What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS, is a medical condition affecting women of reproductive age. It is characterized by an imbalance of hormones, leading to symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, excessive hair growth, acne, darkening of skin and weight gain. Untreated, PCOS can lead to infertility and other long-term health issues. It is estimated that 1 in 10 women of reproductive age have PCOS and many are undiagnosed. In this article, we will look at the causes and symptoms of PCOS, diagnosis criteria, and potential treatments.

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a common endocrine disorder that affects women of reproductive age.  Women can get PCOS any time after puberty but most are diagnosed in their 20s and 30s, often during the time when they are trying to get pregnant. 

The exact cause is unknown, but studies have shown that genetic and environmental factors may play a role.  PCOS is said to run in families.  Other factors that may contribute to the development of PCOS are insulin resistance (when the body is unable to use/respond to insulin) and obesity. 

The main features of PCOS include irregular periods, excess in androgen (male hormone) levels, and polycystic ovaries. This condition can cause fertility problems such as difficulty getting pregnant or early pregnancy loss.  Women with PCOS are also found to have a higher predisposition of developing sleep apnea and depression.  Other health problems that may arise are type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart and blood vessel problems, and uterine cancer.

What are the Treatments for PCOS?

There is no cure for PCOS, but there are tailored treatments available to manage the symptoms, taking into consideration the patient’s age and general health status.  Treatment may also depend on whether conceiving is a goal of the patient. 

Lifestyle changes that may be paired with medication therapy are the usual treatment options.

Weight loss is a goal for PCOS patients as it can help improve some symptoms and can even increase the effectiveness of some medications.  This can be achieved with diet and lifestyle changes. Patients with PCOS are encouraged to regularly exercise and increase their daily activity.   Having a diet rich in fiber, enough protein and healthy fats is also recommended.  Refined carbohydrates, processed foods and sugary drinks should be avoided as it may trigger a spike in insulin level, which can worsen one’s symptoms.

The medications used to treat PCOS vary depending on the symptom to be addressed.  There are medications given to regulate the menstrual cycle (ex: combination birth control pills, progestin therapy), to control the excessive hair and acne (ex: anti-androgen medications), to increase insulin sensitivity (ex: Metformin) and to  increase fertility(ex: Clomiphene, Letrozole).

If medication therapy is unsuccessful in addressing infertility and pregnancy is still desired, surgery and in-vitro fertilization (IVF) are treatment options that can be explored.

What Foods to Eat if You Have Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

  1. Eat more fiber. Fiber helps to regulate blood sugar levels and can also promote weight loss. Good sources of fiber include oats, whole wheat bread, quinoa, legumes, and fruits and vegetables.
  2. Limit refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs like white bread and pasta can cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which can worsen PCOS symptoms. Try to limit these foods or choose whole grain alternatives instead.
  3. Get plenty of protein. Protein helps to balance hormones and can also promote weight loss. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, tofu, soy products, nuts, and seeds.
  4. Eat healthy fats. Healthy fats help to regulate insulin levels and can also improve cholesterol levels. Good sources of healthy fats include avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds.
  5. Avoid processed foods and sugary drinks. Processed foods and sugary drinks can trigger insulin spikes, which can worsen PCOS symptoms. Try to limit these foods as much as possible or choose healthier alternatives instead

It pays to be informed

Although the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, there are ways to manage the condition and its symptoms. If you think that you have any of the symptoms associated with PCOS, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider about possible tests or treatments available for managing it. With proper treatment and management strategies, many women can live healthy lives despite having PCOS.

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