PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is thought to affect up to 1 in 5 women between the ages of 18 and 44. With a statistic like that, the likelihood of you having or knowing someone who has PCOS is really high and, for that reason, it’s so important for women to know what the syndrome is, what the symptoms are and what the recommended treatment will be. In light of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome awareness month this August, we've broken down everything you need to know about the condition and enlisted someone to share her own experience.
What is PCOS?
The syndrome is famously difficult to define, but it is basically a set of symptoms indicating a hormonal imbalance that affects the way a woman’s ovaries work.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
To be formally diagnosed you must show two out of the three following symptoms:
- Irregular periods - which means that the ovaries aren’t regularly releasing eggs
- Excess androgens - which means high levels of male hormones are being released in the body
- Polycystic ovaries - which means that the ovaries become enlarged and contain fluid filled sacs which surround the eggs...SEXY!
How is PCOS diagnosed?
For me, as is the case with most women, it was losing my period that raised the first red flag. At age 20 I had been on and off the pill for three years, so had seen my cycle change before; however once I had missed six consecutive periods I thought it was probably time for me to get it checked out. After ultrasounds and blood tests doctors discovered a few cysts on my ovaries, so I was diagnosed quite quickly with PCOS.
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What are the treatments for PCOS?
Following diagnosis, doctors will usually recommend trying to lose weight as one form of treatment. Obesity and weight gain are strongly linked to PCOS, and studies have shown that losing just a small amount of weight can help to rebalance your hormones. The second recommendation is the oral contraceptive pill, as it regulates your cycle and is an effective treatment for a number of the other symptoms people with PCOS can experience e.g. acne, painful periods and mood swings. If you’re looking to have children and are struggling with conception then Metformin might be prescribed or surgery undertaken at the extreme.
I’m sure losing weight works for some, but my BMI at the time was perfectly healthy and to lose the amount of weight recommended by my doctor would have put me in the ‘underweight’ category. I had also decided to come off of the pill because I personally didn’t want to be putting the chemicals in my body when I no longer needed it for contraception. In my eyes, taking the pill again would be like putting a plaster on the problem and not getting to the root of it. I left the doctor’s surgery feeling emotional, lost and confused by my own body.
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It took lots more terrible appointments where I was told ‘If you want to have a baby you should start trying sooner rather than later’, and nearly four years of missed periods, to convince me that I needed to try other methods.
I started doing lots of reading on the topic and found tonnes of research linking stress, both mental and physical, to hormonal imbalances. I learned that my packed social calendar, the toxins in my beauty products and poor quality animal products in my diet could actually be negatively impacting my already delicate hormonal system. This was revolutionary for me: finally there seemed to be someone telling me that not only might I be able to get my hormones in check and my period back, but I could be healthier and happier too.
I slowly stopped doing all the exercise that I had been told to do and eating all the protein I had been told to eat, swapping it for walking, yoga, hot baths, nights in and more plant based meals. It took nearly six months of consciously changing my habits, but slowly my dry skin went away, my sleep improved and most miraculously - my period came back. As I’m writing this I’m having my sixth period in as many months.
Of course, everybody is different and what worked for my symptoms might not work for someone else, but what is important to know is that there are options out there if you’re willing to try them. Having PCOS can make you feel lonely and misunderstood, but that shouldn’t be the case. It is such a common problem and women should be discussing it more openly so we can support each other through these kinds of trickier hormonal challenges.
If you want to find out more I would recommend the following:
on the topic
Alisa Vitti’s book
Hey It's OK...To Have Abnormal Cells: With Katie Snooks and Shannon Peerless
If you suspect any symptoms of PCOS you should your GP. To get in with Jess you can find her on Instagram @jessduffyy