Women with PCOS produce higher-than-normal amounts of male hormones. This hormone imbalance causes them to skip menstrual periods and makes it harder for them to get pregnant.
PCOS also causes hair growth on the face and body, and baldness. And it can contribute to long-term health problems like diabetes and heart disease.
Birth control pills and diabetes drugs can help fix the hormone imbalance and improve symptoms.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a problem with hormones that affects women during their childbearing years (ages 15 to 44). Between 2.2 and 26.7 percent of women in this age group.
Many women have PCOS but don’t know it. In one study, up to 70 percent of women with PCOS hadn’t been diagnosed.
PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small amount of male hormones called androgens.
The ovaries release eggs to be fertilized by a man’s sperm. The release of an egg each month is called ovulation.
Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) control ovulation. FSH stimulates the ovary to produce a follicle — a sac that contains an egg — and then LH triggers the ovary to release a mature egg.
PCOS is a “syndrome,” or group of symptoms that affects the ovaries and ovulation. Its three main features are:
Cysts in the ovaries
High levels of male hormones
Irregular or skipped periods
In PCOS, many small, fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries. The word “polycystic” means “many cysts.”
These sacs are actually follicles, each one containing an immature egg. The eggs never mature enough to trigger ovulation.
The lack of ovulation alters levels of estrogen, progesterone, FSH, and LH. Estrogen and progesterone levels are lower than usual, while androgen levels are higher than usual.
Extra male hormones disrupt the menstrual cycle, so women with PCOS get fewer periods than usual.
What causes it?
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes PCOS. They believe that high levels of male hormones prevent the ovaries from producing hormones and making eggs normally.
Genes, insulin resistance, and inflammation have all been linked to excess androgen production.
Up to 70 percent of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells can’t use insulin properly.
Insulin is a hormone the pancreas produces to help the body use sugar from foods for energy.
When cells can’t use insulin properly, the body’s demand for insulin increases. The pancreas makes more insulin to compensate. Extra insulin triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones.
Common symptoms of PCOS
Some women start seeing symptoms around the time of their first period. Others only discover they have PCOS after they’ve gained a lot of weight or they’ve had trouble getting pregnant.
The most common PCOS symptoms are:
Irregular periods. A lack of ovulation prevents the uterine lining from shedding every month. Some women with PCOS get fewer than eight periods a year (10Trusted Source).
Heavy bleeding. The uterine lining builds up for a longer period of time, so the periods you do get can be heavier than normal.
Hair growth. More than 70 percent of women with this condition grow hair on their face and body — including on their back, belly, and chest (11). Excess hair growth is called hirsutism.
Acne. Male hormones can make the skin oilier than usual and cause breakouts on areas like the face, chest, and upper back.
Weight gain. Up to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese (11).
Male-pattern baldness. Hair on the scalp gets thinner and fall out.
Darkening of the skin. Dark patches of skin can form in body creases like those on the neck, in the groin, and under the breasts.
· Headaches. Hormone changes can trigger headaches in some women.
How PCOS affects your body
Having higher-than-normal androgen levels can affect your fertility and other aspects of your health.
To get pregnant, you have to ovulate. Women who don’t ovulate regularly don’t release as many eggs to be fertilized. PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility in women.
Up to 80 percent of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Both obesity and PCOS increase your risk for high blood sugar, high blood pressure, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Together, these factors are called metabolic syndrome, and they increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
This condition causes repeated pauses in breathing during the night, which interrupt sleep.
Sleep apnea is more common in women who are overweight — especially if they also have PCOS. The risk for sleep apnea is 5 to 10 times higher in obese women with PCOS than in those without PCOS.
During ovulation, the uterine lining sheds. If you don’t ovulate every month, the lining can build up.
A thickened uterine lining can increase your risk for endometrial cancer.
Both hormonal changes and symptoms like unwanted hair growth can negatively affect your emotions. Many with PCOS end up experiencing depression and anxiety
How PCOS is diagnosed
Doctors typically diagnose PCOS in women who have at least two of these three symptoms:
High androgen levels
Irregular menstrual cycles
Cysts in the ovaries
Your doctor should also ask whether you’ve had symptoms like acne, face and body hair growth, and weight gain.
A pelvic exam can look for any problems with your ovaries or other parts of your reproductive tract. During this test, your doctor inserts gloved fingers into your vagina and checks for any growths in your ovaries or uterus.
Blood tests check for higher-than-normal levels of male hormones. You might also have blood tests to check your cholesterol, insulin, and triglyceride levels to evaluate your risk for related conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
An ultrasound uses sound waves to look for abnormal follicles and other problems with your ovaries and uterus.
Pregnancy and PCOS
PCOS interrupts the normal menstrual cycle and makes it harder to get pregnant. Between 70 and 80 percent of women with PCOS have fertility problems
This condition can also increase the risk for pregnancy complications.
Women with PCOS are twice as likely as women without the condition to deliver their baby prematurely. They’re also at greater risk for miscarriage, high blood pressure, and gestational diabetes.
However, women with PCOS can get pregnant using fertility treatments that improve ovulation. Losing weight and lowering blood sugar levels can improve your odds of having a healthy pregnancy.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
You’ve missed periods and you’re not pregnant.
You have symptoms of PCOS, such as hair growth on your face and body.
You’ve been trying to get pregnant for more than 12 months but haven’t been successful.
You have symptoms of diabetes, such as excess thirst or hunger, blurred vision, or unexplained weight loss.
If you have PCOS, plan regular visits with your primary care doctor. You’ll need regular tests to check for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other possible complications.