Many women suffer from a variety of cosmetic and seemingly disconnected symptoms such as acne, undesired hair growth, and changes in skin color or texture. Most respond to these and other issues as individual problems. However, it is possible that their frustrating symptoms are connected through a condition known as polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS.
Approximately 5 to 10 percent of all women have PCOS making it one of the most common endocrine disorders among women. Sadly, less than 50 percent of those with PCOS are diagnosed or treated. Part of the issue may be that people simply are not familiar with the condition meaning they are not aware that their symptoms may be related to one another. Having a better understanding of PCOS, the symptoms it exhibits, and what treatment options are available can help one overcome the many problems that come with this frustrating condition.
An Overview of PCOS
PCOS is caused by an imbalance of the female sex hormone progesterone and estrogen. If these essential hormones remain imbalanced, cysts containing immature eggs can form in the ovaries resulting in dysfunction such as cardiac disease, irregular menstruation, unexpected hair growth, and endometriosis. Upwards of 72 percent of women with PCOS suffer from infertility compared to the 16 percent of women without PCOS who experience infertility.
Studies also suggest that those diagnosed with PCOS are up to three times more likely to develop autoimmune thyroid disease or other chronic conditions such as coronary heart disease, insulin resistance, and diabetes. The condition most frequently develops during reproductive years while hormone levels shift dramatically.
Although the definitive cause of PCOS has not yet been established, it appears that insulin resistance plays an important role. An estimated 50 percent of PCOS patients have some degree of insulin resistance, which can lead to the development or worsening of PCOS. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas to help regulate glucose levels in the bloodstream. As resistance to insulin increases, the pancreas responds by increasing production. In addition to worsening resistance, elevated insulin levels prompt greater production of estrogen. Increased estrogen synthesis causes an imbalance known as estrogen dominance, which can disrupt many bodily functions ranging from menstruation to hair growth.
Recognizing and Diagnosing PCOS
Hormone dysfunction can cause a wide range of symptoms throughout the body. Because of this, symptoms of PCOS may seem unrelated even though there is an underlying issue connecting them. Common symptoms of PCOS include but are not limited to:
- Cardiac disease
- Excessive hair growth on the face, abdomen, or chest
- High cholesterol
- Inability to lose weight
- Increased blood pressure
- Irregular menstruation
- Mental sluggishness
- Mood swings
- Oily skin or dark patches on skin
- Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
- Skin tags
- Sleep apnea
- Thinning hair on the scalp
- Weight gain
Symptom prevalence and intensity varies from patient to patient. Furthermore, women with PCOS may develop ovarian cysts without the associated biochemical effects. This means that even if a patient is not suffering from the most common PCOS symptoms of acne, irregular hair growth or loss, and changes in skin texture, they may still be suffering from PCOS.
Testing Procedures for PCOS
Initial testing for PCOS begins with a physical exam. This can include examination of the pelvis and reproductive organs to look for irregular masses or growths. Additionally, a transvaginal ultrasound may be administered to assesses the thickness of the uterine lining and the general appearance of the ovaries. Abnormalities discovered through these exams may indicate PCOS and prompt further investigation.
After the physical exam is completed, a doctor may request blood tests to measure hormone levels and identify possible imbalances. Blood tests may include fasting cholesterol/triglycerides levels, a glucose tolerance test for assessing insulin resistance, and tests for various hormones including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and thyroid hormones.
The Individual Approach to Treating PCOS
Like most conditions involving hormone balance, PCOS is best treated through an individualized approach. In most cases a comprehensive treatment plan to regulate relevant factors such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and insulin is best. Bioidentical Hormone Replacement Therapy (BHRT) can provide significant aid in balancing these various elements. BHRT allows supplementation with hormones at specific values, which can be used to optimize individual patient levels and restore proper function.
In addition to hormone therapies, lifestyle changes can also benefit PCOS treatment and help alleviate symptoms. Adjusting diet to focus primarily on foods with a low glycemic index, such as lean meats, whole grains, and vegetables that are low in starch can regulate insulin release and improve insulin resistance. This supports greater hormone balance and helps alleviate estrogen dominance.
Healthy exercise can also support PCOS. In addition to its many well-known physical benefits, exercise supports cell membrane sensitivity, which improves insulin processing that supports better conversion of glucose into usable energy. Balanced insulin activity can also help eliminate excess androgens, such as testosterone, that contribute to PCOS symptoms.
Those with PCOS are far more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances and sleep apnea. Sleep deficiency is a significant contributor to hormone imbalance and insulin resistance, which can exacerbate PCOS. It is recommended that women with PCOS aim to consistently get between seven to nine hours of sleep nightly.
Supplements may also improve PCOS symptoms and treatment. Just as treatment for PCOS should be individualized to suit specific patient needs, so to should supplementation. Some supplements that have been shown to be beneficial in treating PCOS include magnesium, zinc, calcium, omega-3s, chromium, and folic acid – here is our recommendation for high-quality supplements. Speak with a physician about creating an optimal treatment plan.
Putting PCOS to Rest
PCOS is a common endocrine condition that causes many frustrating symptoms among women. Unfortunately, treating PCOS symptoms such as acne, weight gain, and hair loss is often down without any attention given to the potential underlying cause. Being aware of the many interconnected symptoms of PCOS allows for better recognition and more effective treatment. Correctly identifying PCOS and implementing an individualized treatment plan of hormone therapy and lifestyle improvements is essential to resolving the frustrating symptoms of PCOS.