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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Explained

woman holding pcos sign; blog: polycystic ovary syndrome explained

If you are struggling with infertility, then you are probably familiar with many of the conditions that can contribute to fertility issues. One of the most common causes of female infertility is polycystic ovary syndrome, most commonly referred to by its abbreviation, PCOS. 

The PCOS Awareness Association has a myriad of information and resources to learn about PCOS a bit more in-depth, but let’s take a look at the basics of the disorder, its symptoms, causes, and effects on fertility.

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

 Polycystic ovary syndrome, in its simplest definition, is a condition that occurs when a woman’s ovaries and/or adrenal glands produce higher levels of male hormones than normal. This causes irregularities in ovulation and often stops successful ovulation altogether. PCOS generally causes benign cysts to grow on the ovaries, hence the presence of “polycystic” in the name.

What are the Symptoms of PCOS?

The most common symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome is the irregularity in or absence of menstrual periods. This is caused by the body not ovulating. Irregular periods are often symptoms of other conditions, so it can be difficult to diagnose PCOS on that symptom alone. Also, not all women experience the same symptoms. For example, even though the name of the condition contains “cyst,” not all women with polycystic ovary syndrome have ovarian cysts.

Common PCOS symptoms include:

  • Irregular or missed periods
  • Fatigue
  • Pelvic Pain
  • Headaches
  • Unwanted hair growth on the body (known as hirsutism) 
  • Hair thinning on the head
  • Weight gain
  • Mood changes
  •  Acne
  • Sleep problems

What Causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

 There is no one conclusive cause of PCOS, which is one of the most frustrating things about the condition. It is considered a hormonal condition because the symptoms are caused by imbalances in hormones. But what causes these irregularities in hormone levels is what’s unknown. There are many things that are believed to be linked to PCOS including genetics and environmental factors.

The three main hormones involved in PCOS are:

1. Androgens: Androgens are often referred to as “male hormones,” but a healthy female body will make androgens as well, just in lower amounts than men. Androgens are mostly produced by the ovaries, but they can also be made in the adrenal glands. In PCOS, a female’s androgen level may be higher than average. This leads to some of the symptoms previously discussed, including unwanted or excess body hair, thinning hair on the head, acne, and irregular periods.

2. Insulin: Insulin is the hormone that allows the body to absorb sugar, or glucose as it’s usually referred to in this instance. When a woman has PCOS, her body is less responsive to insulin, creating a greater risk for high blood glucose levels. The body can also react to insulin insensitivity by producing more insulin to try and make up the difference. Levels of insulin that are too high can cause the body to produce more androgens.

3. Progesterone: In PCOS, low levels of progesterone contribute to symptoms like irregular periods and fertility issues.

How is PCOS Treated?

There is no “cure” for polycystic ovary syndrome, as is the case with many conditions with unknown causes. However, the condition can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes to alleviate and offset symptoms. 

Because PCOS relates to hormone imbalances, many treatments for the condition are either hormonal themselves, or drugs that offset the effects of the hormones. Hormonal birth control is the standard treatment for most women with PCOS.  

Lifestyle changes are also important when treating polycystic ovary syndrome. For women who are overweight, losing 5-10% of your body weight can help with menstrual cycle regularity and ovulation. It’s often easier said than done, but even losing a small amount of weight through a healthy nutrition plan and exercise can help with symptoms.

For women with PCOS who want to get pregnant, your doctor can prescribe treatments to help with fertility.

How Does Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Affect Fertility?

Polycystic ovary syndrome is one of the most well-known causes of infertility in women. However, just because you have PCOS doesn’t automatically make you infertile. Many women with PCOS successfully conceive and give birth. Some women are able to do this naturally and some women require some help from fertility treatments. 

Some of the treatments for PCOS discussed before can aid in fertility for women who have the condition, but often those wanting to get pregnant will be advised to get specific treatments to aid in conception and not just alleviate symptoms. These treatments can include hormone injections or fertility medications. It’s also important to continue with the healthy lifestyle habits to help manage your symptoms.

If you think you may have polycystic ovary syndrome, or have been diagnosed already and are trying to conceive, the expert team at Carolinas Fertility is here to help. For those in the Triad, we have offices in Winston Salem and Greensboro. To contact those offices, call 336-448-9100. If you want to make an appointment at our Charlotte office, call 844-686-2233. You can also request an appointment online.