Hormone Diaries: What Is PCOS?

6 minute read

By Kathleen Corrigan

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common yet often misunderstood condition affecting women’s hormonal health. It has various symptoms and implications. Fortunately, you can learn everything you need to know about PCOS with a search online.

Unfortunately, experts say that up to 70 percent of women living with PCOS have never been formally diagnosed. Knowledge about this condition empowers women to make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

What Is PCOS?

In recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more about this hormonal condition as celebrities like Victoria Beckham, Daisy Ridley, and Jillian Michaels have bravely come forward with stories about their own struggles with PCOS.

Polycystic ovary syndrome is a condition that affects a woman’s ovaries caused by an imbalance of reproductive hormones. The three main components of PCOS are irregular or skipped periods, the overproduction of the male hormone androgen which leads to physical symptoms, and polycystic ovaries in which the ovaries become enlarged and contain follicles that can stop eggs from maturing, interfering with ovulation.

Physical Symptoms

Irregular, prolonged, or skipped periods are one of the biggest symptoms of PCOS. Because the condition interferes with ovulation, some patients may not shed their uterine lining at all, while others may have fewer periods and heavier bleeding.

The overproduction of androgen associated with PCOS can lead to physical symptoms such as male pattern baldness and hirsutism, which is an excess of hair on the body or face that is thought to affect up to 70 percent of all PCOS sufferers.

Skin problems such as acne, skin tags, excessive oil production, and the darkening of the skin around the neck, underarms, or groin are also common symptoms of PCOS. Other symptoms include weight gain or difficulty losing weight, low energy, sleep apnea, pelvic pain, headaches, depression, and anxiety.

Symptoms of PCOS tend to develop shortly after puberty but can also occur in the late teens or early adult years. Some symptoms may go unnoticed and some sufferers may even be symptomless, which can make the condition difficult to diagnose.

Fertility and Pregnancy Problems

Among the biggest issues caused by PCOS are long-term fertility problems. Because PCOS sufferers often do not ovulate regularly or at all, it can be difficult for them to conceive. PCOS is actually thought to be the leading cause of infertility among women of childbearing age.

Women with PCOS who are able to conceive tend to have a higher risk of miscarriage, gestational diabetes, and increased blood pressure during pregnancy, which can result in difficult or premature births.

PCOS can also lead to an increased risk of uterine cancer because the uterus is not shedding its lining every month as it should. Women suffering from PCOS are three times as likely to develop uterine cancer as women who ovulate on a regular monthly schedule.

Other Complications

Because 80 percent of women suffering from PCOS are categorized as overweight, the condition is also associated with insulin resistance, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, which are all factors that can lead to metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Women with PCOS who are obese are also five to 10 times more likely to develop sleep apnea than women without PCOS. Sleep apnea is a condition that causes you to stop breathing for short periods of time during the night and is often characterized by loud snoring. Not breathing properly while you sleep means you’re getting less restful sleep and that can lead to other health issues such as hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.

What Causes PCOS?

Doctors aren’t quite sure what leads to the hormonal imbalance that causes PCOS, but it’s thought that both genetic and environmental factors can lead to the development of the condition.

PCOS has been found to run in families, which has led experts to conclude that the condition is caused in part by a mutated gene. It’s also thought that PCOS could be caused or worsened by environmental factors like poor diet and obesity, high levels of advanced glycated end products (AGEs) — which are found in processed foods and tobacco smoke — and exposure to industrial products like Bisphenol A (BPA).

How It’s Diagnosed

There is no specific test that can confirm whether or not a woman is suffering from PCOS, but your doctor will probably begin by talking to you about your history of symptoms regarding your periods, moods, sleep habits, and weight fluctuations. They may also do a physical exam to check for hair growth, acne, or other skin conditions that could be signs of a hormone imbalance.

Your doctor may then perform a pelvic exam in order to check you for any growths or cysts on your reproductive organs. A transvaginal ultrasound might also be ordered to detect any cysts or thickening of the uterine walls.

Blood tests are also used to diagnose PCOS as they can measure your hormone balance, glucose tolerance, and cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Finally, you may also be screened for other symptoms of PCOS, including depression and sleep apnea.

Although there is no cure for polycystic ovary syndrome, there are a number of effective treatments and medications that can relieve the symptoms and cut down on the complications and risks associated with the condition.

Lifestyle Changes

If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, one of the first things your doctor will likely recommend you try — particularly if you are among the majority of PCOS sufferers who are overweight — will be changes to your diet and lifestyle. Eating a healthy, lower-calorie diet and adding moderate exercise is a good place to start. Of course, this is easier said than done since PCOS can make it very difficult to lose weight. But shedding even just 5-10 percent of your weight (around 10 lbs if your starting weight is 200 lbs) can help better regulate your menstrual cycle, increase insulin sensitivity, and improve fertility.


There are a number of medications available to alleviate the pain and symptoms associated with PCOS that can improve the quality of life and fertility of people suffering from the condition.

Combination birth control that contains estrogen and progestin is commonly prescribed to treat PCOS in women who aren’t looking to get pregnant because it increases female hormone levels while decreasing androgen levels. This can help to regulate your period, eliminate unwanted hair and acne, and even decrease your chance of endometrial cancer. Combination birth control can come in the form of a pill, a patch, or a vaginal ring.

There are also a number of other medications that can be prescribed to eliminate hair growth, cure acne, stop hair loss, improve insulin sensitivity, and aid in ovulation for women who are looking to conceive. While it can be hard for women with PCOS to get pregnant, it is not impossible, so be sure to talk to your doctor about what other fertility treatment options are available to you.

Join a Support Group

Living with PCOS can be difficult and many women find that it helps to seek support from others who understand what it’s like to live with the condition. There is an unjust stigma attached to PCOS because of its link to supposed “unwomanly problems” like excess hair growth and infertility, and personal issues such as weight gain, depression, and anxiety. But it’s important to remember that you are not your condition and you have no reason to be ashamed because there are women out there like you.

If you’re living with PCOS and want to seek support for it, check out the PCOS Awareness Association’s website which lists a number of online and in-person support groups located around the world. The more we talk about PCOS and support each other, the easier it becomes to face and hopefully, one day, cure.

Learn More About PCOS Today

As we continue to learn more about PCOS, it becomes increasingly important to stay informed. There’s a vast array of resources available online that offer detailed insights into PCOS, its symptoms, treatment options, and lifestyle management. By delving into these resources, you can gain a deeper understanding of PCOS and how it may impact health.

Kathleen Corrigan