Polycystic ovary syndrome can affect any woman at any time, usually during their late teens and early twenties. Not all symptoms are the same however and many women only discover they have PCOS when they're trying to get pregnant – unfortunately PCOS is one of the most common causes of female infertility.
Today, Dr Tatiana Lapa tells us the NTKs of PCOS...
What exactly is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition affecting how a woman’s ovaries work. The condition causes the sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone to become imbalanced – making periods rare or irregular, creates a high level of androgen in the body, and is responsible for polycystic ovaries – where the ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs.
"Ovaries produce several tiny eggs every month, usually one or two will be ‘selected’ to grow and be released. In people who have polycystic ovaries – there is no ‘selection’ process and all the tiny eggs grow forming multiple big cysts on the ovaries. An egg is not released every month and therefore women can have fertility problems and infrequent periods. Although the exact cause is unknown, we do know that there is often a family link, that hormones are imbalanced and that there is often a higher risk of other health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes," Dr Lapa says.
How common is it?
According to the NHS, around 1 in every 5 women in the UK have PCOS, with symptoms often appearing in late teens or early twenties. For sufferers, it’s comforting to hear celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Jools Oliver share their experiences of living with the condition, especially as they’ve gone on to have big families.
"Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is most commonly identified in women of reproductive age in their late teens or 20s. However, PCOS can be related to other factors such as being overweight and certain medication. For example, gaining weight in later life can mean that you only develop the symptoms of PCOS much later," says Dr Lapa.
What are telltale signs of PCOS?
There are a collection of symptoms associated with PCOS – these can include irregular or missing periods, unwanted/excessive hair growth, struggling to get conceive, acne, weight gain and depression.
"Your doctor will use the following checklist to decide if you have the syndrome: excessive hair growth OR high male hormone levels in the blood WITH EITHER reduced periods OR evidence of multiple cysts on the ovaries," explains Dr Lapa.
When should I see my GP?
Dr Lapa advises that if you are experiencing symptoms or have a family history of PCOS – it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor to check if you need any investigations and get advice on how to prevent PCOS developing.
Is PCOS a lifelong problem?
"Polycystic ovaries and Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are two different things. A woman can have multiple cysts on her ovaries but not have any of the other features of the syndrome such as acne, excessive hair, infrequent periods, fertility problems or obesity. PCOS is not necessarily a lifelong problem. Losing weight if you are overweight can be incredibly helpful in reversing your diagnosis. If you are not overweight, adopting a healthy balanced diet which is low in estrogens such as soy bean can be helpful in normalising your hormonal balance," says Dr Lapa.
What else can be done to help manage PCOS?
Dr Lapa explains that being aware of your lifestyle habits can really help PCOS. “Try and make sure you eat a healthy balanced diet, get 6-8 hours of sleep every night, manage your stress levels, don't smoke, limit your alcohol intake, and try to exercise for at least 20/30 mins 3-4 times a week. There is no evidence that either of the contraceptive pills (combined or progesterone-only) is linked with polycystic ovaries. In fact, a contraceptive pill may be offered to you to regulate your periods and balance your hormones better," she says.
How is it treated?
PCOS can make it harder to get pregnant, but it is possible with extra help. GPs agree that reducing weight through a healthy diet and by taking exercise can prove crucial in boosting the chances of conception.
“The symptoms of PCOS, such as irregular periods, acne, excessive hair, can be managed with medication; fertility problems can be treated with medication or sometimes surgery, and associated conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure can be screened for and treated if necessary. I would advise that you focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and only treat symptoms if they are problematic for you. Also speak to your doctor, in some circumstances they may recommend that you have a blood pressure and diabetes screen once a year," Dr Lapa advises.