Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder affecting Australian women. 1 in 5 women have it but a shocking 70% of women have no idea.
PCOS can cause acne, weight gain and excessive body hair. Most women are too embarassed about seeing a doctor about any of these conditions so they are left untreated. PCOS also carries an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and endometrial cancer and it also a leading cause of infertility.
Unfortunately, when women do end up going to the doctor, their symptoms are treated individually rather than investigating the underlying problem. Personally, I went to the doctor several times spanning over a few years trying to get to the bottom of my weight problem. Instead of looking into any possible hormonal issues I was advised to try Xenical (a horrible weight loss drug), exercise more and eat less. Eventually a doctor advised I see a nutritionist and it was only then that the nutritionist suggested I get tested for PCOS.
PCOS is a confusing syndrome. Not all sufferers have cysts on their ovaries and some women who do have cysts do not have PCOS. In Australia you must have at least 2 of the following to be diagnosed with PCOS:
1. Infrequent or absent periods
2. High blood levels of male hormones or visible signs of facial hair, acne and male pattern balding
3. Ovarian cysts which show up on an ultrasound
If you have any of the above it is important that you see a doctor as they can offer you treatment which will in turn lead to a better quality of life and prevention of future diseases.
A few common theories around what causes PCOS are insulin resistance (which I have a mild case of) and high levels of male hormones. Importantly, not all women who have PCOS have insulin resistance nor do they all have high levels of male hormones. Another cause could possibly be genetics.
Sadly, 50% of PCOS sufferers are overweight or obese. Overweight PCOS women rather than thinner PCOS women are at a greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndromes. Therefore it is especially important to reduce body weight (hence my my own weight loss journey!).
Evidence has been reported in the American Journal of Sports Medicine that if a women sheds fat (in particular around her middle) she significantly lowers her insulin resistance and therefore may start ovulating as well. Losing just 5% of total body weight decreases insulin and testosterone levels and can improve excess hair and acne. Also it will give fertility a mighty boost.
It’s not easy though. Many PCOS women report that after dieting solidly and working out regularly they lost minimal weight in comparison to what their non-PCOS counterparts would lose. This rings true with me as well as according to the diet and exercise regime I follow I should be losing a lot more weight at a much quicker pace. This is because insulin promotes fat storage in the body. Unfortunately, experts say that there isn’t enough evidence that PCOS makes losing weight harder but I would like to invite them to live a day in my shoes and see what they think after that! There has been recent evidence though that fat tissue (which secretes hormones that influence metabolism and appetite) acts differently in PCOS women regardless of their weight. Hopefully this will lead to further discoveries in this area.
After many failed weight loss attempts I finally signed up with a good trainer who is knowledgeable in the field of womens health. She suggested I stop taking the pill. This seemed to be a good first step as slowly the weight started to shift. It’s not at a fast pace but I believe the key to keeping weight off for good is to do it slowly.
PCOS is extremely frustrating no matter what your symptoms are – infertility, weight, acne or excess hair – however with the right diet (low GI, fresh and whole foods), medical support and adequate exercise you could reveal the key to happier and more fulfilling life.