We strongly encourage women to pay attention to their menstrual cycles and speak to their doctors about any questions or concerns. For example, if you experience infrequent or irregular periods, you may have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition related to the hormone levels of women of childbearing age. It often develops around puberty, although it can develop in older women as well (often in relation to substantial weight gain).
What Is PCOS?
PCOS may be the most common endocrine disorder affecting women, affecting between 3-10% of women.1 Women with this condition have a hormone imbalance, in which their ovaries produce an abnormally high amount of male sex hormones called androgens. This can lead to infrequent, prolonged or irregular periods (learn more about abnormal menstruation here).
When a woman doesn’t ovulate regularly, her ovaries can develop small cysts. It’s important to note that not everyone with PCOS develops cysts, and cysts can also be related to other disorders. It is also possible for a woman to have PCOS along with other conditions, such as endometriosis.
These cysts are one of three main PCOS symptoms. The second symptom is infrequent, irregular, or prolonged periods. And because of excess androgen, you may experience physical symptoms like excess hair, acne, or even male-pattern baldness. 2
At this point, we don’t know the exact cause of PCOS, although excess insulin, low-grade inflammation and genetics all seem to play a role. Since obesity can increase insulin levels, it can also be a factor and make symptoms worse.
Can PCOS Be Treated?
Many women do not realize they have PCOS – in fact, one study found that nearly 70% of participants with the condition where unaware they had it.3 This is troubling news, since PCOS can impact your fertility and your overall health and wellbeing.
For example, PCOS is one of the leading causes of infertility.4 It is also linked to sleep apnea, endometrial cancer and depression, liver inflammation, and Type 2 diabetes among other complications.5
PCOS is typically diagnosed with a pelvic exam, blood tests and/or an ultrasound. There are many treatments currently available, including birth control pills and diabetes medication. There is also medication available to treat symptoms like excess hair growth and acne, and fertility drugs that can help women with PCOS get pregnant.
Losing weight, eating a healthy diet and becoming more active can also help reduce insulin levels and improve symptoms. In fact, losing 5% – 10% of initial body weight (considered modest weight loss) has been shown to improve many PCOS symptoms.6
There is also the option of surgery to restore normal ovulation to help improve fertility. That said, it’s also important to note that women who are experiencing irregular or absent periods can still get pregnant, so it’s still best to use contraception even if you have PCOS.
Finally, we strongly encourage women to be proactive about their own health. If you have symptoms of PCOS, symptoms of diabetes (like excess thirst or unexplained weight loss), or missed periods (assuming you are not pregnant), speak to your health care provider. You can also use our Physician Finder to find a pelvic health specialist near you.