The facts about Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

PCOS is a common cause of infertility. But how do you know if you have it? Tiffany Markham finds out.

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Experts may tell you that a polycystic ovary has an abnormally large number of developing eggs near its surface, and that these can resemble a string of pearls. These are the tell-tale signs of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS).

PCOS is a complex hormonal and metabolic imbalance that affects your entire body and causes various problems, including the accumulation of cysts on the ovaries. Women may have ovarian cysts for various reasons – it’s the group of symptoms, not just the cysts, that’s important in diagnosing PCOS.

ALSO SEE: 6 surprising things that affect fertility

Am I at risk?

According to the US Department of Health, between one in 10, and one in 20 women of childbearing age are affected. Alarmingly, it can also occur in girls as young as 11 years old. However, there’s still a debate around what causes it.

What the experts do agree on is that it’s ‘likely’ to result from inherited and environmental factors. Women with PCOS often have a mother or sister with PCOS, or there’s a tendency in the family towards insulin resistance (which occurs when glucose can’t get into your cells, so it accumulates in your blood, and your sugar levels soar), or type 2 diabetes, and even baldness in male family members under the age of 30.

Can PCOS cause infertility?

According to Colette Harris and Theresa Cheung, the authors of The PCOS Protection Plan, infertility in women with PCOS is often caused by a lack of ovulation and irregular periods. But, research shows that diet and lifestyle changes, along with fertility medication, may help to restore balance and boost fertility.

Several factors, including genetics, could play a role in PCOS. A main problem with PCOS is a hormonal imbalance. The ovaries make more androgens (male hormones) than normal, which affects the development and release of eggs during ovulation. Insulin may also be linked to PCOS.

Treating Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

  • A common form of treatment for PCOS in South Africa is an ovulation-inducing medicine like clomiphene (Clomid).
  • Weight loss can also normalise menstrual cycles, and increases the possibility of pregnancy, and more aggressive treatments for infertility (including intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection and in vitro fertilisation) can also be effective if Clomid isn’t.

Preventing PCOS

The fact that PCOS is a complex disorder that sometimes takes a while to diagnose, often means that prevention isn’t easy. But don’t lose hope. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic believe there are steps you can take to offset the negative effects:

Maintain a healthy weight.

Obesity makes insulin resistance worse, but weight loss can reduce high insulin levels, and may restore ovulation.

ALSO SEE: How your weight can affect conception

Adjust your diet.

Low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets may increase insulin levels, so opt for complex carbohydrates like barley, brown rice and beans, which are high in fibre, rather than sugary, processed foods.

Be more active.

Exercise helps lower blood sugar levels. If you have PCOS, increasing your daily activity and participating in a regular exercise programme may treat or even prevent insulin resistance, and help you keep your weight in check.

Get help.

If you think you have PCOS symptoms, make an appointment to see your gynaecologist as soon as you can. Chat to trusted friends and family, and visit online forums for more personal information.

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