The Female Hormonal Condition You Need To Know About
by Hafsa Lodi
PCOS: if you’ve been seeing this acronym on your social media feeds over the past few days, you may be curious to learn what it means and why it’s currently “trending.” September is PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome) Awareness Month. Medical experts across the globe, along with females diagnosed with PCOS, are sharing their experiences, advice, and insights to raise awareness for this surprisingly common yet not-discussed-enough condition.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a serious but highly common hormonal reproductive disorder that affects a woman’s ovaries, caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. This imbalance can lead to developmental issues in the monthly eggs produced by the ovaries during the menstrual cycle.
Women with PCOS often experience irregular or missed periods, excess androgen, which are high levels of male hormones that may cause excess facial or body hair, or other physical signs. They may also develop a large number of tiny ovarian cysts. The cysts caused by PCOS are actually small sacs containing immature eggs that never matured enough to trigger ovulation. If a woman has at least two of these features, she can be diagnosed with PCOS.
PCOS can be diagnosed by a doctor who will examine your pelvis, conduct a pelvic ultrasound, take blood samples and measure your blood pressure, BMI, and waist size.
What causes PCOS and what are common symptoms?
While medical experts believe that genetics are a factor, the precise causes of PCOS remain unknown. Women with PCOS are found to have higher-than-normal levels of androgens, commonly known as “male” hormones. This can inhibit the ovulation process in the menstrual cycle. It can also cause acne and extra hair growth on different areas of the body, chin, and face.
In addition to acne and excess hair growth, other common symptoms include thinning hair on the scalp and irregular periods. Darkening of the skin and the appearance of skin tags are other symptoms seen with women who have this condition. The term ‘polycystic’ means ‘many cysts’, which is why multiple cysts in the ovaries are a major indication of the syndrome; however, not all women with PCOS develop these cysts.
What can PCOS lead to?
PCOS is the leading cause of female infertility. Women with PCOS also have three times the risk of developing endometrial cancer compared to other women and have a greater risk of having high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Half of the women diagnosed with PCOS are expected to develop Type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes before they turn 40 as a result of insulin resistance.
Studies have found connections between PCOS and obesity, as well as sleep apnea: a sleeping disorder that causes breathing to stop repeatedly during sleep. Women with PCOS also suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety.
Pregnant women who suffer from PCOS often experience complications during pregnancy, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, pre-term deliveries, and in some cases, miscarriage and stillbirth. New mothers who have PCOS may have additional challenges producing milk and breastfeeding.
How can it be treated?
A known “cure” for PCOS does not yet exist. However, women diagnosed with PCOS are encouraged to manage their symptoms with specialized treatment plans, especially those who plan to have kids.
For specific symptoms like extra hair growth in unwanted places, prescription creams are available, and many women with PCOS opt for laser hair removal treatments or waxing, especially for areas like the face.
Doctors will also advise women with PCOS to watch their weight, recommend healthy eating habits and take part in regular physical activity. Low-carb diets are known to benefit both weight loss and lower insulin levels. Practicing both consistent exercise and a healthy diet can significantly help manage symptoms.
How common is PCOS?
While this may be your first time hearing of PCOS, it is surprisingly common, impacting approximately 10% of women in the United Kingdom and 15% of women in the United States. In a report for Middle East Medical Portal, Dubai-based gynecologist Dr. Amelie Hofmann-Werther estimated that PCOS affects 20-25% of Middle Eastern women – and in some areas of the GCC, up to 30%.
Raising more awareness
Still, up to 70% of women with PCOS remain undiagnosed, according to PCOS Challenge: The National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association, which launched in the United States in 2009 to provide advocacy and raise awareness for women diagnosed with PCOS. Today, there are many initiatives and support groups that provide PCOS education and treatment. There are also numerous social media personalities committed to shining light on life with PCOS – from Sydney-based Brigette Warne who blogs about hormones, fertility, and motherhood, to PCOS.weightloss, which offers tips on diets with a focus on gluten- and dairy-free foods for women struggling with weight gain from PCOS.
Thanks to the efforts of PCOS Challenge, on September 1 (World PCOS Day), iconic landmarks across the globe – from Dublin’s National Concert Hall to The New York Stock exchange – were lit in teal. With proper treatment methods, women with PCOS are able to manage their symptoms. But because the disorder leads to several other medical conditions, and since there are so many women with PCOS who remain undiagnosed, raising more awareness about identifying, treating, and living with PCOS (especially in the Middle East where rates of PCOS in women seem to be significantly higher) is of the utmost importance.
Perhaps we can count on a teal-colored Burj Khalifa next September?