What is PCOS?
PCOS or Polycystic ovary syndrome is a medical condition that impacts a woman’s hormone levels. Keep reading to learn everything you’ve wanted to know about PCOS.
Those with PCOS typically produce more of the male sex hormones which can lead to:
- Hormonal imbalances
- Skipped or irregular menstrual periods
- Difficulties falling pregnant
- Cysts on your ovaries
Polycystic ovarian syndrome can also cause a range of symptoms including:
- Excess hair growth (particularly on the face and body)
- Changes in body shape
- Balding or excess hair loss
Different types of PCOS
There are four main types of PCOS that we commonly see.
1. Insulin resistant PCOS
This is the most common type of PCOS. We can determine that you have insulin resistant PCOS by looking at your circulating insulin levels.
2️. Pill-induced PCOS
Unfortunately, birth control can mask PCOS and may cause symptoms once we stop taking it. When we cease birth control, there is a flood of androgens which while temporary which can cause a range of symptoms associated with PCOS.
3️. Inflammatory PCOS
Chronic inflammation in our body can see our ovaries produce too much testosterone, which we know is a common issue in PCOS!
4. Adrenal PCOS
If our bodies respond to stress in an abnormal way, we can see adrenal PCOS as a result. It is not as common, only making up around 10% of all PCOS cases. This diagnosis will see high levels of DHEAS (an androgen produced in the adrenal glands) and normal levels of other androgens.
How PCOS is diagnosed
A PCOS diagnosis is typically made by your medical team if you have at least two out of these three symptoms:
- Elevated androgen levels
- An irregular menstrual cycle
- Cysts on your ovaries
Your doctor may also:
- Conduct a pelvic exam to check the health of your reproductive organs
- Do an ultrasound to look for abnormal follicles or cysts on your ovaries
- Take your blood to test your hormones and a variety of other health indicators
Helpful PCOS labs to request
In your quest to learn everything you’ve wanted to know about your PCOS, it’s important to consider labs! There are several helpful labs that you can ask your doctor to request if you suspect you have PCOS or if you want to gain a clearer picture of how well you are currently managing your PCOS.
There are several hormones which may be contributing to your PCOS and are responsible for your symptoms including:
It’s also helpful to understand your blood sugar levels and whether insulin resistance is an issue for you. You can ask your doctor to check your:
- Fasting glucose
- Fasting insulin
Inflammation can be common in those with PCOS and thankfully with dietary and lifestyle changes, we can reduce this if we know it is an issue. As your doctor to check your:
Metformin (a commonly prescribed PCOS medication) can cause B12 deficiencies, so ensure that you doctor screens for this in your bloods also!
How does PCOS impact your cycle?
There are two main ways in which PCOS impacts upon your menstrual cycle.
- Women with PCOS typically don’t ovulate or ovulate infrequently. This prevents the uterine lining from shedding each month like we would typically expect. As a result, this can cause irregular menstrual cycles.
- As a result of the above, the uterine lining doesn’t shed as often, becomes thicker and can cause heavier bleeding than normal when you do get a menstrual bleed.
What does PCOS mean in terms of fertility?
Given that PCOS disrupts your ability to have a normal menstrual cycle, it can also potentially impact upon your ability to get pregnant. It is estimated that between 70-80% of women diagnosed with PCOS struggle with infertility at some point.
The changes in hormone levels can also increase your risk of complications arising during your pregnancy including:
- Premature birth
- Gestational diabetes
Thankfully dietary and lifestyle changes considerably improve your chances of conception and having a healthy pregnancy and healthy baby!
Things that can make your PCOS worse
- Working long hours and not taking regular breaks
- Inadequate water intake
- Inadequate daily movement or exercise
- Not eating enough fibre
- Poor sleep duration and quality
- Drinking too many caffeinated beverages
- Not eating enough healthy fats in your diet
- Not eating regularly – skipping meals and snacks can wreak havoc on your blood sugar and insulin levels
- Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals
- Not eating balanced meals
- Consuming too many processed foods
How best to support your PCOS
The good news is that there are many aspects of your lifestyle that can be altered that can significantly improve the free androgen index (FAI), in addition to your weight and BMI.
Aim to balance your blood sugar levels and manage your insulin resistance
- Consuming low-glycaemic index foods (see guide here for more info)
- Eat regularly (every 3-4 hours)
- Consume balanced meals (incorporate protein, healthy fats and fibre-filled carbohydrates into each meal and snack)
- Talk to your healthcare profession about how dietary supplements may be able to assist in the management of your PCOS (see more on supplements for PCOS below)
Manage your stress
- Adopt strategies to better manage your stress
- Try moving your body, meditating, and journaling
Drink enough water
- Aim for at least 8 glasses of water each day
Get plenty of sleep
- Aim for 7-8 hours sleep each night
Avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals
- Avoid BPA, phthalates, dioxins, copper and chromium are just some of the many endocrine disrupting chemicals we are exposed to each day.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals are found in:
- personal care products
Learn more about endocrine disruptors here.
Some commonly used supplements include:
The research on magnesium supplementation is not concrete at present. Some studies suggest that magnesium may play a role in improving insulin resistance due to its links to glucose metabolism.
Inositol is often combined with metformin and can help to enhance:
- Insulin function and manage insulin resistance
- Move glucose into our cells faster helping to keep our blood sugar levels more stable
Berberine is known for having several functions including:
- Helping to reduce inflammation
- Increase insulin sensitivity
- Encouraging ovulation each cycle (in turn improving fertility)
N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC)
NAC is an antioxidant compound which reduces the number of free radicals that can damage cells in our body.
NAC is associated with:
- Improved chances of conceiving
- More regular ovulation
Enjoyed learning everything you’ve wanted to know about PCOS and keen to learn more?
- Treatment of infertility in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: approach to clinical practice (nih.gov)
- Pregnancy complications in women with polycystic ovary syndrome | Human Reproduction Update | Oxford Academic (oup.com)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment (healthline.com)