Concept polycystic ovary syndrome, PCOS. Women reproductive system.

Do I have PCOS? Common Signs & Treatments

Polycystic ovary syndrome, otherwise known as PCOS, is a hormonal disorder that affects women of reproductive age. According to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), around 10% of women aged 15 to 44 could be affected. So that means it’s a relatively common hormonal imbalance that can manifest itself during women’s reproductive years. 

It’s important to note the prevalence of this condition is also reflected in the fact that PCOS is the leading cause of infertility in women (the OWH also points out that though PCOS can be responsible for infertility among couples, it is also highly treatable, and many women with PCOS go on to conceive without IVF treatment). With that being said, if you suspect you may have PCOS, it can be easy to see phrases like ‘excess androgens,’ ‘endocrine disorder,’ and ‘infertility’ and – understandably – begin panicking. But the fact is, our bodies are extremely complicated, and the only way to know for sure if you have PCOS is to: 1) seek professional advice (we have a list of steps you can take at the end of this article to get an accurate PCOS diagnosis), 2) get the necessary blood work and lab tests completed, and 3) educate yourself on the symptoms and signs to look for (this article is a great start!). 

With that being said, over the course of this article, we will dive into: 

  • What PCOS entails 
  • How PCOS is diagnosed 
  • Common signs that can indicate PCOS
  • Treatment options

What does PCOS entail? 

PCOS is often marked by an overproduction of male hormones that can interfere with one’s reproductive system and metabolism. This hormonal imbalance is often accompanied by insulin resistance (check out this article to learn more about how insulin resistance impacts PCOS), that in turn only aggravates symptoms. One review reported that, by age 30, approximately 25% to 30% of women with PCOS could experience ‘glucose intolerance,’ which essentially results in having higher than normal blood sugar levels than is healthy for your body’s metabolism. Long-term, PCOS can lead to health problems like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and hypertension. Fortunately, PCOS often doesn’t go without notice. The hormonal imbalance and associated insulin resistance many women are diagnosed with are marked by physical symptoms that appear over time.

But before we dig into those – let’s briefly explore how PCOS affects your body, and in particular, your menstrual cycle. This explanation will come in handy when understanding some of the signs and symptoms of PCOS. 

Let’s get biological for just a minute

Typically, ovulation – which usually happens in the middle of your cycle – results in the monthly discharge of a mature egg from a sac in the ovary. This then leads to your period arriving around day 28 (give or take a few days). With PCOS, however, many fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries, hosting undischarged eggs. Because of the hormonal imbalance that accompanies PCOS disrupting ‘normal’ levels of estrogen and progesterone, these eggs sometimes don’t reach the ovulation stage, and so your period can be extremely irregular, completely absent, or when it does arrive, painful and characterized by a heavy flow. 

The bottom line here? Women with PCOS sometimes have ovaries that host several cysts (hence the name: polycystic ovarian syndrome) filled with immature eggs. These cysts can be a sign that one’s hormone levels, and therefore menstrual cycle, is out of whack.

How PCOS is diagnosed

So if these cysts are on your ovaries – and are a key marker of PCOS – how can a doctor diagnose you with this condition?

While physicians are still rather stumped at what causes PCOS (is it hereditary? Or are environmental factors to blame? Could it be a combination of both?), they do know how to diagnose PCOS. 

If you have two of the following three main criteria for PCOS, your doctor will likely diagnose you with the condition. These three criteria include high androgen levels, menstrual irregularity, and ovarian cysts (discussed more below). 

  • High androgen levels: 
    • The ovaries produce all types of hormones, some female, some male. However, when there are higher-than-typical levels of androgen hormones, in particular testosterone, PCOS might be to blame. Your doctor may order more blood tests to rule out other conditions or potential causes.  
  • Menstrual irregularity: 
    • As this condition is known to disrupt levels of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone (all hormones that help regulate the menstrual cycle) troubling bodily changes, such as skipped periods, an extra-heavy period flow, or an abnormal cycle, could be explained with a PCOS diagnosis.
  • Ovarian cysts: 
    • Solid or filled with fluid, an ovarian cyst is a sac that forms abnormally in or around the ovary. It can cause irregularities such as problems getting pregnant and feelings of pain.

In reaching a PCOS diagnosis, tools such as pelvic exams, ultrasounds, and blood tests can offer further evidence of the condition. 

Common signs that can indicate PCOS

So are there any other symptoms of PCOS you should know about?

Indeed, there are. Let’s break them down now …

  • Acne: Anyone who’s been through puberty knows what acne is. But diving a bit deeper into the science, the primary male hormone testosterone is to thank for those breakouts, while PCOS is to thank for those high levels of testosterone.
  • Hair loss: Also referred to as female androgenic alopecia (FAGA), female pattern hair loss is the result of excess androgens once again. This manifests differently in women than in men with male pattern hair loss, since women keep their hairline, but experience thinning and even balding on the crown of the head, particularly around the middle part. 
  • Hirsutism: The opposite of hair loss, hirsutism is just a fancy word for excess hair growth. The condition, also the result of high androgen levels, can lead to coarse hair growth on the face, back, stomach, and chest. Roughly 70% to 80% of those with hirsutism will also be diagnosed with PCOS, according to researchers.
  • Weight gain: Working in tandem with insulin resistance, weight gain can be an unwanted side effect of PCOS. On the flip side, losing weight might prove difficult, despite behavioral changes (diet, exercise, etc.). Research shows that over half of women with PCOS are overweight or obese.
  • Fertility issues: Science says, to get pregnant, one must ovulate. But PCOS doesn’t always allow this to occur. Because the hormonal condition can result in fewer eggs being discharged from the ovaries and higher levels of testosterone, PCOS is the number one cause of infertility in women, per UC San Diego Health.

Treatment options

You may be wondering, “now that I know the symptoms, how do I treat them?”

Well, we have good news for you! You’ve educated yourself about PCOS, identified the symptoms, and you are ready to act to take control of your health. That’s half the battle. Now that you are empowered with accurate information, you can begin seeking the medical treatment you deserve, and you can decide if the professional help you receive is a good fit for the symptoms that you’re experiencing. Also, keep in mind that, though this can be an extremely stressful time, as we said at the beginning of this article: PCOS is one of the most common hormonal disorders women experience. Despite how you may feel (distress, isolation, and shame are all common symptoms reported by women who demonstrate PCOS symptoms), you are far from alone. There are plenty of women who know what you are going through

The next piece of good news is that there are several treatment options available which can help you manage the symptoms of PCOS. 

Fertility treatments can improve the chances of getting pregnant and having risk-free births. Diet and lifestyle tips from your physician can help with maintaining a healthy weight. And medical treatments, including birth control and metformin, can help get your cycle, well, back on cycle. On top of that, there are hair growth serums (such as minoxidil, and a couple of off-label treatments) that can help regrow thinning hair, while laser hair removal treatments remain a popular option for nixing any unwanted hairs.

The idea here is if you have any or several of the symptoms we’ve laid out, don’t worry: PCOS is common, and it’s treatable. You are definitely not alone on this journey. 

So what’s the next step? 

Well, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Next, contact us at Allara Health: we have medical professionals (specializing in PCOS), dietitians, and mental health resources that can all be incredibly useful in helping guide you on your PCOS journey. 

Allara provides personalized treatment that takes the guesswork out of managing PCOS, and offers a customized, holistic plan of attack that merges nutrition, medication. supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to begin healing your body.