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What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (or PCOS) is a condition affecting hormone levels in people with periods. In fact, it’s the most common hormonal condition for women of child-bearing age, affecting up to1 in 10 girls and women aged between 15 and 44. 

Polycystic means ‘many cysts’ and is named because for folks with PCOS, the follicles (fluid-filled sacs containing an egg) grow in preparation for ovulation,but the eggs never mature enough to start ovulation. 

Because ovulation doesn’t happen, there’s an imbalance of estrogen, progesterone, follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) - all essential hormones for a healthy menstrual cycle. 

Folks with PCOS often have higher-than-usual levels of male-type hormones (particularly insulin and androgens), which also affects the balance of the hormones that regulate menstrual cycles. 

This can lead to a range of symptoms, including:Irregular or absent periods (if ovulation doesn’t happen there’s little or no uterine lining to shed)

  • Cysts in the ovaries (follicles that haven’t matured and burst during ovulation)
  • Challenges getting pregnant (due to skipped ovulation, which is the time that pregnancy can happen)
  • Increased growth of facial and body hair (due to increased male-type hormones)
  • Head hair loss or thinning 
  • Increasingly oily skin and acne (due to increased male-type hormones)
  • Weight gain 

Symptoms vary from person to person and can change over time. 

Whilst that list of symptoms can look a bit daunting, PCOS can often be managed through healthy lifestyle changes. 

Why do people get PCOS?

It’s thought that PCOS is caused by a range of different factors, including: 

  • Genetics - PCOS can run in families, so it would make sense that certain genes contribute to the development of PCOS
  • Insulin resistance -a majority of folks diagnosed with PCOS have insulin resistance (which means their cells don’t use insulin properly). If your body isn’t using insulin effectively, it makes it hard for your body to turn the sugar from your food into energy. Your body then makes more insulin to compensate, and over time, your body stops responding effectively to insulin because there is too much of it around all the time. This may mean some people will eat more to compensate for a lack of energy, thus causing weight gain, however weight gain itself leads to more hormones being present and can make the insulin resistance worse.
  • Inflammation -Folks with PCOS often experience physical inflammation. Studies have shown a link between chronic inflammation and higher androgen levels (male-type hormones).

How is PCOS diagnosed?

If you think you might have PCOS, chat with your doctor or healthcare professional. They will ask you a series of questions to find out your symptoms and medical history. This might involve a physical examination and possibly some blood tests to check hormone levels, and an ultrasound to look at your ovaries.

Why is a diagnosis helpful?

Our understanding of PCOS is still developing and many folks go undiagnosed or may not even realise they have PCOS. Untreated, PCOS can lead to other health risks / issues including type 2 diabetes, infertility, sleep apnoea, and depression. 

With diagnosis comes a personalised treatment plan and your PCOS can often be managed through lifestyle changes and medications. 

If you’re planning to chat with your healthcare professional, it’s helpful to track your cycle and symptoms. This includes:

  • When you bleed (or if you miss a period)
  • Skin changes (for example acne)
  • Weight
  • Pain
  • Moods
  • Digestion (including diet, and any bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea)
  • Anything else you think might be relevant. 

Download the YourCycle app for personalised information on everything to do with your cycle. It’s completely free and always will be.