Let’s talk about periods. They suck. Women have them. Men don’t want to talk about them. More so than others, women with syndromes or disorders which affect hormones have painful periods. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, is the most common hormonal endocrine disorder in women, affecting five to ten percent of women in the U.S. It’s also the most common cause of infertility in women. Most women with PCOS either don’t know they have it, or don’t understand it. Here are some things to know from what it is to common symptoms and what they might mean for you.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a hormonal disorder usually diagnosed when a woman experiences two out of three out of the following:
Irregular menstrual cycles, with or without high levels of cramping during and after periods
Elevated androgen levels, either through presentation of symptoms or blood tests
Polycystic ovaries, seen through pelvic ultrasounds
Each of these can vary from case to case. PCOS is not one size fits all and some affected women may not experience any of the effects of one of the bullet points above.
Elevated Androgen Levels
Women with PCOS may have higher levels of androgens or “male” hormones. Typically this presents as excess hair on the face and body and increased levels of acne. I’ll be blunt, this sucks. I have little experience with excess hair, but I have had acne on my shoulders and chest sporadically. The good news is that there are treatment options. Shaving, laser hair removal, and electrolysis can help with hair removal, depending on the severity of the situation. There is also a constant flow of new acne care coming out in the beauty world. Test a bunch of things out and if nothing seems to be working, talk to your doctor about alternative methods.
Because of the hormone imbalance associated with PCOS, weight gain is a common symptom. Not all women experience this though. I personally experienced weight gain after my first period and onward. Some women though experience weight gain at later times in their lives or they experience no weight gain at all. The general consensus from the women who experience weight gain is that it’s much easier to maintain weight than lose weight. Changing up the food you eat and your exercise plan can help to both maintain and lose weight.
Other Health Concerns
Women with PCOS are more likely to develop type two diabetes and have heart attacks. This definitely does not mean that if you have PCOS these are definites. There are simple things you can do now to manage your symptoms which have lasting benefits. Rather than exercising in ways which leave you exhausted afterwards, try strength and resistance exercises and build yourself up to the harder stuff. Cutting out foods which cause inflammation can also be beneficial. This includes gluten, dairy from cows, unhealthy fats and processed foods. Of course, you don’t have to cut these out completely. Know your body and how it reacts to different foods and decide what you can cut out and what you can eat in moderation. The easiest thing to do to help yourself is to take multivitamins, vitamin D, or fish oil supplements.
Considerably the worst part of PCOS is the possibility of infertility. Tons of women with PCOS have children, so this isn’t to say that pregnancy is impossible. However, women with PCOS are three times more likely to have a miscarriage than women without, and getting pregnant in the first place can be difficult. The lack of ovulation from the irregular periods is the leading cause for the difficult road to pregnancy. Controlling your symptoms is one of the easiest ways to increase chances of pregnancy. If this doesn’t work, there are many fertility drugs that have proven to be effective in women with PCOS. Because so few women find out about their PCOS at a young age and there doctor’s may not catch it early on, the infertility goes unnoticed. I was diagnosed when I was 13 and told about my chances of infertility. If more people were to be educated on PCOS, it may become more likely for those who have it to be diagnosed. Finding out at such a young age allowed me to process my options way before I needed to be making decisions. I’m grateful to have been diagnosed when I was, because now I know that if, in the very distant future, I decide to have children, I will adopt. With the rate of modern medicine though, there will most likely be even more options in the future to assist with conception.
Perhaps the most common symptom of PCOS is an irregular menstrual cycle. Again, this varies from woman to woman. I personally went four and a half months with no period once, and proceeded to have a two week, very heavy, very painful period after the long wait. For some women, it isn’t as spaced out, and for others it’s even worse. Generally speaking though, the timing of periods is irregular, the flow is heavy, and the cramps are bad. Birth control is commonly prescribed in order to help regulate the cycle, but it doesn’t always help with cramps and flow. If your birth control isn’t helping with your symptoms, ask your doctor about trying another brand or a different dosage. To manage cramps, I find that stick on heat pads are great for on the go, and Midol and Dragon Time essential oil can alleviate some of the pain. It also can’t hurt to give into some of your cravings!