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How To Deal With PCOS
“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”
Medical students are taught this phrase early on: when making a diagnosis, think of the likeliest possibility, not the rarest outcome. But even though polycystic ovary syndrome is a common disorder, it still tends to go undiagnosed. Many women encounter physicians who don’t have the knowledge of the disease or dismiss serious concerns. But polycystic ovary syndrome should, in fact, be taken seriously.
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a widely common reproductive health disorder that affects 1 in 10 women who are of childbearing age.
Often, those with polycystic ovary syndrome experience irregular periods, unwanted excess hair in unusual body parts, weight loss difficulty, and even painful menstrual periods. The exact cause is unknown, but an abnormal amount of male sex hormones called androgens is often a culprit, as is insulin resistance.
We’ve done a blog on how to deal with skincare problems caused by this disorder, but skin problems are just one of the many complications that can arise with PCOS. Below, we’re going to dive deeper into what PCOS is, how it affects women, and how you can deal with its symptoms at home. Let’s get started!
Is PCOS a serious problem?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome affects the lives of many women globally. While it’s not a life-threatening condition, its symptoms can be detrimental to one’s quality of living.
Its criteria for diagnosis are missed or infrequent periods, increased male hormones, and the presence of polycystic ovaries.
Acne, excess hair, abdominal pain, and difficult-to-manage weight gain are all issues that come with PCOS and can cause discomfort mentally and physically, which is why they should be taken seriously by medical professionals. Irregular periods are also a cause for concern as women may have difficulty getting pregnant.
PCOS has also been linked to the following serious diseases:
- Endometrial cancer
- High blood pressure
- Sleep Apnea
- Heart Disease
How is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Diagnosed?
If your doctor suspects you may have polycystic ovary syndrome, they will usually refer you to a specialist such as a gynecologist or an endocrinologist.
The specialist can then ask you about your medical history and give you a physical exam. There are three main ways a doctor can diagnose PCOS:
- Checking for irregularities in menstrual cycles or missed periods
- Blood tests to measure sex hormones or high androgen levels; blood tests to detect excessive insulin
- Pelvic exam to check for ovarian cysts
As we mentioned above, however, polycystic ovary syndrome remains to be widely underdiagnosed. This is partly because its symptoms overlap with other health complications, but also because a lot of women are taught that terrible period pains and irregularity in their cycle are normal.
What is an Ovarian Cyst?
Ovarian cysts are pretty much what the name suggests – cysts in or on your ovaries. They’re fluid-filled sacs often caused by hormonal imbalance, pregnancy, endometriosis, or infections. Ovarian cysts are not limited to women with PCOS; those with endometriosis can also develop them.
Ovarian cysts are not always painful, but when they’re particularly big, you may feel a dull ache in your abdomen. The worst pain is if ovarian cysts rupture, causing a sharp sensation.
They’re also more common before menopause – women are less likely to develop ovarian cysts post-menopause, but the possibility is still there.
What causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but there are two major factors that increase the chances of having it: high androgen levels and insulin resistance.
High androgen levels
Androgen is often referred to as the male sex hormone. Although it is naturally present in women, high amounts of androgen can lead to imbalanced hormone levels. This phenomenon is responsible for PCOS symptoms like acne and hirsutism, or excessive hair growth all over the body. Excess hair growth can often be spotted along the belly, back, and face.
High insulin levels
Another major factor for women with PCOS is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is usually linked to type 2 diabetes, but it is highly common in women with PCOS.
In simple terms, insulin resistance is when the body can’t use insulin properly to convert energy, resulting in too much insulin in the blood. Those who have acanthosis nigricans or thickened skin around the armpits, neck, and breasts may also have insulin resistance.
Women with PCOS also tend to have trouble with weight loss or even maintaining a healthy weight. This is because excessive levels of insulin make it difficult to lose weight, but it’s one of the most important lifestyle changes one could make.
Can PCOS go away? Is there a cure for PCOS?
There is no cure for polycystic ovarian syndrome, but there are plenty of effective treatments available with the help of your doctor – preferably one who specializes in women’s health.
The treatments for polycystic ovary syndrome focus on the management of individual concerns, whether it’s infertility, obesity, acne, hirsutism, or diabetes. They can include lifestyle changes as well as medications, although it’s important that you talk to a physician before choosing a PCOS treatment plan.
Hormonal Birth Control / Birth Control Pills
According to the PCOS Awareness Association, hormonal birth control is the standard treatment for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome who do not wish to become pregnant.
Birth control pills help regulate one’s menstrual cycle and fix irregular menstrual periods. They can also help treat other PCOS symptoms like acne. The PCAA states that pills “contain estrogen and progestin decrease androgen production and regulate estrogen” – basically balancing any unbalanced hormones. Plus, they can significantly reduce the risk of endometrial cancer.
Of course, birth control pills aren’t the only option, and they aren’t for everyone. Women with PCOS can also opt for a skin patch or vaginal ring that contains the same hormones as pills (estrogen and progestin) in order to regulate their menstrual cycle.
Birth control pills also have negative side effects. Weight gain, mood swings, and nausea are just a few symptoms that can occur. Always consult with your doctor to see if birth control pills are the right course of action for you.
The PCOS Awareness Association cites a few medications commonly prescribed to women with PCOS. Metformin, a type 2 diabetes medication, can be taken by women with PCOS to improve insulin sensitivity.
Clomiphene (Clomid) is used to stimulate ovulation in women with PCOS. Letrozole (Femara) is another PCOS treatment with a similar effect – to induce ovulation.
Spironolactone, an anti-androgen drug, may also be prescribed for hirsutism or excess hair, although it isn’t an FDA-approved treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome specifically.
There are also plenty of natural treatments marketed toward women with PCOS, but more evidence is still needed to support their efficacy.
A low-calorie diet combined with exercise can help immensely with weight loss and can also improve insulin resistance. An example of a low-calorie diet is going on a caloric deficit; many start with around 1200 calories a day, but the exact amount can depend on your current body weight.
It’s also important to start small since a highly restrictive diet can lead to binge eating and subsequent weight gain or an unhealthy weight loss. Doctors agree that even a little bit of weight reduction will improve insulin sensitivity.
Lower caloric intake isn’t the only way one can manage weight. One study suggests that drinking green tea can help overweight and obese women with PCOS reduce fasting insulin and free testosterone; the former leading to weight loss. Green tea also helps lower high blood pressure, one of the few health conditions that are linked to PCOS.
According to Healthline, exercise is important for managing symptoms and losing weight, but it’s equally important to avoid over-exercising. A snippet from their article reads: “Too much exercise can disrupt your hormones, so talk with your doctor about a healthy balance.”
Gentle forms of exercise like yoga, swimming, and light aerobics are great for a low-impact workout. High-intensity interval training is also good as long as it’s approved by your doctor and won’t interfere with other health conditions.
Improve Sleep Hygiene
According to Healthline, sleep disturbances are twice as common in women with PCOS. It’s highly recommended to aim for eight hours of sleep every night as well as reduction of stimulant intake before going to bed.
While not all women who have PCOS are unable to get pregnant (in fact, it’s definitely possible – those who are sexually active still need to wear protection) infertility is a commonly linked issue.
Apart from medicines that can stimulate ovulation, fertility treatments may be recommended. One such fertility treatment is in vitro fertilization, a type of assistive reproductive technology where a woman’s ova are removed and fertilized with sperm in a culture medium.
Cosmetic Treatments for Excess Hair Growth and Acne
Finally, those with polycystic ovary syndrome may opt for cosmetic treatments like laser hair removal and anti-acne facials in order to reduce symptoms like acne and hirsutism.
Difficult as it may be navigating daily life with a diagnosis like PCOS, there are plenty of available treatments – from medication to fertility procedures and laser hair treatments.
We hope that this blog has helped you gain insight into the experiences of women with PCOS and how its symptoms can be treated. To get more information on this condition, head over to the PCOS Awareness Association website.
Joey is an AB Psychology graduate of the University of St. La Salle – Bacolod. Her life’s passions include writing, film, and spending hours on end binge-watching fashion vloggers on Youtube.