Polycystic ovary syndrome (commonly known as PCOS) is one of the most common hormone disorders, affecting an estimated 1 in every 5 women – which is why it's surprising how many of us a) don't know anything about it or b) find it so hard to find the information we need about it.
Here are 7 things about PCOS everyone with ovaries should know.
1. Doctors don't know who'll get it and who won't
"PCOS symptoms generally manifest as a series of bead-like ovarian 'cysts', that wreak havoc on each of our body's glands," explains hormone expert and nutritional therapist Angelique Panagos. These follicular cysts are different to regular ovarian cysts - they don't grow in size or fill with fluid, and you can actually get both kinds at the same time. However, whilst we know the most common physical outcome of the illness, we don't know why some women develop it and others don't, and not every women with PCOS will get these cysts either. Confusing, huh! Because so much is still uncertain, it's impossible to predict who will develop PCOS. It can often run in families, and is related to hormone levels, including insulin production, but any woman can be affected by the condition, and if you're have it, it's not because you're at any kind of fault.
2. The symptoms are varied
"The symptoms of PCOS actually vary dramatically by person; more than half of women don't have - or believe they have - any at all," Angelique says. "Some of the most common signs and symptoms include, oily skin and recurring acne, irregular, infrequent or absent periods (known medically as amenorreah), excess facial and body hair growth, head hair loss or thinning, and weight gain. Women looking to fall pregnant may also face difficulties, due to the irregular ovulation and an increased risk of miscarriage the condition causes."
3. And some are more surprising than others
As if experiencing all of the above wasn't enough, women with PCOS also have higher levels of depression – for some, caused both by the hormonal imbalances of the condition, and others, by the resulting difficulties it presents. If this is you, speak to your doctor – you can and should get help for both your PCOS and your depression, even if it requires a referral to a mental health specialist. You may also have a higher instance of skin tags, especially around the neck and armpits, get dandruff more frequently, develop high blood pressure, and even have a deeper voice as a result of PCOS – giving you a pretty good idea of just how much of your body is controlled by hormones…
4. It's tough to get a diagnosis
But it's worth fighting for regardless. "There is no single test that can diagnose PCOS," stresses Angelique. "This may be another reason so many women are suffering without realising it! However, under the NHS guidelines, your doctor should confirm PCOS if you present with two or more of the following: ovarian cysts, disrupted ovulation and/or high androgen levels. The gold standard of diagnosis is to have an ultrasound scan and a blood test. Really, if you're experiencing any of the symptoms discussed, you should push for further investigations."
5. Diet can have a massive impact on PCOS
Being overweight or obese increases the amount of insulin your body makes, which is why your weight can have a direct impact on your PCOS symptoms. However, in a cruel twist of fate, PCOS also gives you cravings for fatty, carby, foods. So what's a gal to do? Angelique advises eating a well-balanced, low GI diet with a rainbow of vegetables, good quality proteins (beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, lean meats, fresh fish, eggs) and healthy fats. "These healthy fats can also help regulate the insulin sensitivity. Think avocado, nuts, seeds, almonds, eggs, whole grains and flax seeds," she says. "Drink filtered water and go organic wherever possible to avoid consuming additional hormones and disruptive chemicals. Alongside this, avoid or dramatically reduce all processed foods, caffeine and alcohol. And never crash diet!"
6. Medication can help too
"There are various medications that may be prescribed to help manage your symptoms, whether that's Metformin for those battling insulin resistance, Clomid to induce ovulation, or Aldactone for hormonal skin imbalance," Angelique adds. "However, there isn't yet one single medication that can address the underlying causes. If you choose to take the conventional approach, you need to work on the underlying causes and lifestyle changes at the same time." Supplements can also give you a boost – requirements vary from person to person, but treatments will often include Vitamin D, a good quality Fish Oil (or other Omega-3), Myo-inositol and N-Acetylcystein, so ask a professional what might work best for you.
7. It can impact other areas of your health
If it's not properly managed, PCOS can lead to health problems later on in your life, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes and even endometrial cancer. We don't say this to worry you if you have been diagnosed – we say it so that you seek all of the support you need as early as possible, and can get through your days without suffering. Go to your doctor or a hormone specialist, talk through your options and do everything you can to live your best life – your future self will thank you too.