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Everything you need to know about polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and how to manage your symptoms.
Despite the name, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) does not mean you have cysts on your ovaries. It is the most common disorder affecting female hormones and impacts how the ovaries work.
Key characteristics of PCOS are irregular periods, excess androgen (high levels of “male” hormones) and polycystic ovaries (your ovaries become enlarged and contain many follicles surrounding eggs (fluid filled sacs).
We do not know exactly what causes PCOS. However, it is thought that it can run in families.
Abnormal hormone levels such as androgen and insulin can result in the body producing more testosterone. Insulin helps to move glucose from blood into cells, where it's broken down to produce energy.
However, many women with PCOS are resistant to insulin in their body, and produce higher levels, which can then lead to further testosterone production. This can affect the development of follicles and prevents normal ovulation.
Being resistant to insulin can lead to weight gain, and exacerbate PCOS symptoms, as excess fat stores cause the body to create more insulin. This can often be a vicious circle for some women.
Further hormone imbalances can contribute to PCOS such as:
Luteinising hormone (LH). This is the hormone that stimulates ovulation. However, this can have an adverse effect if the level is too high.
Low levels of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), which reduces the effect of testosterone.
Some women also experience higher levels of prolactin.
Symptoms usually start to appear in your late teens to early twenties and they can range from mild to severe. Some women experience many, and some experience one or two:
When to see a doctor:
If you experience any of the above, we recommend speaking to your GP. Your healthcare professional may wish to rule out other conditions by checking your blood pressure and hormone levels. An ultrasound will also be able to show whether you have a high number of follicles in your ovaries.
In a recent survey of women, 72% felt initially dismissed by their healthcare professionals when it came to discussing symptoms surrounding their health, with an emphasis on the patient to be their own advocate. It’s important to remember that your symptoms are very much real, and not to be dismissed unnecessarily.
“[…] I have had to push to get my symptoms checked and to be diagnosed. […] I had multiple doctors’ visits before being offered a ultrasound scan in which I was diagnosed with PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome].”
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