A Primer on PCOS

Dr. Nancy Simpkins lays out one way to troubleshoot your fertility before trying to conceive.

From Nancy:

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is an endocrine system disorder that affects 1 in 10 women of childbearing age. It’s a frequent culprit of infertility but it’s often difficult to identify—while you might exhibit symptoms for years, it generally isn’t diagnosed until you’re struggling to get pregnant.

A Primer on PCOS

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What is PCOS?

PCOS is a condition in which a woman’s estrogen and progesterone levels are out of whack. This imbalance leads to the growth of ovarian cysts—benign masses that attach to the ovaries. The exact cause is unknown, but it’s thought to be a mix of hormone imbalance and insulin resistance.

What does it do?

PCOS can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle, fertility, cardiac function and physical appearance. With PCOS, the body produces higher levels of androgen, or “male,” hormones. The heightened levels of androgen suppress the body’s ability to make progesterone, which is necessary to have a period. The seesaw of hormones result in undeveloped egg follicles which prohibit ovulation; instead, the immature follicles turn into small cysts in the ovaries.

How do I know if I have PCOS before I’m trying to get pregnant?

The signs look different from woman to woman. It’s genetic, so if your mom or sister has it, you have an increased likelihood of having it, too. Pay attention to the symptoms that usually occur quietly in your 20s: an irregular period, facial hair, acne, thinning hair and unexplained weight gain.

How is it diagnosed?

Unfortunately, there’s no one test to prove or disprove the syndrome. A diagnosis is generally formed by analyzing a complicated network of signs and symptoms. If you’ve noticed symptoms, talk to your internist or gynecologist; she can do a physical exam, lab work and pelvic ultrasound to cross-reference the results with what you’re experiencing.

I have PCOS. How do I treat it?

There’s no cure, but you can manage the symptoms through medicine to regulate your hormones and control insulin levels. Losing weight, exercising and eating well will help as one of the primary reasons for spiked insulin levels is increased body weight.

Can I still have children?

The earlier you catch the symptoms and diagnose the syndrome, the better you can stack the deck in your favor when trying to conceive. Maintaining a healthy weight, controlling your hormones and talking to your doctor about introducing mild fertility drugs, like Clomid, can all help. Many women with PCOS go on to have successful pregnancies—it’s by no means a life-threatening disease or a ticket to infertility, but it is a serious condition that should be addressed, diagnosed and treated. We’re not all built exactly the same and the body has many variations. Don’t stress, just check it out and talk to your doctor if you’re concerned.

For more from Dr. Nancy Simpkins, read her recent columns on our site or visit her online at NancySimpkinsMD.com.