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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Causes, Symptoms, and Home Remedies

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is one of the most common causes of woman's infertility. It is a problem results from an imbalance of female sex hormones. It may cause irregular menstruation, difficulties in getting pregnant, and cysts in the ovaries. If it's not treated, overtime it can lead to diabetes and several other troubling health conditions.

According to womenshealth.gov, as many as 5 million U.S. women may be affected by PCOS. More shockingly, today between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of reproductive age has this endocrine disorder. And not only that, it can affect girls as young as 11 years old.

So, if you're suspecting you have probably developed PCOS, read on to know about what are the causes and symptoms of PCOS and what lifestyle approaches can help cope your PCOS.

Causes of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

The exact cause of PCOS remains a mystery. But based on a number study results, researchers believe several factors could play a big role. These include:

Heredity. It is thought to be one of the important factors behind PCOS, as many studies concluded a genetic linking with it. (1) If your mother or sister has PCOS, there is a strong possibility that you might also develop it.

Low-grade inflammation. In response to inflammation, our body's white blood cells produce substances that can defend and fight against infection. However, for women who are very likely to have PCOS, eating certain foods can trigger an inflammatory response inappropriately. When this happens, substances produced by the white blood cells cause the immune system to react on its own tissues and cells.

Many researchers believe this abnormal inflammatory response can lead to insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease like atherosclerosis, a disease in which cholesterol is accumulated in blood vessels. (2) In addition, researchers in a study published, October 2006, in the European Journal of Clinical Investigation reported that they found presence of low-grade inflammation in young women with PCOS. (3)

Insulin resistance. Insulin is an essential hormone for human body. It is produced in the pancreas of your body and helps the cells to convert sugar (glucose), starches, and other food into energy. Researchers believe most women with PCOS develop insulin resistance in their body. This means that the ability to use insulin effectively is impaired, so these women need to produce more insulin to make glucose available to cells. Studies suggest that excess insulin may cause the ovaries to make more male hormones, androgens. (4) In addition, excess insulin in the body is also associated with obesity, another important reason for developing PCOS.

Hormone imbalance. As stated above, PCOS results from an imbalance of female hormones. Women with PCOS tend to make more androgens than normal. Androgens are male sex hormones that females also make. However, why these hormonal changes happen in these women is still unknown. Researchers think this imbalance may start in the ovary itself, in glands responsible for producing these hormones, or part of the nervous system that regulates their production. The resistance to insulin is also identified as a possible cause for the hormone imbalance. (5)

High levels of insulin and androgen production affect the normal development of follicles in the ovaries. As a result, many follicles likely to develop but often fail to mature properly. This interferes with the release of eggs during ovulation - hence, irregular menstruation and reduced fertility occurs.
image of normal ovary and polycystic ovary
Normal ovary and polycystic ovary. Source: womenshealth.gov, public domain

Symptoms at a Glance

The signs and symptoms of PCOS can vary from person to person. Common symptoms that may become apparent include:
  • Menstrual abnormality -- irregular periods or no periods
  • Infertility (problems in getting pregnant)
  • Increased hair growth on the chest, belly, face, and around the nipples
  • Weight gain
  • Thinning of the hair on the head
  • Oily skin or acne

Lifestyle Approaches that can Help Treat PCOS

Lifestyle modification is the key approach in treating PCOS. Physicians mostly recommend weight loss, healthy diet, and regular exercise to help restore a normal period.

Weight loss. Overweight or obesity is a common issue in women with PCOS. If you're having extra weight, losing weight can help treat your hormone imbalances and health conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

According to MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia, losing just about 5% of your body weight can help get your hormones in balance and regulate your menstrual cycle. So, make it your first priority that you need to lose weight in order to manage PCOS.

Healthy diet. Physicians often recommend a heart-healthy diet for women with POCS. So, if you have PCOS, consider a low-carbohydrate diet. But this doesn't mean you need to severely restrict carbohydrates. Instead, to get the maximum benefit, choose complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber.

As high-fiber foods are more slowly digested in the stomach, eating a diet rich in fiber will provide you with numerous benefits. This means you will have less hunger than usual, so ultimately it will also help restrict your blood sugar levels.

In general, a diet with high-fiber carbohydrates should include more whole-grain products, vegetables, fruits, nuts, rice, beans, and lean meats. Limit consuming foods with added sugars and foods that are high in saturated fat, including soda, candy, ice cream, pies, processed fruit juice, cake, cookies, red meats, cheeses, and fried foods. Overall, you need to have an anti-inflammatory/alkaline approach in your diet. (6) For more suggestion, consult with a dietician who can offer specific diet advice for you.

Regular exercise. This is a key step in managing PCOS. Exercise helps lower blood glucose and cholesterol and reduces the risk of more than hundreds of diseases. If you have PCOS, increase your regular physical activity or participate in a regular exercise program. This can not only help you keep your weight under control but may treat or even prevent insulin resistance.

Quit smoking. If you smoke, consider quitting it as early as possible. Smoking triggers an inflammatory response in the heart and lungs. Smokers are at higher risk for diseases that affect the heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Smoking is also a contributing factor for PCOS symptoms, as women who smoke have higher androgen levels. (7)

The above lifestyle approaches are highly recommended approaches for women with PCOS. But these are not all. If you have developed PCOS, you need to make more lifestyle changes to help get your hormones in balance and regulate your menstrual cycle. Consider consulting with your GP for more suggestions.
Polycystic ovary
Transvaginal ultrasound scan of polycystic ovary

References

  1. Ehrmann D.A. (2005). Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, New England Journal of Medicine, 352 (12) 1223-1236. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMra041536.
  2. Samy N., Hashim M., Sayed M. and Said M. (2009). Clinical Significance of Inflammatory Markers in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Their Relationship to Insulin Resistance and Body Mass Index, Disease Markers, 26 (4) 163-170. DOI: 10.1155/2009/465203.
  3. Diamanti-Kandarakis E., Alexandraki K., Piperi C., Protogerou A., Katsikis I., Paterakis T., Lekakis J. & Panidis D. (2006). Inflammatory and endothelial markers in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, European Journal of Clinical Investigation, 36 (10) 691-697. DOI:10.1111/j.1365-2362.2006.01712.x.
  4. González F. (2012). Inflammation in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Underpinning of insulin resistance and ovarian dysfunction, Steroids, 77 (4) 300-305. DOI:10.1016/j.steroids.2011.12.003.
  5. Saikumar P. (2013). Anti Mullerian Hormone: A Potential Marker for Recruited Non Growing Follicle of Ovarian Pool in Women with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH, DOI: 10.7860/JCDR/2013/5530.3337.
  6. Marsh K.A., Steinbeck K.S., Atkinson F.S., Petocz P. & Brand-Miller J.C. (2010). Effect of a low glycemic index compared with a conventional healthy diet on polycystic ovary syndrome, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92 (1) 83-92. DOI: 10.3945/ajcn.2010.29261.
  7. Pau CT, Keefe CC, & Welt CK (2013). Cigarette smoking, nicotine levels and increased risk for metabolic syndrome in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Gynecological endocrinology : the official journal of the International Society of Gynecological Endocrinology, 29 (6), 551-5 PMID: 23656383
A Confession for Writing This Article

Well, I think I need to confess a bit for writing this article. I know many of you would have a question that why I, being a pharmacist, have written a post on Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, as it doesn't fall under my core expertise. Yes, I agree! I'm not an expert on PCOS. And, honestly, I do appreciate your thought: a gynecologist could have written a more better post than this one!

But, I've some reasonable skills in my back for writing this article! First of all, I'm a pharmacist and pharmacology is the subject where my primary expertise lies in. Secondly, it's part of our responsibility to have an adequate knowledge over different diseases and conditions, though clinical diagnosis isn't part of our concern. Thirdly, I'm also a professional medical writer. If you've read a few of my previous posts, I'm sure you already know I don't write medical articles from my thoughts -- they're based on either respected journals and scientific magazines or authority websites.

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