Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a little-understood condition. Despite having been studied since the 1700s, it still remains an enigma, with little to show for its underlying causes. What researchers do know is that PCOS is at least partially attributed to a genetic predisposition. PCOS typically leads to abnormal hormone levels, insulin resistance, obesity and overweight. It is also often a precursor to diabetes.
PCOS can manifest in various ways, and the condition runs a spectrum of severity. Left unmanaged, PCOS can have the following effects on your body.
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Insulin resistance impedes the circulation of glucose to cells throughout the body. In turn, the pancreas is forced to produce excess insulin to balance out glucose levels. Inordinate amounts of insulin can cause the ovaries to become dormant and lead to a rise in male hormones, including testosterone and androgen.
Higher levels of androgen can circle back to cause further problems in the ovulatory mechanism, affecting the reserves of luteinising hormone and gonadotropin-releasing hormone, giving rise to a vicious cycle.
Irregular ovulation caused by PCOS is typically characterised by amenorrhoea (absence of menstrual cycles) or periods more than 35 days apart. With PCOS, you may notice extremely light or extremely heavy periods, caused by absent ovulation or excessive endometrial thickening, respectively.
The latter is triggered by a continual layering of the endometrium, without any subsequent period to eject the lining. So, when a period does arrive, the collective lining shed appears thicker than usual. In general, women with PCOS experience fewer than eight periods per year, with up to 15% experiencing elongated cycles up to 35 days.
When your ovaries don’t release timely eggs, you have less of a chance of catching one due to sheer probability. Infertility affects 80% of women with PCOS, but this can be treated with lifestyle changes, surgery, ovulation induction and fertility treatments. The bottom line is most women with PCOS will be able to get pregnant with a suitable treatment plan.
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Weight gain is a common symptom of PCOS, with up to 80% of women affected by it. PCOS-induced overweight can increase the risk of diabetes, endometrial cancer and cardiovascular disease. Although there’s little evidence to suggest that weight gain triggers PCOS, it is well accepted that losing as little as 2% of your surplus body weight can help in the management of the condition.
Excessive hair growth (on the chin, neck, face, abdomen, back, legs and arms) or hair loss, can be a byproduct of PCOS, with the former affecting about 70% of women. Hair loss in the form of male-pattern baldness or thinning is usually an outcome of hair follicles affected by hormonal changes.
Insulin resistance can bring about changes in the skin in the form of thick or dark patches, a deeper skin tone, skin growths and adult acne. PCOS-triggered acne is usually hard to treat with traditional ointments and deep-clean face washes, and most often requires a medicated approach to treatment.
Insulin resistance can not only cause cosmetic changes but also present a serious risk of type 2 diabetes. Women with PCOS run four times the risk of diabetes compared to women without the condition, and at least 50% of PCOS women develop diabetes or prediabetes before they touch 40.
When it comes to PCOS, it’s important to seek treatment sooner rather than later. The condition holds the ability to affect the way you plan your life, your family and your future. With a healthy lifestyle and potent medication, you can keep PCOS from snatching away your life’s most treasured milestones.