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Understanding Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)

2 weeks ago / by Melanie Fourie

Strategies to battle this common condition

South Asian woman looking happy and holding a bowl of healthy veggies
Photo via Shutterstock

September is marked as World Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) Awareness Month, an annual initiative to raise awareness and understanding of PCOS. PCOS is a complex and prevalent hormonal disorder that affects 8–13% of women of reproductive age worldwide.

While it can affect women of all ethnic backgrounds, South Asian women have been found to have a higher susceptibility to PCOS. Numerous studies indicate that South Asian women are much more susceptible to PCOS. According to UK-based research, over 50% of South Asians have polycystic ovaries (PCO), one of the characteristics of PCOS. A different study conducted in 2021 revealed that the incidence of PCOS was 3.3% in South Asian women, 1.5% in Filipina women, and 1% in Chinese women. This disproportionate impact on South Asian women makes understanding PCOS particularly important.

While PCOS cannot be cured, early diagnosis and a proactive approach to managing its symptoms can lead to improved quality of life, better fertility outcomes, and a reduced risk of long-term health complications.

SEEMA delves into PCOS and its symptoms, along with the lifestyle changes and treatments that can help manage this condition effectively.

What Does PCOS Entail?

PCOS is a hormonal disorder that primarily affects the ovaries, the female reproductive organs responsible for producing eggs and sex hormones. It’s characterized by an array of symptoms and can vary in severity from one individual to another.

One of the hallmark features of PCOS is the presence of cysts (small fluid-filled sacs) on the ovaries. These cysts are actually immature follicles that fail to develop properly due to hormonal imbalances. The underlying hormonal disturbances in PCOS include elevated levels of androgens (male hormones like testosterone), insulin resistance, and irregular menstrual cycles.

PCOS Symptoms 

Irregular Menstrual Cycles: One of the most common signs of PCOS is irregular or absent menstrual periods. Women with PCOS may have fewer menstrual cycles in a year or may experience prolonged, heavy, or unpredictable periods.

Excessive Hair Growth (Hirsutism): Elevated androgen levels in PCOS can lead to hair growth on the back, chest, face, and other areas, a condition known as hirsutism.

Acne and Oily Skin: PCOS-related hormonal imbalances often result in acne and oily skin.

Weight Gain and Difficulty Losing Weight: Many women with PCOS struggle with weight management due to insulin resistance, which can lead to weight gain, especially around the abdomen.

Skin Darkening (Acanthosis Nigricans): Dark, velvety patches of skin, primarily on the neck, armpits, and groin, can develop in individuals with PCOS.

Hair Thinning or Hair Loss: Some women with PCOS experience hair thinning or hair loss on the scalp, a condition known as androgenic alopecia.

Fertility Issues: PCOS is a common cause of infertility due to irregular ovulation or the absence of ovulation.

Managing PCOS With Lifestyle Changes

While there is no cure for PCOS, certain lifestyle changes can help manage its symptoms and reduce the risk of complications. These include:

Dietary Modifications: Adopting a balanced diet that focuses on low-glycemic index (GI) foods can help control insulin levels. Reducing sugar and refined carbohydrate intake can be beneficial.

Regular Exercise: Engaging in consistent exercise can improve insulin sensitivity, help with weight loss, and regulate menstrual cycles.

Maintain an Ideal Weight: Managing your weight can help improve PCOS symptoms. Losing even tiny amounts of weight can make a difference.

Stress Reduction: Managing stress through techniques such as meditation or deep breathing exercises can help regulate hormonal imbalances.

Supplements: Depending on your specific symptoms and needs, a healthcare provider may recommend supplements to help manage PCOS. Many of these supplements, including inositol, can also help boost insulin sensitivity.

Treatments for PCOS

The choice of treatment for PCOS depends on the individual’s symptoms, age, and desire for fertility. Here are some common treatments used for PCOS:

Oral contraceptives: Birth control pills can help regulate menstrual cycles, reduce androgen levels, and improve hirsutism and acne.

Anti-androgens: Medications like spironolactone can be used to reduce hirsutism and improve hair loss.

Metformin: This insulin-sensitizing medication can help manage insulin resistance and regulate menstrual cycles. It may also aid in weight loss.

Fertility Treatments: For women trying to conceive, fertility medications such as clomiphene citrate or assisted reproductive techniques like in vitro fertilization (IVF) may be recommended.

Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH) Agonists: These medications are used in cases of severe symptoms or when other treatments have not been effective. They suppress ovarian function and can help regulate hormonal imbalances.

If you suspect you may have PCOS, it is essential to seek medical advice and work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.