What is PCOS?
Morgane Leten - Nutrition & Fertility Coach
What is PCOS?
If you’re landing on this post because you suspect you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) or you’ve recently been diagnosed with the condition, we first want to say that we’re here to support you. PCOS can sound scary, but you should know that it is a common condition.
If you have PCOS (or you suspect you do), you’re definitely not alone, even though we know it can feel that way sometimes. Guud Woman co-founder Morgane has been very open about her struggles with PCOS, so we know how challenging the diagnosis can be, especially when there are no cures. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 10 women struggle with PCOS. The symptoms can vary from woman to woman but the root cause is a hormonal imbalance and problems with metabolism that can impact overall health and even appearance.
Women with PCOS also commonly have fertility problems and getting pregnant can sometimes be difficult. The good news is that fertility problems related to PCOS are treatable and if you have the condition, it is likely that you can still have children - you just may need a little help.
In this post, we’ll tell you all about PCOS. What it is, what causes it, how it can be treated and how it might impact your ability to have a baby.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
People with PCOS can have higher levels of male-type hormones called androgens. There are many signs of PCOS including symptoms like:
- Issues with your menstrual cycle like missing or irregular periods. It could also involve super heavy periods.
- Acne: People with PCOS often struggle with acne, even beyond their teenage years.
- Hair growth: Some women with PCOS grow excess facial hair or hair on their arms, chest or even belly. As much as 70% of women with PCOS have excessive hair growth. Of course, you can easily remove hair through different methods or cosmetic procedures like laser hair removal, but too much hair can cause social anxiety and issues with confidence. Some people with PCOS also struggle with thinning hair though this is less common
- Weight gain: PCOS can make it hard to maintain a healthy weight so 40%-80% of people with PCOS are obese
- Cysts: Many people with PCOS have cysts on their ovaries. These cysts are not harmful but they can make it harder to get pregnant
- Fertility issues: PCOS is a common cause of fertility issues. In women with PCOS, the hormonal imbalance interferes with ovulation and if you don’t ovulate, or you ovulate irregularly, it can make it harder to get pregnant
While there are many different symptoms of PCOS, the 3 main symptoms that doctors look for when diagnosing the condition are:
- Irregular periods– which means your ovaries do not regularly release eggs
- Excess androgen – high levels of "male" hormones in your body, which may cause physical signs such as extra facial or body hair
- Polycystic ovaries – where your ovaries become enlarged and contain many fluid-filled sacs (follicles) that surround the eggs
If you have at least 2 of these symptoms, you may be diagnosed with PCOS.
PCOS is also associated with an increased risk of developing health problems in later life, including type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.
If you have symptoms of PCOS, they’ll likely appear when you’re a teenager or when you’re in your early 20s.
What causes PCOS?
PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects reproductive-age women. The exact cause of PCOS is not known, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Here are some of the factors that may contribute to the development of PCOS:
Hormonal Imbalance: Women with PCOS typically have higher levels of androgens (male hormones) in their bodies, such as testosterone. This hormonal imbalance can disrupt the normal functioning of the ovaries and interfere with the development and release of eggs during ovulation.
Insulin Resistance: Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance occurs when the body's cells become less responsive to insulin, leading to elevated insulin levels. Insulin resistance is commonly associated with PCOS and can contribute to the production of excess androgens, leading to hormonal imbalances.
Genetics: There is evidence to suggest that PCOS may have a genetic component. Women with a family history of PCOS are more likely to develop the condition themselves. However, specific genes or patterns of inheritance associated with PCOS have not been definitively identified.
Inflammation: Chronic low-grade inflammation in the body may play a role in the development of PCOS. Inflammation can disrupt ovarian function and contribute to insulin resistance.
Lifestyle Factors: Certain lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, sedentary behavior, and obesity, can increase the risk of developing PCOS. These factors can exacerbate insulin resistance and hormonal imbalances.
It's important to note that PCOS is a complex condition, and the interplay of these factors can vary from person to person. The exact cause and underlying mechanisms of PCOS are still the subject of ongoing research. If you suspect you have PCOS or are experiencing symptoms associated with the condition, you should talk to a healthcare professional for a diagnosis and appropriate treatment options.
How is PCOS treated?
There’s no one-size-fits all treatment for PCOS and treatment options also depend on a few factors including your age, how severe your symptoms are and your overall health. It could also depend on whether or not you want to have a baby in the future.
Here are some of the more common treatments for PCOS depending on each scenario.
If you plan on getting pregnant in the future
If you think you may want to have a baby, there are a few things you can do to treat symptoms of PCOS:
- Change your diet and activity. A healthy diet and more physical activity can help you lose weight and reduce PCOS symptoms. Good nutrition can also help your body use insulin more efficiently, lower blood glucose levels, and it may also help you ovulate - critical if you want to have a baby!
- Medications to cause ovulation. Medications can help your ovaries to release eggs normally. These medications also have certain risks. They can increase the chance for a multiple birth (twins or more). And they can cause ovarian hyperstimulation. This is when the ovaries release too many hormones. It can cause symptoms such as abdominal bloating and pelvic pain.
To learn more about getting pregnant if you have PCOS, check out our blog post here.
If you do not plan to become pregnant
If you don’t want to have a baby, doctors may be quick to prescribe hormonal birth control to help control your PCOS symptoms. This can be an option for some people (but remember the pill is not the only solution to your problems). It’s important to understand the side effects of the pill before you start taking it. We recommend that you read our blog post called The Side Effects of Birth Control.
And, before you start taking any medicine, you may also want to consider adding in a supplement to your daily routine to help regulate your hormonal activity. Ensuring that your body has all the vitamins and minerals it needs can help restore hormonal balance and support a healthy cycle and in many cases, can naturally treat many of the most common symptoms of PCOS.
While there is no specific vitamin or mineral that can cure PCOS, certain nutrients may help support overall health and manage some symptoms associated with the condition. It's important to note that individual needs may vary, and it's always best to consult with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian who can provide personalized advice. Here are some vitamins and minerals that may be beneficial for individuals with PCOS:
Inositol: Inositol, particularly myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol, has been studied for its potential benefits in improving insulin sensitivity and restoring hormonal balance in women with PCOS. It may help regulate menstrual cycles and improve fertility.
Vitamin D: Many women with PCOS have been found to have low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D plays a role in insulin sensitivity and may help manage symptoms of PCOS. Adequate sunlight exposure and supplementation can help maintain optimal vitamin D levels.
B Vitamins: B vitamins, such as B6 and B12, are involved in hormone regulation, metabolism, and energy production. They may help manage stress, support healthy ovarian function, and improve mood. B vitamins are found in various foods, including leafy greens, legumes, fish, and poultry.
Magnesium: Magnesium is involved in numerous biochemical processes in the body and may help improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation. It is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Chromium: Chromium is a mineral that assists insulin in regulating blood sugar levels. Some studies suggest that chromium supplementation may improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism in women with PCOS. Good dietary sources of chromium include broccoli, green beans, whole grains, and nuts.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, have anti-inflammatory properties and may help reduce inflammation associated with PCOS. They can be obtained from fatty fish (such as salmon and sardines), flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts.
It's worth mentioning that a well-balanced and varied diet is crucial for overall health, and focusing on whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats, is recommended. Nutritional needs can differ from person to person, so it's essential to work with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian who can provide personalized guidance and help develop a suitable dietary plan based on your specific needs and goals.
Medical professionals may have led you to believe that there is nothing you can do to treat symptoms of PCOS. But we’re here to tell you that is simply not true. According to research, diet plays a really important role in managing symptoms of PCOS. When women altered their diets, it helped eliminate some negative symptoms of the condition.
So if you’re part of the PCOS club, we want you to know that if you start making some changes to your diet, we’re confident that you’ll see results.
PCOS can cause insulin resistance so it’s important to add some foods that combat this condition. Foods high in fiber are the key - they help slow down digestion and reduce the effect of sugar on the blood.
Here’s some examples of some high fiber foods to try:
- Veggies like cauliflower and broccoli
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach and other dark leafy goodness
- Beans and lentils
- Sweet potatoes
- Green and red peppers
- Nuts like almonds, pine nuts and walnuts
- Pumpkin and sweet potato
A healthy PCOS diet can also include:
- Lots of natural, unprocessed foods
- Fatty fish like salmon and tune
- Healthy fats like olive oil, avocados and coconuts
- Dark chocolate (in moderation! And make sure it’s at least 75% cacao)
You can read more about how your diet impacts symptoms of PCOS in our blog post called PCOS and Food.
Can I still get pregnant if I have PCOS?
Yes! Having PCOS does not mean you can’t get pregnant, but it can mean that it is a bit more challenging. PCOS is one of the most common, but treatable, causes of fertility issues in women. This is because PCOS interferes with ovulation. Not being able to track when you ovulate makes it hard to predict your “fertile window” to get pregnant. And, if you don’t ovulate, you can’t get pregnant.
The good news is that with some lifestyle changes or fertility treatments, most people with PCOS can become pregnant.
How can PCOS affect pregnancy?
If you get pregnant when you have PCOS, first, we want to say congratulations! We know that for many people getting pregnant might have been a challenge and it might have taken a lot longer than you expected.
If you are pregnant and you have PCOS, you will be at a higher risk for pregnancy complications. But try not to worry too much. Your doctor or OB will know that you have PCOS and they will monitor you closely throughout your pregnancy.
That said, it can be helpful to arm yourself with knowledge and know some of the most common complications as a result of PCOS:
- Miscarriage or early pregnancy loss: Regrettably, women with PCOS are three times as likely to miscarry in the early months of pregnancy than women without PCOS. More research is needed in order to know why.
- Gestational Diabetes: This is a type of diabetes that you only get when pregnant. It is treatable and if you get an early diagnosis, it is not likely to cause major issues for you or your baby. In most cases, gestational diabetes will go away after you have your baby so
- it is only something you need to manage while pregnant. You are however, at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.
- Preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is a sudden increase in blood pressure after the 20th week of pregnancy. If left untreated, it can turn into something called eclampsia which can cause many terrible things like organ damage, seizures and even death. There is treatment available and depending on when preeclampsia develops, the most common treatment is early delivery of your baby. This may mean that your baby is a little earlier than anticipated, but try not to worry too much if this is the case. Preterm and moderately preterm babies generally do just fine with a little help in the early stages of their life.
- Preterm birth: Speaking of preterm birth, PCOS is known to cause a higher chance of delivering your baby before 37 weeks. As we said before, there is some risk of health problems right after birth and later in life when a baby is born early, but most are treatable and disappear as your baby grows.
- C-section delivery: Women with PCOS are more likely to have a c-section because of some of these complications associated with the condition. C-sections are very common and safe, but because it is a significant surgical procedure, recovery does take longer than a vaginal birth. If you are pregnant and have PCOS, it may be wise to make some plans for getting a little extra help after the baby is born, just in case you have an unplanned or emergency c-section.
If you have PCOS, it doesn’t mean that you will definitely have the complications above. You are at an increased risk, so it’s good to be aware, but you may have a perfectly ordinary and problem-free pregnancy as well. We don’t want to scare you, but we do think it’s important to understand the ways that PCOS can impact a pregnancy.
For more information, read our blog post called Can I Get Pregnant with PCOS?
Do you have more questions or doubts? Chat with us. We’re more than happy to listing and help you with whatever we can.