It’s well worth learning about PCOS – or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome – as it’s estimated to affect as many as a fifth of women in the UK. It can present a challenge to your fertility, but also has a host of other symptoms. If you have PCOS, ovulation, mood, weight and even hair growth are all affected – understanding how and why this happens can help you reduce the worst of the effects, and find ways to tackle the most disruptive symptoms.
The trigger for the condition is not currently understood – it could be any one of a range of environmental or genetic triggers that studies are testing – but when it is triggered, it causes your body to produce too much insulin. This has two effects: it causes you to lose weight, as you become resistant to the effect of the hormone (which governs how your body deals with sugar and fat – storing excess sugar as increased weight, or breaking down fat to access more energy). It also causes your body to produce too much androgen. Androgen is normally thought of as a male sex hormone, and while a small quantity is made and used in the female body, too much can indeed disrupt a women’s reproductive health.
Because PCOS affects your hormones, it has a systemic set of symptoms affecting your whole body – while a cold largely affects your sinuses, PCOS affects every part of your body touched by your endocrine system.
We’ve already discussed the weight gain the excess insulin can cause and alluded to the fertility implications of the condition. The two hormone irregularities that drive PCOS symptoms can also cause patches of skin discolouration, hirsutism, and even increased reports of depression and anxiety.
One of the biggest areas of impact that PCOS has is your reproductive system. In the first part of your menstrual cycle, your ovaries begin to mature as many as 20 eggs in fluid filled sacs called follicles. Under normal circumstances the strongest egg is released while the others are reabsorbed by the body. With PCOS, and the high level of androgen in your body, this process is slowed. Your eggs mature more slowly, leading to ovulation that’s delayed and hard to predict. It can even cause you to skip ovulating altogether, leaving without an opportunity to conceive in that cycle.
One of the most effective ways to relieve the grip of PCOS’ symptoms is to try to lose to some of the weight it causes you to gain. This isn’t easy, as you’re in the grip of a feedback loop – with your insulin resistant body gaining more weight and manufacturing more insulin in response. If you’re able to make progress though, by avoiding high GI foods and too much sugar, then you can reverse that feedback loop, reducing both your weight and your insulin level, and you’ll see a reduction of all your symptoms – including the potential for a return to a regular and predictable ovulation.