Have you been trying without success to get pregnant? Are your periods irregular or missing all together? If so, polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS could be part of the problem.
PCOS is a condition that affects between 5 and 10 percent of women in their childbearing years, according to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. (2) It has been known to start in girls as young as age 11, and symptoms can continue past menopause.
Researchers believe PCOS is connected with a hormone imbalance. Hormones are chemical messengers that carry instructions through the body to keep all of our systems working together.
Women with PCOS tend to have higher-than-normal levels of hormones known as androgens. Androgens are typically referred to as male hormones because they have a more active role in men than in women. But it is normal for women to have low levels of androgens in addition to the female hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.
In women, androgens can affect how eggs are released from the ovaries in a process called ovulation. During a woman’s normal monthly cycle, hormones trigger the ovaries to release a mature egg from follicles or pockets on the surface of the ovary.
The hormone imbalance common in PCOS may prevent the eggs from maturing as they should. When this happens, the follicles on the ovary can fill with fluid, but do not release mature eggs. These swollen follicles form cysts on the surface of the ovary that can be seen during an ultrasound exam.
In order for a woman to get pregnant, her ovaries must release mature eggs that can be fertilized to create a baby. Because PCOS interferes with the maturing and releasing of eggs, the disease can make it difficult to get pregnant.
Researchers also believe that insulin resistance may be linked to PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that is produced in the pancreas of both men and women. Insulin acts as a key to allow cells in the body to take in sugar or glucose from the blood. All cells need sugar as a source of energy.
In people who are insulin resistant, the cells resist the work of insulin which means they don’t draw sugar out of the bloodstream the way they should. This causes excess sugar to accumulate in the blood, which triggers the pancreas to create even more insulin to try to fix the imbalance.
Many women with PCOS have been found to have higher than normal levels of insulin in their blood. Excess insulin can trigger the production of too much of the androgens which are the male hormones implicated in PCOS.
Despite the name polycystic ovary syndrome, a woman with few or no ovarian cysts can be diagnosed with this disease. In general, women with PCOS will have at least two of these conditions:
• Higher-than-normal levels of androgens — Symptoms of this imbalance include acne, extra hair on the body or male-pattern baldness.
• Irregular periods — This may mean excess bleeding during periods, or periods that happen farther apart than normal, or not at all.
• Many cysts or sac filled with fluid on the ovaries.
PCOS tends to cluster in families. So if someone in your direct family line has PCOS, you might be at higher risk for it as well.
According to the U.S. Office on Women’s Health, women with PCOS may also be at higher risk for other serious health conditions including:(2)
• Type 2 diabetes — More than half of all women with PCOS develop diabetes or pre-diabetes by age 40.
• Heart attack — Women with PCOS have 4 to 7 times higher risks for heart attacks.
• Obstructive sleep apnea — People with this condition have pauses in their breathing while sleeping.
• High blood pressure.
• Poor cholesterol levels – Women with PCOS are prone to high LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol.
There is no cure for PCOS, but there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can minimize symptoms.
Treatments vary depending on which symptoms a woman is experiencing, and whether or not she is trying to get pregnant. Many women who are treated for PCOS to help them ovulate more normally are able to get pregnant and have children.
If you have questions about PCOS, your menstrual cycle, or if you are trying without success to get pregnant, talk to your health care provider.
Reviewed April 29, 2016
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith
1) PCOS: An Infertility Issue That Is Little Understood. The New York Times. Jane E. Brody. Web. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
2) Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) fact sheet. Womenshealth.gov. Web. Retrieved April 26, 2016.
3) Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Condition Information. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Web. Retrieved April 26, 2016.