PCOS Symptoms and Treatments.
Women with Poly Cystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) not only suffer the confidence-sapping indignity of having oily skin and hair, acne and male-pattern hair growth, weight gain that’s hard to shift and infertility, but also a medical profession that often doesn’t give it the recognition it deserves.
About 6% of women have PCOS and symptoms vary a lot between sufferers, many having had to deal with them since they were teenagers. If you recognise yourself in this description, have tried every diet, gym machine, acne cream and hair removal system known to woman kind, then this article will look at the causes and possible treatments for the condition.
What causes PCOS symptoms?
Normally, there’s a complex cascade process that your hormones go through that then creates your monthly period if you don’t become pregnant. This process doesn’t happen in the right way so that an egg isn’t released (you therefore don’t have a menstrual period, or at least very few and no cycle) and there is less chance of you becoming pregnant.
In addition, because of the way our hormones are manufactured, you can end up with too much male hormone (androgens and testosterone). This is what gives the male-pattern hair growth, and in some cases hair loss, and oily skin.
And various other hormones, including insulin, cause the weight gain and the difficulty in losing it.
No one is really sure what causes PCOS but there is a hereditary element to it.
How do I get diagnosed?
Your family doctor or a specialist will do several blood tests to exclude other causes for the symptoms you’ve got and to find out at what levels your female hormones are functioning.
S/he may also ask for a scan of your ovaries to look for cysts. It’s important to remember that about 20% of women have cysts on their ovaries but not all have PCOS, so some doctors don’t feel that a scan is helpful.
What is the treatment for PCOS?
Treatments are varied and can take some time to show whether they are working or not. Not all treatments will work for every woman. Some symptoms are more troublesome than others so you should discuss your concerns with your specialist who will then be able to advise the best course of action for you.
- Some contraceptive pills (eg Dianette) have an anti-androgens affect because they contain oestrogen. They can give an improvement in the skin oiliness, hair growth, hair texture and colour. They can take up to 12 months to show this benefit because of the life cycle of the hair follicles. It should not be taken if you want to become pregnant.
- A drug called spironolactone (trade names Aldactone, Novo-Spiroton, Aldactazide, Spiractin, Spirotone, Verospiron or Berlactone) is usually used for people with heart or kidney problems but has also been found to have an anti-androgen effect. It should not be taken if you want to become pregnant as it could damage the foetus.
- A diabetic drug called metformin (trade names Glucophage, Glucophage XR, Glumetza, Fortamet, Riomet) has also been found to be useful for PCOS sufferers.
It doesn’t reduce blood sugar but will reduce high insulin levels which can compound your symptoms and cause other problems (see below in ‘general health’). Doctors believe that by reducing these high insulin levels the androgen and testosterone levels are brought down and that you may then ovulate. Talk to your specialist if your aim is to become pregnant and s/he may monitor you, perhaps stopping the drug when you become pregnant.
- Clomiphine (Clomid) is a drug that is used to cause ovulation so would only be used if you wanted to become pregnant. There is a risk of multiple pregnancy/births with this drug and it is often not successful if you are very over weight. It doesn’t guarantee pregnancy but brings your chances of becoming pregnant to that of an average woman without PCOS.
Non medical treatment for PCOS
Non medical treatments are centred on weight loss as this is the one thing that will reduce all your symptoms. But this is much harder for a woman with PCOS that it is for the average person because your hormones are working against you.
Recent work on diet and PCOS has looked at the low glycaemic index diet (low GI), its role in bringing down insulin levels and therefore improving the problems this causes.
Insulin is an essential hormone that lets the bodily calls use their basic fuel – glucose. However in PCOS you may have a condition called insulin resistance which means that the body tissues aren’t responding to insulin. The body compensates by producing higher levels of insulin, a condition called hyper-insulinaemia. It’s thought that this high level affects the ovaries and their hormones and therefore plays a big part in the disrupted hormone cycle in PCOS.
Professors Nadir Farid, Jennie Brand-Miller and Kate Marsh are authors of The Low GI Guide to Managing PCOS . The GI diet aims to reduce the amount of insulin the body produces by focusing on ‘good carbs’ – those that release their energy slowly. Many women are finding that in following a low GI diet, they have a gradual improvement in their symptoms.
Useful health information.
- Modern Health and Fitness
Answering your health and fitness questions
PCOS and general health.
PCOS is not thought to increase the risk of ovarian cancer or pose a threat to the health of the ovary in itself.
However the hyper-insulinaemia we looked at above is linked to a high level of lipids in the blood and this is a risk for heart disease.
In addition, the extra weight carried by many women with PCOS is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
There is no cure for PCOS so symptom management is the best course of action and finding a sympathetic specialist is a significant way forward in achieving this.
PCOS affects about 6% of women and causes a variety of symptoms (skin hairiness and oiliness, male pattern hair loss, infertility, obesity). There is no cure but a number of medical treatments that work gradually to reduce these problems.
PCOS isn’t a threat to ovarian health but the associated high insulin levels are connected to high levels of fats in the blood and this can lead to heart disease.
The GI diet is a new development for women with PCOS and is proving successful in many cases.