If you’re are a person with a period who talks to other people with periods (welcome!), you’ve probably come across the mysterious club of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). If not, then read on! You’re about to be armed with some serious knowledge next time someone brings it up — which is definitely going to happen because PCOS affects between 8% - 20% of reproductive-age women worldwide, and approximately 5 million in the US.
The numbers are only approximate because the thing about PCOS is that there’s no real universal definition and it’s really hard to diagnose the symptoms. Also, the name is kind of misleading because not every woman with PCOS has ovarian cysts (though some do), and PCOS can affect all aspects of your health, not just your ovaries. So it’s confusing, happens to a lot of us, and we still don’t really *know* exactly what it is? Great! (That’s sarcasm) Let’s do our best to unpack it anyway.
So, what is PCOS? Well, it’s essentially a hormone imbalance that occurs when ovaries make more androgens (aka male sex hormones) than normal, and this imbalance affects ovulation. Your endocrinologist (hormone specialist) might also look for things like excess of the hormone insulin — which could increase the amount of androgens produced by the body. Some people also think genetics play a part — does your mom, sister, or aunt have PCOS? (Some light family dinner conversation, you’re welcome!)
The first sign that you may have PCOS is an irregular period, super-heavy bleeding, or realllllly long gaps between cycles. Other symptoms include acne, excessive body hair, sometimes thinning hair on your head (due to higher than normal androgens, aka male sex hormones), and weight gain. And, like I mentioned, women might also have cysts on their ovaries. People with PCOS might also struggle to get pregnant, because PCOS can cause ovulation to happen less often.
If you’ve been diagnosed w PCOS, it can be really scary, but don’t panic. The symptoms can sound shitty and overwhelming — cysts and acne, say what! — but PCOS, while not curable, is manageable, and by no means a life sentence. Symptoms can be treated with medications that reduce androgens (to minimize acne, excess body hair, and scalp hair loss). Also, many women are prescribed a birth control pill to manage their PCOS symptoms.
Other than medications, there are a bunch of diet and lifestyle changes you can make that can help kick the butt of PCOS — and many women have had success managing their symptoms through diet. Avoiding processed stuff like sugar and refined carbs (white breads and white flours) can have a really positive impact on the health of women who have PCOS.
Of course, pregnancy *is* possible with PCOS, too — and if that’s something on your horizon, just chat to your ob-gyn/endocrinologist/doctor about your options. But in the meantime, you still need to wear a condom/think about birth control if you’re ~doing it~!
So, while PCOS can be a confusing and overwhelming diagnosis to receive, it is by no means a life sentence, and there is support out there (check out SoulCysters.net) — find a doctor, endocrinologist, or healthcare professional you trust who is informed about PCOS, and you’re well on your way to getting on top of your PCOS symptoms.