Polycystic ovarian syndrome, also known as PCOS, is a widespread condition which can cause a range of symptoms from irregular periods to infertility. But this condition doesn’t just wreak havoc with your ovaries, the symptoms can show up throughout your whole body. We’ll be unpacking a few of the signs you could be dealing with PCOS.
Affecting nearly 10% of women of menstrual age around the globe, POCS is a hormonal disorder which results in enlarged ovaries and the development of small cysts. While most people tend to discover their PCOS affliction in their 20s and 30s – often when seeking out medical assistance after struggling to conceive – there are many women who go decades without knowing the cause of their symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the signs and symptoms of this too-common condition.
Irregular or non-existent periods
Irregular menstrual cycles are one of the hallmarks of POCS, believed to be caused by elevated androgen levels – these include reproductive hormones like testosterone – along with lower levels of sex hormone binding globulin – this is important for androgen regulation. The result? Irregular and long periods, while some won't experience any periods. The latter sounds nice, right? Well, the reality is not quite so idyllic – studies suggest this dysregulated hormonal balance could spike your risk for ovarian cancer. Though, it’s worth noting that those with PCOS also have a number of other contributing factors to the development of cancer and other diseases:
- Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome: PCOS puts people at an elevated risk for these conditions which, in turn, raise the risk for obesity, heart disease and cancer.
- Type 2 diabetes: This is another condition often developed by those with PCOS, which then increases the risk of a range of heart conditions like angina, stroke and atherosclerosis – the narrowing of the arteries.
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol: There is an alarmingly increased risk for these conditions, with around 70% of women with PCOS reported to have elevated cholesterol or triglyceride levels. To make matters worse, these conditions then raise the risk for – you guessed it – cancer.
With PCOS, the missed and irregular periods occur due to the disruption to the development of the egg – with this condition, the egg doesn’t develop properly or get released when it usually would in the ovulation phase.
Excessive hair growth, also known as hirsutism, is commonly associated with PCOS. It involves the development of coarse, dark hair on areas like the face, back, chest and buttocks. Around 10% of women have hirsutism and there are a few conditions that can be to blame:
- Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (A hormonal disorder)
Your chances for developing this symptom shoot up with any of these three conditions, but PCOS remains one of the biggest culprits. The reason comes down to the excess production of androgens like testosterone, which then causes symptoms like hirsutism.
PCOS can lead to the following hair changes:
- Thinning hair
- Hair loss
- Dry and damaged hair
- Hair breakage
The reason for this is the increased androgen production – yep, this stuff is involved in pretty much all of the PCOS symptoms! The result for many people is what’s known as androgenic alopecia – this refers to hair loss, usually of the temple area and towards the front of the scalp. Interestingly, it happens to be one the less common conditions, hirsutism by far outranks it for frequency.
Unexplained weight gain is another common symptom of PCOS, and it comes down to – yet again – the hormonal imbalances caused by the condition. The body has a harder time making use of insulin – this is vital for converting sugar into energy – and as a result, many people with PCOS end up with insulin resistance. Not only does this lead to type 2 diabetes, but it can also lead to weight gain and obesity.
Oily skin or acne
Now there can be an endless list of reasons for acne, especially adult acne – yep, it’s not just the teens suffering – but PCOS has a particularly destructive effect on your hormones, triggering the subcutaneous glands to produce too much oil. It’s the excess androgens which spur on this course of events that result in too much sebum and skin cell production, and it can result in acne on the face, back, chest and neck. So, if you’ve noticed this along with a combination of the above signs, PCOS is firmly on the map of possibilities.
The causes of PCOS
The cause of POCS hasn’t been completely pinned down yet, but researchers have reason to believe a combination of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors could be at play. Regarding that last point, diet is one such factor that can induce PCOS – specifically high-sugar diets. This is because sugary foods cause an imbalance of the gut microbiome and may promote chronic inflammation and androgen production. Let’s take a look at how sugar unravels a healthy gut microbiome – it’s all to do with the increase in the bad bacteria this sweet stuff promotes. For instance, studies have shown that high-sugar diets lead to higher levels of Proteobacteria, and an excess of this indicates the presence of an unbalanced microbiome, known as dysbiosis. This then skyrockets our risk for the above-mentioned conditions, along with metabolic disfunction and autoimmune conditions. With Aussies consuming around 15 teaspoons of added sugar per day, which is more than double the 6-teaspoon recommendation from the World Health Organisation, we might have a problem on our hands – including a soaring risk for the development of PCOS.
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