Polycystic Ovary Syndrome 101: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)? Learn all you need to know about PCOS, including its symptoms, causes and the treatment options available.

by Raihan Rahman

What is PCOS?

Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS is a hormonal medical condition that affects a woman’s ovaries and is the most common hormonal medical condition that affects reproductive-aged women. It can be further characterised as when a female body produces an excessive amount of male hormones or androgens.

 

The most common issue faced by women with this syndrome is irregular periods or no period at all. Since this means ovulation does not take place regularly, a woman with PCOS may find it difficult to get pregnant. However, if a woman with PCOS becomes pregnant, they are also more likely to suffer complications and even miscarriage. Women with PCOS are also at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

 

What are the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

The symptoms may differ for each woman and are dependent on the severity of the condition. Some women may also have multiple symptoms at the same time or one symptom at any given time and these usually appear in their late teens or early twenties. It is also important to note that some of the symptoms are common amongst women and only a proper diagnosis can determine if a woman has PCOS. These include:

Physical symptoms

  •   Irregular period or no period at all.
  •   Excessive hair growth (hirsutism)
  •   Weight gain
  •   Acne-prone or oily skin
  •   Scalp hair loss

Psychological symptoms

  •   Mood swings
  •   Anxiety
  •   Depression

What causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

The exact cause is unknown but it is believed that there is a strong genetic element which is also influenced by environmental and lifestyle factors. PCOS is also thought to be hereditary and if a woman has PCOS, it is more likely to be passed down to her daughter.

How does Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affect fertility?

Since PCOS equates to a higher level of male hormones, this prevents the process of ovulation in women. In turn, women that have PCOS may find it harder to conceive than women without PCOS.

How to prevent Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Although most cases of PCOS cannot be prevented, the symptoms can be alleviated through a change in lifestyle. If a woman is overweight, the doctor may emphasise on eating a balanced diet and exercising to help weight loss. This will also help with bringing down insulin levels and improve cardiovascular health. However, it is important to note that this syndrome affects women of all shapes and sizes and the best treatment plan for you should be formulated by a medical practitioner.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Treatment

Treatments for PCOS are determined by the symptoms currently present in the individual. Each person may have different treatment plans to help lessen the impact of PCOS.

A balanced diet & exercise

Since PCOS can affect metabolic system, fertility and insulin levels, the doctor will likely suggest improving an individual’s diet and incorporating mild to moderate exercise. For women with PCOS, the DASH diet might be particularly useful. Originally created to help lower blood pressure, this diet plan emphasises on a balanced and healthy eating habit which includes at least 3-4 servings of vegetables, fruits and grains per day; low consumption of saturated and trans fat and lower consumption of sodium. The example of foods and suggested servings are:

Grains

  • 1 slice of wholegrain bread OR
  • 1/2 cup of brown rice OR
  • 1/2 cup of whole-wheat pasta

Vegetables

  • 1 cup of raw collards, spinach or kale OR
  • 1/2 cup of broccoli, carrots or green beans OR
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable juice 

Fruits

  • 1 apple, banana or orange OR
  • 1/2 cup of grapes, pineapples or apricots OR
  • 1/2 cup of fruit juice

Dairy products

  • 1 cup of low-fat milk OR
  • 1 cup of low-fat yoghurt

Meat, poultry or fish

  • 30g of chicken breast OR
  • 30g of fish
  • 1 egg

It is suggested that a 5% weight reduction can significantly improve the impact of PCOS.

Hormonal imbalance

In order to manage menstrual irregularities, oral contraceptives are also used to treat those who are not looking to get pregnant. Certain oral contraceptives with anti-androgens may also help with other symptoms such as: excessive hair growth and oily or acne skin.

Metformin

Metformin is regularly used to treat individuals with type 2 diabetes. In the case of PCOS, doctors may also prescribe this medicine to lower insulin and blood sugar levels.

Fertility

For women that are finding it hard to conceive, the doctor may prescribe Clomiphene to stimulate ovulation and follicular development. If Clomiphene fails to activate ovulation, the doctor may suggest a stronger solution such as the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) injection to get pregnant. Research suggests that individuals taking the FSH injection have a better chance at getting pregnant at an 82% success rate compared to a 50% success rate for those who take Clomiphene.

Living with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome 

There is still no cure for PCOS but many of the symptoms can be managed effectively. Though it can be particularly challenging for women undergoing PCOS, a healthy lifestyle and diet can play a crucial role in managing the condition and even help women that are looking to conceive.

 

References
  1. Norman, R.J., Dewailly, D., Legro, R.S. and Hickey, T.E. (2007). Polycystic ovary syndrome. The Lancet, 370(9588), pp.685–697. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61345-2
  2. Hon, H. (2019) 4 smart fasting tips for mums (pregnant or not) this Ramadan, Motherhood.com.my. Available at: https://story.motherhood.com.my/blog/4-smart-fasting-tips-for-mums-pregnant-or-not-this-ramadan/ (Accessed: July 26, 2021).
  3. Healthline. (2020). How to Get Pregnant with PCOS. [online] Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/pregnancy/how-to-get-pregnant-with-pcos 
  4. Dottie (2019). Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). [online] PORTAL MyHEALTH. Available at: http://www.myhealth.gov.my/en/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/ 
  5. Matheson, E. and Bain, J. (2019). Hirsutism in Women. American Family Physician, [online] 100(3), pp.168–175. Available at: https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0801/p168.html.
  6. Goldberg, J.M. (2020). Can PCOS Be Prevented? [online] Verywell Health. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/can-pcos-be-prevented-4690740.
  7. Whelan, C. (2016). Can My Diet Relieve Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)? [online] Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/pcos-diet.
  8. Bailey, C.J. (2017). Metformin: historical overview. Diabetologia, 60(9), pp.1566–1576.
  9. Słopień, R., Milewska, E., Rynio, P. and Męczekalski, B. (2018). Use of oral contraceptives for management of acne vulgaris and hirsutism in women of reproductive and late reproductive age. Menopausal Review, 17(1), pp.1–4. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/hropen/hoy021
  10. Grassi, A. (2020). The DASH Diet Can Be Good for Blood Pressure and PCOS. [online] Verywell Health. Available at: https://www.verywellhealth.com/reasons-why-the-dash-diet-is-good-for-pcos-2616288
  11. National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute (2019). DASH Eating Plan | National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan
  12. Langdon, F., Pontre, J. and Hart, R.J. (2017). Fertility Treatment for Women with PCOS. Testes and Ovaries – Functional and Clinical Differences and Similarities. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.71188
  13. NHS Choices (2019). Overview – Polycystic ovary syndrome. [online] NHS. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/.
  14. Słopień, R., Milewska, E., Rynio, P. and Męczekalski, B. (2018). Use of oral contraceptives for management of acne vulgaris and hirsutism in women of reproductive and late reproductive age. Menopausal Review, 17(1), pp.1–4. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5925193/

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About the Writer
Raihan Rahman
Raihan loves psychological thriller books and horror movies but sleeps with a night light, lest the monsters get her.
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