PCOS is a syndrome, not officially a disease, although some medical professionals consider it a disease and are actively campaigning for it to be recognized as such. Women with PCOS produce increased levels of androgens, or male hormones, and the ovaries contain tiny cysts that don’t go away causing absent periods. While there is no known cause or cure, the syndrome is manageable and millions of women have erased their symptoms with the help of medical research and health professionals.
Women with PCOS are usually misdiagnosed with other diseases or conditions before discovering they have the syndrome; from Hashimoto’s (Thyroid) disease, to pre-diabetes, and on and on. In fact, most doctors will not diagnose PCOS until all other possible conditions have been eliminated, according to an interview with Dr. Vivian Lin, an OB-GYN in California who not only treats patients with PCOS, but who has also been diagnosed with the syndrome.
According to Dr. Lin, she can “almost tell just by looking at a patient that they have PCOS.” Many symptoms are often manifested in physical appearance:
- quick and substantial weight gain
- male-pattern hair thinning
- excessive body hair growth
- skin tags
While these symptoms seem easy to spot, the distinguishing symptom — countless tiny cysts on both ovaries — is often not spotted until an ultrasound is administered. The ultrasound test is commonly used to diagnose women with PCOS since PCOS is also linked to infertility.
Treatments for PCOS
PCOS does not create an immediate and innate health risk on its own, but it can lead to debilitating diseases like type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease, as well as inherently causing infertility, which, for many couples, can be just as tragic. The first thing women can do after being diagnosed is to get their weight under control and back to a healthy level. This will usually restore their menstrual cycle to a normal rhythm and increases their chances of becoming pregnant. Some women gain as much as 40 pounds in a three month period, so this is no small feat, but it can be done through diet, exercise and a little help from your pharmacist.
Recently, PCOS has been linked to insulin resistance, whether one causes the other, or vice-versa, doctors aren’t certain, but they do know that “treating insulin resistance helps control symptoms of PCOS,” explains Dr. Lin. Insulin is a hormone that helps metabolize carbohydrates, lipids (fats), and proteins in the body. When the body becomes resistant to insulin, more and more is needed and produced to keep the same effects. When the body does not produce more insulin, it can’t metabolize the nutrients taken in (usually causing the rapid weight gain characteristic in PCOS patients). Insulin resistance is often treated with Metformin, also a diabetes medication. Dr. Lin, as well as her colleague, Dr. Brian Gray, have been prescribing Metformin to their PCOS patients for the past three years and it has successfully helped them reduce their weight and bring other symptoms to a more manageable level.
“Really, the key here is weight management. With PCOS, managing weight will manage your hormones and, in turn, all of the negative symptoms,” says Dr. Lin. How much weight loss is enough weight loss? Both doctors suggest losing 10% of the patient’s body weight, and Dr. Gray says “once your periods are back and they are at normal intervals, you know you’re on track.”
Living with PCOS
While PCOS can be debilitating with its effects — diabetes, infertility, high cholesterol, to name a few — its diagnosis doesn’t have to mean distress. Finding a doctor who knows about the disease and available treatments can help patients immensely, but plain and simple weight management can reverse the effects of this syndrome.