’ as opposed to a disease because it is characterized by a group of symptoms that affect the ovaries and ovulation. These symptoms include infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods, excess male hormones, insulin resistance, cysts in the ovaries, weight gain, acne, thinning hair, or male pattern hair growth/loss to name a few (1). In most (but not all) instances, those suffering from PCOS may develop small collections of fluid-filled follicles within the ovary known as “cysts” that prevent the ovary from functioning properly; aka releasing an egg during ovulation.
Simply put, this disorder is confusing. Its symptoms can range from severe to mild, and they seem to present differently in just about everyone.
For example: The 3 hallmark symptoms of PCOS are as follows:
- Irregular periods (infrequent or prolonged menstrual cycles- defined as 35 days or longer)
- Excess Androgens (elevated levels of male hormones such as testosterone for example, that could lead to excess facial hair, acne, excess body hair or male pattern baldness
- Polycystic ovaries- ovaries that may be enlarged or contain many tiny follicles that surround the eggs. This is where the name “Polycystic” is derived.
But here is the most confusing part….
Not all women that suffer from PCOS have every single one of these symptoms. Some might only have one symptom, some might have four, but this is exactly why this syndrome is so difficult for doctors to diagnose. In fact, one study in 2010 that looked at the prevalence of PCOS in women of reproductive age found that up to 70% of sufferers were unaware that they had PCOS and had not been properly diagnosed (2).
What you need to know about it…
As mentioned previously, PCOS has the greatest effect on the ovaries. Therefore, one of the most important things to consider when getting a diagnosis from your health care provider is the impact that it can have on your fertility! As we know, the ovaries release eggs to be fertilized every month in a process called ovulation. Two master hormones called FSH “Follicle Stimulating Hormones” and LH “Luteinizing Hormone” are in charge of stimulating the ovary to produce a follicle (a sac that contains an egg) and the triggering the ovary to release a mature egg (3). For those suffering from PCOS, this process is altered. The crucial FSH and LH hormone signals are somehow inhibited. This causes many tiny fluid filled sacs to grow inside the ovary as opposed to just one mature egg. Each one of these sacs contains an immature egg that never matures enough to trigger ovulation (3). Now aside from this making it extremely difficult to conceive, the lack of ovulation has a grave effect on other hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Typically, when the ovulation signal isn’t received, Estrogen and Progesterone levels plummet, which causes Androgen levels to increase (3). From there, a disruptive feedback loop continues to affect the menstrual cycle leading to fewer periods and worsening symptoms.
What Causes PCOS?
This is a tricky one. Because PCOS is so hard to diagnose and because it presents differently in almost everyone, it’s been really hard for medical professionals to nail down one specific cause. Some studies suggest that there is a genetic component (4), meaning that you are far more likely to suffer if a close relative (mother, sister, auntie) has also been diagnosed. As second potential cause points to Insulin Resistance, which is as a condition in which the body’s cells do not respond to/use insulin properly.
To compensate, the pancreas amps up insulin production, which then triggers the ovaries to produce more Androgens (male hormones) (3), further stunting ovulation. Lastly, one study suggests that up to 80% of PCOS sufferers are overweight (5), making that another potential cause. What is clear is that more research needs to be done to confirm both the cause, as well as the reason that PCOS prevalence in women of reproductive age is on the rise.
What can we do about it?
First and foremost, if you suspect that you may be suffering from PCOS, a trip to your doctor or health care provider is VITAL. Hormonal balance is of top importance for our overall health and well-being, but it becomes even more crucial if you are in the beginning stages of family planning. If medication isn’t the route you’re looking to take, or if a combination approach is something that you want to consider, there are a range of diet and lifestyle recommendations to consider. Here are a few:
- A low glycemic index diet
- Regular moderate-intensity exercise
- Targeted supplementation
- Weight loss (to improve insulin sensitivity).
For more information about PCOS; or if you have any questions or concerns please get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org
At Clean By Kenzie, I provide targeted PCOS meal plans along with specific supplementation suggestions that can get you on the road to feeling your best and most balanced again!
- March WA, Moore VM, Willson KJ, Phillips DI, Norman RJ, Davies MJ. The prevalence of polycystic ovary syndrome in a community sample assessed under contrasting diagnostic criteria. Hum Reprod. 2010 Feb;25(2):544-51. doi: 10.1093/humrep/dep399. Epub 2009 Nov 12. PMID: 19910321.
- Diamanti-Kandarakis, E., Kandarakis, H. & Legro, R.S. The role of genes and environment in the etiology of PCOS. Endocr 30, 19–26 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1385/ENDO:30:1:19
- Sam S. Obesity and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Obes Manag. 2007;3(2):69-73. doi:10.1089/obe.2007.0019
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