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10 Things to Know About Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

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PCOS

Medically reviewed by Dr. Ene Tolulope

Here are 10 things to know about polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), as a condition you can manage and allow the body to heal over time.

What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)?

You may have heard the term Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) before and may wonder why this disease is getting popular among women of childbearing age in recent times, including in Nigeria.

In this article, we explore all you need to know about Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, shortened as PCOS, is a gynaecological condition affecting the endocrine (hormonal) system of some women in the reproductive age group. 

Historically, Stein and Leventhal in 1935, described a syndrome of hirsutism and amenorrhea (the absence of menstruations or one or more missed menstrual periods) in the presence of polycystic ovaries.

The term, “Polycystic ovary” implies the presence of multiple cysts in the ovaries.

This syndrome was previously called Stein-Leventhal syndrome. Further research on this disease with advances in medicine led to its present nomenclature – Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

However, it is important to note that not every woman presenting with the features of this disease has the characteristic cystic appearance of the ovaries. 

In PCOS, women manifest with disturbances of the menstrual cycle, anovulation (absence of ovulation) and features of excessive male hormones (androgens) including acne, male pattern of hair distribution (hirsutism), amongst others.

HOW COMMON IS PCOS?

Statistics show that Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, PCOS remains one of the commonest endocrine diseases affecting women between the ages of 18 -45. Surprisingly, with its rampant occurrence, very little awareness is made towards PCOS especially in Africa.

PCOS has a prevalence ranging from 22 to 26% of women, depending on the diagnostic criteria used to define the condition. A recent study in Nigeria reported its prevalence in 16.9-27.6% of women (depending on the diagnostic criteria used).

Interestingly, it is also not uncommon to find women with unrecognized cases of this syndrome. This is in the sense that some women suffering from PCOS may show no symptoms of the syndrome.

WHAT CAUSES PCOS?

polycystic ovarian syndrome
Source: Canva

The exact cause of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is unknown as researchers cannot pinpoint what leads to the development of abnormal cysts in the ovaries.

Nevertheless, studies have shown that a number of factors put people at higher risk of developing PCOS. These include an interplay of genetic and environmental influences. 

Over secretion of Androgens

Excess production of androgens by the ovaries is stimulated by an imbalance in gonadotropins levels, specifically the Luteinizing hormone (LH), leading to incomplete development of multiple immature ovarian follicles. The immature follicles give the ovaries the classical ‘cystic’ appearance characteristic of polycystic ovaries. 

Genes

Studies have equally shown that PCOS runs in families. This means a girl-child is likely to develop PCOS if a member of the family has the condition. Hence, heredity influences the tendency of a women ton develop PCOS. This is why a part of the clinical investigation for PCOS diagnosis is patient history.

Insulin resistance

Research has it that up to 70% of women who suffer PCOS also have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance means that their cells are unable to utilize the insulin hormone properly.

The insulin hormone is a hormone produced by the pancreas cells, which helps the body utilize the glucose (sugar) metabolized from food. Without insulin hormone, the cells would be unable to use glucose properly, leading to a high blood sugar (glucose) level.

When the body cells cannot properly utilize insulin hormone, the body’s demand for the hormone increases. In response to this high demand, the pancreas ends up producing more insulin.

However, this tends to do more harm than good to the females in the sense that the increase in insulin levels almost always triggers the ovaries to make more male hormones. The excessive male hormone is what causes some symptoms of PCOS, such as hirsutism and acne.

Note: One of the common risk factors of insulin resistance is obesity. Obesity and insulin resistance have both been linked to Type 2 diabetes and are thus risk factors of diabetes.

Inflammation

Women who have PCOS also experience high levels of inflammatory reactions in their body. Again, obesity has been linked to inflammation. Notice the link between being overweight and suffering PCOS. Research has linked increased inflammation to an excess level of androgen hormone in the body. 

Even though physicians cannot tell exactly what causes Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, thorough studies on the subject have given credence that the factors mentioned above contribute greatly to the development of PCOS.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF PCOS?

Clinical features of PCOS are varied and may include majorly abnormalities of the menstrual cycle (oligomenorrhea, amenorrhea), anovulation, and features of hyperandrogenism (hirsutism, acne). Other features seen in women with PCOS include infertility, obesity and glucose intolerance manifesting with symptoms and signs of Diabetes Mellitus.

HOW IS PCOS DIAGNOSED?

pcos
Source: Canva

The diagnosis of PCOS is mainly clinical. A good clinical history and physical examination would usually give pointers to the condition. Biochemical investigations, ultrasonographical features and laparoscopic findings may also help with this diagnosis. 

Various bodies have proposed several diagnostic criteria. One of the universally accepted one is called the Rotterdam criteria, described by the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).

A diagnosis of PCOS is made in the presence of two of the following three criteria:

  • Oligo-ovulation or anovulation manifested as oligomenorrhea or amenorrhea
  • Hyperandrogenism (clinical evidence of androgen excess) or
  • Hyperandrogenemia (biochemical evidence of androgen excess)

Biochemical investigations in PCOS include serum gonadotropin levels, with an elevated Luteinizing Hormone (LH) level being significant.

Typically, the Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) to Luteinizing hormone (LH) ratio on the third day of the menstrual cycle is high, above 2:1 or 3:1. Androgen levels (testosterone, androstenedione) are also typically elevated in women with PCOS.

Blood glucose levels may be elevated as well. Ultrasonographic features of PCOS include the presence of immature follicles which are seen as multiple (usually over 12) small follicles 5-7mm in diameter, arranged around the periphery of the ovaries in a ‘string-of-pearls’ pattern. 

HOW IS PCOS MANAGED?

The goals of therapy in managing PCOS depend on the presentation in the individual woman. Management of this condition involves non-pharmacological, pharmacological and surgical methods. Non-pharmacological measures include weight reduction through dietary modification and exercise. Drug therapy aims to control insulin resistance, stimulate withdrawal bleeding, and suppress androgen production, improving fertility by stimulating ovulation.

Furthermore, ovulation can be stimulated using clomiphene citrate tablets. Oral contraceptive pills, preferably combined oral contraceptives (containing Ethinyl, estradiol and progestin) can effectively suppress the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis.

Metformin tablets are used to improve insulin sensitivity and control glucose intolerance. Other treatment may be tailored to the specific needs of the individual. Surgical treatment options include laparoscopic ovarian drilling, electrocautery and multiple biopsies, all aimed at improving fertility. 

WHAT OTHER CONDITIONS MAY PRESENT SIMILAR TO PCOS?

Some other medical conditions may cause clinical features that may mimic PCOS. It is important to note these and exclude them when making a diagnosis of PCOS. These differential diagnoses include the following: Hyperprolactinemia, Cushing’s syndrome, Hypothyroidism, Congenital adrenal hyperplasia and Androgen-secreting tumours.

HOW DOES PCOS AFFECT A WOMAN’S BODY?

polycystic ovarian syndrome
Source: Canva

Health challenges

As a woman, having excess male hormone in your body can affect certain aspects of your health, such as fertility and mental health. PCOS increases the risk for infertility, miscarriages, endometrial hyperplasia, cardiovascular diseases including hypertension, dyslipidemia and stroke, type 2 Diabetes mellitus, anxiety disorders and depression.

Infertility

A woman cannot get pregnant when without ovulation. Also, if you don’t ovulate regularly, it means you don’t release as many eggs (monthly) that would be needed for fertilization to occur. Anovulation (absence of ovulation) is one of the PCOS symptoms, which is one of the leading causes of infertility in women.

Endometrial cancer

Ovulating every month causes the endometrial lining (a membrane that covers the surface of the uterus) to be shed every month. The endometrial lining is actually what is shed every month as menstrual blood. However, when you don’t ovulate regularly, there can be a build-up of the endometrial lining. A thickened endometrium (endometrial hyperplasia) increases the risk for endometrial cancer.

Anxiety and depression.

Women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome experience different symptoms which can affect their mental health negatively and cause disorders like depression and anxiety. This is because the fluctuation in hormone levels can affect the woman’s mood and can trigger a state of depression. Other symptoms like acne and unwanted excessive hair growth can affect emotions and cause sadness, low self-esteem and anxiety.

Irregular Periods

AS earlier stated, PCOS is a disease of the ovary. The condition of the ovaries happens to be a very important factor in menstruation. Thus, as these immature follicles are spread out in the ovaries, they can most likely cause anovulation which is an inability to ovulate properly. Once the process of ovulation is affected, the menstrual cycle is impacted.

Read more on Irregular Periods: Causes and Home Remedies to Regulate your Cycle.

Metabolic disorders

A greater percentage of women with PCOS are obese or overweight. Both polycystic ovarian syndrome and obesity have been linked to a range of metabolic issues which include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high level of low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) and low level of high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol). These metabolic issues are collectively called metabolic disorders and can predispose one to other health conditions such as diabetes, heart diseases and stroke. 

Sleep apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a condition in which someone pauses in between breaths while sleeping. Sleep apnoea can be a serious issue and can interrupt sleep. Some of its symptoms include gasping for air while sleeping, loud snoring, difficulty staying awake and waking up with a headache. Sleep apnoea is common in women who have PCOS and are obese as well. A study showed that the risk for sleep apnoea is 5-10 times higher in obese women who have PCOS than those without PCOS. 

PCOS AND PREGNANCY

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Source: Canva

When it comes to pregnancy, there is a lot to learn about Polycystic ovarian syndrome. PCOS affects the normal menstrual cycle, causes amenorrhea and even makes it harder to get pregnant. Many women with PCOS have fertility issues.

However, this doesn’t mean a woman with the polycystic ovarian syndrome can’t get pregnant. With proper Consultation with an Expert, dietary and lifestyle changes, a successful pregnancy can be attained. 

One thing you also need to know about the polycystic ovarian syndrome is that even when pregnancy has been attained, the condition still increases the risk for certain pregnancy symptoms.

For instance, pregnant women with PCOS have a higher risk of giving birth to premature babies. They are also at a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes, high blood pressure and miscarriage. 

TIPS TO HELP MANAGE PCOS 

Dietary changes and weight loss

The good news is that Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is not life-threatening per se, but if not managed, it can lead to other health conditions which can be life-threatening. Most of the workable PCOS treatments usually focus on dietary changes and weight loss.

Many women with PCOS also suffer from obesity. However, studies have shown that losing excess weight can help regulate menstruation and improve other PCOS symptoms.

When you start losing weight, you are also on the right path to improving your blood cholesterol levels, reducing heart diseases, diabetes risks, and blood insulin levels. Some studies have confirmed that going on low-carb diets like the ketogenic diet and eating foods with low-glycaemic index can help regulate the menstrual cycle.

Exercise

Exercise is also highly recommended to help treat and manage your PCOS symptoms. When exercise is added to one’s weight loss regimen, ovulation is enhanced and the insulin levels is improved.

Thus, women with PCOS should consider participating in about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, three times a week in order to manage their condition.

When combined with a healthy dietary lifestyle, exercise offers a more effective solution to PCOS symptoms. Practicing these two improves weight loss, enhances menstruation, ovulation and insulin levels, and reduces the risk of developing heart diseases and diabetes. 

WHEN SHOULD YOU SEE A DOCTOR?

Do you experience symptoms similar to those listed of PCOS? What are the signs and symptoms that should make you suspect PCOS, and when do you see your doctor? If you experience symptoms of PCOS as discussed in the article, it would help to Book an Appointment with a doctor today so as to get a prompt diagnosis.

How Telemedicine can help

If:

  • you experience irregular menstrual cycles
  • you experience diabetes symptoms like unexplained changes in weight, blurred vision and excessive thirst or hunger
  • you have been trying to get pregnant for more than one year but have been unable to

All of the above-mentioned symptoms can be communicated with a doctor without having to visit the physical office. Telemedicine is a means of having access to professional healthcare personnel at any time and place without hindrances. You can be diagnosed through the family and health history you give to the doctor virtually or telephonically. The only time your presence may be required will likely be when the diagnosis and the results of the virtually prescribed medical tests suggest that there is a need for an extensive examination or surgery.

Do not wait until the illness has caused further health conditions in your body. Just pick up your phone, tablet, or any technological device you have access to and speak with a doctor. Also, do not hesitate to click on the link to speak with a doctor.

Key points covered in this article:

  • The polycystic ovarian syndrome is a common disease affecting women, causing various clinical features including anovulation, hirsutism and menstrual disturbances.
  •  It can be managed using a variety of treatment modalities tailored to the individual’s specific presentation. The management of this PCOS involves non-pharmacological, pharmacological and surgical methods.
  • If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, regular visits to your doctor will help manage your condition and help check for other possible complications from PCOS such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Frequently asked questions

1.What are the four stages of polycystic ovarian syndrome?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome is a condition you can manage and allow the body to heal over time. Choosing healthy eating and a beneficial lifestyle can help you manage PCOS appropriately. The four stages of PCOS are:

Insulin-resistance PCOS: One of the most prevalent forms of PCOS is brought on by elevated insulin levels in the body. Another possible cause is metabolic syndrome. Insulin resistance is a result of the body’s failure to respond to insulin in muscle and body cells.

The blood sugar level may rise as a result. The pancreas will therefore have to secrete more insulin as a result. Higher amounts of insulin circulation in the body will result in increased androgen production. Because of the high androgen, it will consequently result in all of the symptoms, such as cognitive fog, weight gain, and thirst.

Inflammatory PCOS: Inflammation PCOS is caused by an inflammatory state in your body, which will further inhibit ovulation. Persistent inflammation can also ultimately result in hormonal imbalance, which in turn raises androgen levels in the body. Inflammatory distress can be caused by some external factors like hazardous environments and strain, and some internal factors like the ingestion of inflammatory foods like gluten.

Symptoms of inflammatory PCOS are usually in the form of persistent headaches, infections, and skin irritations. In this case, the doctor might advise doing a blood test, and inflammatory PCOS can be confirmed with an excess of thyroid or a vitamin D deficiency in your body. Just know that it is best to avoid stressful situations and remain in a calm setting. In addition, it is best to avoid foods that cause inflammation, such as dairy, sugar, and wheat.

Post-pill PCOS: Many women who stop taking oral contraceptives suddenly are more likely to develop PCOS after stopping the medications. Some bodily signs, such as acne, irregular menstruation, and excessive hair growth, are frequent post-pill PCOS symptoms.

What happens is that the ovaries will create too much androgen after you stop taking oral contraceptive pills, and the action of quitting the pills results in PCOS symptoms. You won’t experience insulin resistance, though, and it would be beneficial if you gave your body time to recover. However, maintaining a healthy lifestyle may be crucial to the recovery of this illness.

Adrenal PCOS: adrenal PCOS is not a result of insulin resistance, inflammation, or the use of hormonal contraceptives. The way your body reacts to increased levels of stress is what causes adrenal PCOS. Your body responds improperly to higher levels of stress, this mechanism puts your body in constant flight or fight mood where the adrenal hormones are pumped in a higher degree within your body.

If the case of adrenal PCOS results from increased stress, then it will be wise to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes getting at least eight hours of sleep per night, giving your body adequate time to recuperate, and taking magnesium supplements which can also help promote relaxation in your body and mind. Additionally, it would be beneficial for you to begin practicing meditation since it would help you to de-stress and become more self-aware.

2. Is there scientific evidence on what causes polycystic ovarian syndrome?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that causes hormone imbalance, which results in irregular menstruation, excessive increases in androgens, small cysts in the ovaries, acne, mood changes, and an increase in body and facial hair.

It is an endocrine and metabolic disease that influences your body beyond the ovaries. Ovarian cysts cannot be diagnosed among all women with PCOS, making this disease fall under the category of causative agents like genetics, behaviour, lifestyle, and environmental exposure.

So therefore, what causes polycystic ovarian syndrome is not known yet, and the causative factors vary for different women.

3. Is it important to get diagnosed and treated for polycystic ovarian syndrome?

Undiagnosed and untreated PCOS could lead to a lot of chronic illnesses, and the symptoms will cause enormous distress. So yes, for better health benefits and general wellbeing, polycystic ovarian syndrome needs to be diagnosed and treated.

Untreated polycystic syndrome can lead to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, fatty liver, infertility, depression, and sleep apnea. The risk of developing diseases associated with PCOS is minimized with early diagnosis and treatment.

4. Is PCOS the main cause of an irregular menstrual cycle?

Not all irregular menstruations are caused by polycystic ovarian syndrome. Irregular menstruation can be a sign of other underlying health conditions, such as excessive exercise, thyroid disease, or an unhealthy lifestyle or diet.

5. Do you need to have an ultrasound to get diagnosed with polycystic syndrome?

Ultrasound is not usually needed to diagnose PCOS. From your social, family, medical, and surgical history, your doctor can be able to diagnose PCOS. A blood test can be done to establish the levels of sugars and hormones in your body.

The doctor checks for abnormal rises of testosterone, prolactin, and thyroid, and from the sugar tests, further examinations like pelvic ultrasounds of the ovaries and uterus will be conducted.

6. What medications are used to treat polycystic syndrome?

There are a number of medications that can be used by your doctor to treat PCOS. At the initial stage of the treatment, birth control is usually prescribed not as a cure but to help regulate your menstruation. To balance the increased androgen hormones, your doctor may prescribe anti-androgen medication, and that goes with diabetes. Anti-diabetes will be prescribed to help optimise your body’s insulin usage.

To regulate blood sugar in polycystic ovarian syndrome, metformin or any generic can be prescribed. Women in need of falling pregnant may have their doctor prescribe medication that can help them ovulate and increase their chances of getting pregnant.

7. Does pregnancy cure polycystic ovarian syndrome?

Polycystic ovarian syndrome can be the cause of infertility when trying to fall pregnant. It is a disease that, with the appropriate management and treatment from a gynaecologist could lead to a high probability of you conceiving. However, pregnancy does not, unfortunately, cure polycystic ovarian syndrome. During pregnancy, symptoms that are associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome can significantly reduce.

Some women have reported having regular menstrual cycles to some degree after pregnancy.

8. Can IVF help women with polycystic ovarian syndrome get pregnant?

In vitro fertilization, also called IVF, is classified in a fertility treatment group called assisted reproductive technology (ART), and it is a complex series of procedures for the treatment of infertility that can lead to a pregnancy.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome can cause infertility in women, and infertility is a condition in which you cannot fall pregnant after more than a year of trying. IVF can help women with polycystic ovarian syndrome get pregnant, but also know that not all women with polycystic ovarian syndrome can afford expensive treatment like IVF. Some can get pregnant just by receiving treatment from medical experts using only fertility medications.

Some may opt for IVF because IVF is not only for the treatment of infertility; it can also be effectively used to prevent the transmission of genetic problems to offspring through pre-implementation genetic testing (PGT).

9. Will having polycystic syndrome affect the outcome of my IVF?

There are no negative effects of having polycystic ovarian syndrome on IVF. The percentage of positive results gotten from women with no polycystic ovarian syndrome also applies to women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. However, the potential risk for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome is the ability to experience hyperstimulation from undergoing IVF.

With this in mind, it is important that you speak with your doctor for further assistance in this area. Due to the increased risk of hyperstimulation that could occur in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome, healthcare professionals’ experts begin simulation in smaller dosages and observe the process closely throughout the IVF procedure.

10. Does everyone with polycystic syndrome have polycystic ovaries?

Polycystic syndrome causes hormonal imbalances; however, cysts in the ovaries are one the symptoms of polycystic syndrome, and not every woman with PCOS has small cysts in their ovaries. The polycystic ovarian syndrome cysts are harmless and neither ruptures nor cause severe pain.

11. Which lifestyle is best for PCOS?

There are some lifestyle changes that can help with polycystic ovarian syndrome symptoms, such as diet, exercise, and state of mind. Reducing the consumption of ultra-processed foods, simple carbohydrates, soda drinks, and refined sugars will improve the symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome. Regular consumption of refined sugars and simple carbohydrates can increase the risk of insulin resistance, in which a consistence distortion in the ability of your body cells to get insulin can initiate type 2 diabetes.

Quitting smoking a cigarette will help reduce the production of androgen, and the nicotine in the cigarette causes more testosterone production and fasting insulin levels in the body. Thus, quitting health-destructive behaviour will help very much.

Regular, moderate exercise can help to burn calories, build body muscles, and lower the chances of becoming overweight. Your cholesterol level can be lower, as can your testosterone, when you make regular exercise a habit.

Some supplements and traditional treatments may help with polycystic ovarian syndrome. The use of alternative medicine in the treatment of polycystic ovarian syndrome is a personal decision; everyone does not need to agree to it.

REFERENCES

American College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome.  Clinical Updates in Women’s Health Care. 2016. Available from:

Bell, J. (2018). What you may not know about PCOS: Questions and misconceptions.

Ferticity IVF. (2022). What are the four types of PCOS?

Maharaj S, Amod A. Polycystic ovary syndrome. Journal of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes of South Africa. 2009 Jul 1;14(2):86-95.

Okeke, G. O. (2023). Irregular periods (menstruation)- Causes and home remedies to regulate your cycle.

Okeke, G. O. (2023). Easy Nigerian foods for 7 day PCOS diet plan.

Schroeder BM. ACOG releases guidelines on diagnosis and management of polycystic ovary syndrome. American family physician. 2003 Apr 1;67(7):1619.

Wolf WM, Wattick RA, Kinkade ON, Olfert MD. Geographical prevalence of polycystic ovary syndrome as determined by region and race/ethnicity. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2018 Nov;15(11):2589.

Zita West Clinic. (2021). 6 common questions about PCOS answered.

ABOUT THE CO-AUTHOR

Dr. Ene Tolulope Keshy is a Senior Resident doctor in Family Medicine at the National Hospital Abuja Nigeria. She is passionate about health and healthy living.  In her spare time, Dr. Keshy loves to read, write and enjoy nature.

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1 comment

March 31, 2023 - 1:30 pm

[…] Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal imbalance that occurs in women of child bearing age. You may not have periods very often if you have PCOS, or you could have periods that last for too many days.  […]

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Joy Chioma Emeh graduated with a B.Sc in Anatomy. She is a health enthusiast and prolific writer with years of experience in the writing industry. She is also the senior content editor at clacified.com

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