“I Was Diagnosed With PCOS – Here’s What You Should Look Out For”
The world’s most widespread reproductive disorder is also the most common cause of female infertility.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is likely caused by high levels of “male” hormones that can lead to cysts, missed periods or skipped ovulation.
Its calling cards are irregular periods, acne, excessive body and facial hair and weight gain. But each of those symptoms could signal a variety of issues, especially during the teenage years, when PCOS – the most common hormonal illness in young women – typically first strikes. This is why patients spend years searching for a diagnosis, says endocrinologist Dr Andrea Dunaif.
And that’s concerning because those with PCOS – especially untreated PCOS – are at increased risk for type-2 diabetes, heart disease and endometrial cancer. Though the root causes remain unknown, PCOS happens when the ovaries produce an unusually high amount of male hormones, like testosterone, which tamper with ovulation and, in many cases, the body’s sensitivity to insulin.
For Katy Teer, 32, the condition led to facial hair and an ever-expanding waistline, starting at age 13. “I rarely had normal periods, but doctors always blamed that on my weight,” she says. At age 28, she finally got a diagnosis. Because there’s no definitive blood or imaging test, Katy’s doctors looked at three criteria: irregular periods, elevated male hormones and ovarian cysts seen on ultrasounds. PCOS has no cure or approved drug–doctors can only treat the major symptoms.
Oral contraceptives, especially those containing an anti-androgen like cyproterone acetate (Diane 35, Minerva or Ginette 35), can help suppress male hormones and normalise cycles, says Women’s Health’s medical advisor Dr Tamlyn McKeag. And physicians often use spironolactone, a kidney drug, to stop unwanted hair growth. PCOS patients who struggle with fertility are also sometimes prescribed clomid, a drug that induces ovulation; the diabetes med metformin is often given to help restore regular cycles and reduce diabetes risk. If that sounds like a lot of pills, it is.
But PCOS symptoms, especially weight gain, can also be controlled through diet and exercise. “Patients find that a diet moderate in carbs and high in lean protein helps them consume fewer kilojoules,” says dietician Hillary Wright, author of The PCOS Diet Plan. Plus, “losing just five to 10 percent of your weight can lead to the resumption of normal periods and lower male hormone levels,” says Dunaif. As with every illness, the most important step is working with your doctor on a plan that’s right for you. Once Katy started taking metformin and a low-dose birth-control pill, her day-to-day life became much more manageable. “I lost more than 18kg,” she says. “I’m still overweight, even though I walk six kays a day, but I stopped getting facial hair,my periods are more regular and my blood pressure is under control.” So is her fertility: in 2007, she became a mother.