PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome)

Discover the facts about the endocrine disorder that affects between 5 and 10 percent of woman who are of reproductive age. Learn about ways to avoid the disorder through methods such as weight loss.

Your Guide to PCOS: What Is It, How Is It Diagnosed & More

Polycystic ovary syndrome can cause many physical and emotional symptoms. Fortunately, though, polycystic ovary syndrome is treatable.

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Having trouble losing weight despite all efforts? What about growing unwanted hair and experiencing persistent acne? Though these occurrences are frustrating to deal with, they also may be an indication of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Polycystic ovary syndrome is also quite common, affecting 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. PCOS is a leading cause of infertility in women, too, and can cause a multitude of physical and emotional symptoms.

Fortunately, though, polycystic ovary syndrome is treatable. Learn the common signs and symptoms of PCOS and how to overcome a diagnosis.

What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), also known as polycystic ovarian syndrome, is a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age. PCOS is caused by hormonal imbalances, which creates issues in the ovaries.

Ovaries produce eggs for fertilization and are released each month as part of a healthy menstrual cycle. They also produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which play a role in regulating periods in females. Polycystic ovaries, however, may not release an egg and produce male-dominant androgen hormones in excess.

The cause of PCOS is not well-understand, though a number of genetic and environmental factors can lead to its development. For instance, a family history of PCOS can increase the risk of having it.

Women with PCOS also often have insulin resistance, a metabolic condition in which cells do not respond well to insulin. Cells cannot easily take up glucose from the blood, thus leading to high blood sugars and type 2 diabetes risk. It can cause additional signs and symptoms, too.

PCOS Symptoms and Signs

Signs and symptoms are variable and often depend on the severity of PCOS. They mostly stem from having abnormal hormones. Women with PCOS may experience:

• Irregular menstrual periods and cycles, including not having a period for months or heavy bleeding during them.

• Infertility, as PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women.

• Unwanted hair growth, which is clinically known as "hirsutism." The growth may be noticed in unwanted places, including the chin, breasts, and extremities. Some women may also have hair loss or thinning.

• Headaches caused by abnormal hormone levels.

• Feelings of depression and anxiety.

• Weight gain, especially around the waist.

• Skin problems, including acne and oily skin.

• Acanthosis nigricans, a condition that leads to patches of thickened, velvety, and darkened skin. This is particularly common in women with insulin resistance.

Women with PCOS are also at further risk of developing certain health conditions, including:

• Prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, as previously mentioned

• Miscarriage or premature birth

• Obesity

• Sleep apnea

• Metabolic syndrome

• Endometrial cancer

If experiencing these signs and symptoms, consult with a doctor right away. Doing so is the first step in diagnosing and treating PCOS.

Diagnosing PCOS

There is not a single test to definitely diagnose PCOS. Diagnosing PCOS often involves a comprehensive exam with a doctor. They will start by asking the course of signs and symptoms. They will also inquire about a family history, including if mother or a sister has been diagnosed with PCOS.

A physical exam will also be given, including with an ultrasound to helps image what the ovaries look like. A doctor will likely examine for cysts and thickening around the uterine wall. Blood tests help determine hormone levels, and whether or not they are abnormal. Some common hormones detected for PCOS include androgens, progesterone, and insulin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having at least 2 of these 3 symptoms indicates polycystic ovary syndrome:

1. Irregular periods or no periods, caused from lack of ovulation.

2. Higher than normal levels of male hormones. This may result in excess hair on the face and body, acne, or thinning scalp hair.

3. Multiple small cysts on the ovaries.

A PCOS diagnosis may warrant further blood testing for high cholesterol and blood sugars. Knowing these numbers is important to gain insight on health risks, including diabetes and heart disease, along with appropriate treatment options.

Treatment for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Treatment options can also vary dependent on goals. For instance, if conceiving is the primary goal, birth control is often recommended. Other medications may be prescribed to balance hormones. These often include clomiphene, metformin, and gonadotropins.

However, weight loss is often the first recommended treatment to subside and diminish PCOS symptoms. It can also help improve insulin resistance and lower diabetes risk.

How to Lose Weight with PCOS

Weight loss is a challenge for women with polycystic ovary syndrome. However, losing weight is not off the table. 

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is recommended to lose weight. Factors include recommendations regarding diet, physical activity, sleep hygiene, and stress management.

Focus on Nutrient-Dense Foods

Nutrient-dense foods are ones that offer the most nutrients, while often being naturally low in calorie. Such foods include whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean proteins, and healthy fat sources. Adding more of these foods in the diet can help displace ones lacking in nutritional value.

Lowering carbohydrate can also be beneficial for regulating insulin levels. However, knowing the truth about low-carb diets helps ensure one is eating an appropriate, balanced diet.

Ensure Adequate Hydration

Along with ensuring adequate nutrition, keep hydrated. Increasing water intake is important for overall health and can assist in weight loss goals.

Thirst often masks itself as hunger, which can direct attention to food rather than a glass of water. However, staying hydrated can deter such feelings. And especially if swapping sugary beverages with water, its intake can save hundreds of calories on a regular basis.

As a general rule of thumb, consume at least 64 ounces of water daily. Drink more water by keeping large water bottles accessible and convenient, including at home and work. Also feel free to use fresh fruits and herbs to enhance the flavor of water.

Increase Physical Activity

To burn sufficient calories and lose weight quicker, include a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity weekly. This breaks down to at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Cardio includes running, brisk walking, swimming, dancing, cycling, and any exercise that elevates heart rate.

Include weight and strength training at least twice a week. Focus on major muscle groups, including the back, chest, arms, and legs.

Strength training paired with aerobic exercises is the ultimate power duo for weight loss and muscle maintenance. However, simply make it an effort to increase daily movement. Even minor tweaks and short movement bouts can make a significant difference. This can be achieved by parking further away from the store’s entrance and taking the steps over the elevator.

Sleep 7 to 9 Hours Nightly

While being active is important for weight loss, so is getting enough rest. In fact, a deep sleep of seven to nine hours results in greater weight loss opposed to five to six hours.

Sleep hygiene tips include staying consistent with bed and wake times and avoiding naps throughout the day. Also stick to coffee in the early morning and afternoon hours and stray away from screen time leading up to bed.

Manage Stress

Stress can make weight loss an ongoing struggle for a number of reasons. Feeling stressed increases the risk of "stress eating," in which foods rich in sugar and fat are often sought out.

Eating can instantly suppress the undesirable emotions by releasing the "feel good" hormone, also known as endorphins. But even more unfortunate, another hormone comes into play. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol is released when the body feels stressed. Elevated cortisol heightens cravings, stores fuel and energy, and slows down metabolism.

So instead of turning to food, manage stress with exercise, yoga, or meditation. Calling a friend, taking a bath, or listening to music can also alleviate stress.

Try Out a Diet Delivery Program

BistroMD is built on the expertise and experience of weight loss physician Dr. Caroline Cederquist. Dr. Cederquist works with a team of Registered Dietitians to ensure nutrient needs for weight loss are met.

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Written By bistroMD Team. Published on November 07, 2012. Updated on October 22, 2019.

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