What Every Woman Should Know About Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome

  • What is PCOS? Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a lifelong condition in women that refers to many partially formed follicles found in the ovaries.
  • PCOS is a fairly common condition affecting about 5-10% of women aged 15 to 44 years old.
  • The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, and it can lead to other medical problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and endometrial cancer.
  • Among the symptoms of PCOS are irregular menstrual cycles, excess body and facial hair, and scalp hair loss.
  • There is no cure for PCOS, but it can be well-managed with a combination of medication, diet, and exercise.

Women’s health has been a frequent topic of discussion in the media in recent years. The highlights are in  such issues as breast cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis (bone loss). Surprisingly, there is a common condition in women that you may not have heard about. It’s called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). This health condition stems from an imbalance of reproductive hormones. It can occur in both adolescents and adult women. The exact cause is unknown, but both genetic and environmental factors may play a role. There are a number of different symptoms, making it harder to diagnose. There are also a variety of treatment options that should be discussed with your doctor or healthcare provider. It’s important to be aware of the risk factors and associated health problems that may develop. Let’s take a closer look at the causes, symptoms and treatments for PCOS.

What is PCOS and Who is at Risk?

The term polycystic ovarian syndrome is a common condition for women. It refers to multiple partially formed follicles in the ovaries. Each follicle contains an egg which generally cannot be fertilized. PCOS is one of the main causes of infertility (inability to become pregnant) in women. High levels of insulin and excess weight or obesity may increase the risk of PCOS. This can also lead to diabetes. This is especially common for women with unhealthy eating habits and limited physical activity.

The cause of PCOS has not been definitively determined. However, family history, genetics, hormones, and lifestyle factors may contribute to the onset. PCOS is 50% more likely in women who have a mother, sister or aunt who also has this condition. It may also be more common in women with Asian, African, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island ethnic backgrounds. 

Approximately 5-10% of women between the ages of 15 and 44 have PCOS. In many cases, PCOS is not diagnosed in women. They are unaware that they have this condition. In fact, almost 70% of cases remain undiagnosed. Many women find out they have PCOS when they have difficulty getting pregnant. They are then diagnosed by their doctors. A diagnosis of PCOS most often includes taking a medical history and a physical examination. Blood tests are also done to measure hormone levels. Some may have to take additional tests, if necessary.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of PCOS?

The symptoms of PCOS may vary somewhat with each person. Most women with PCOS have irregular menstrual cycles or no menstrual periods at all. They may also have high levels of androgens. These are male hormones that cause excess body or facial hair. This may cause acne and scalp hair loss. Ovarian cysts (fluid-filled sacs) on one or both ovaries may also occur. For you to be diagnosed with PCOS, you need to have at least two of the symptoms listed above.

Other signs of PCOS may include changes in mood, such as anxiety or depression. Some women with PCOS also have sleep apnea. This occurs when the throat muscles relax periodically. Because of this, it may block your airway during sleep. In addition to weight gain, there may be darkening of the skin in certain areas of the body. Skin tags in the armpits or neck area may also be present.

Are There Other Health Issues Associated with PCOS?

Research studies have found a connection between PCOS and other health problems. Women with PCOS may comprise the largest segment at risk for heart disease. More than half of women with PCOS will develop diabetes or pre-diabetes before the age of 40. There is also an increased risk of high blood pressure. Another heart-related concern in women with PCOS is unhealthy levels of cholesterol. These can also contribute to heart disease and stroke.

Women with PCOS can have sleep apnea. When this happens, breathing stops periodically during sleep. This sleep disorder is more common in women who are overweight or obese. Sleep apnea can be serious. This is because it elevates the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Endometrial cancer in the lining of the uterus has also been linked to PCOS. A combination of issues may help cause it. This includes irregular menstrual cycles and obesity. Insulin resistance and diabetes may also increase the risk for the onset of endometrial cancer.

Are there Treatments for PCOS?

At present, there is no cure for PCOS. However, there are many ways to manage the symptoms. PCOS is a condition that requires medical care on a long-term basis. As previously mentioned, there is an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, or endometrial cancer. Your doctor can assist you in developing a treatment plan that works best for you. Since there are a different number of symptoms for PCOS, several treatments may be used together. Various hormonal methods to prevent pregnancy, such as birth control pills, can help regulate your menstrual cycle. There are also other medicines that block the effect of androgens. These can reduce scalp hair loss, body and facial hair growth, and acne.

A drug called Metformin can reduce blood sugar, insulin, and androgen levels. This can also aid in weight loss and prevent diabetes from occurring. Additionally, Metformin may aid in restarting ovulation. This will increase your chances of getting pregnant. Many women with PCOS have difficulty becoming pregnant. However, this does not necessarily mean you will be unable to have children. Your doctor can work with you to improve your ability to ovulate. So, it’s important to seek the care that you need. There may be some additional risk factors that arise during pregnancy. Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight and blood sugar levels is essential.

A teamwork approach is optimal for the effective management and treatment of PCOS. Some women with PCOS may benefit from psychological counseling. This is to help them deal with anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. They may feel embarrassed about their appearance from the physical signs of PCOS. They may also be hesitant to go out in public. Support from family, friends, and health professionals is important. This is a key component for coping with this type of stress. Your doctor can also provide referrals to dietitians and nutritionists. You may also contact exercise specialists and other health professionals to maximize the quality of your care. 

What is the Healthiest Eating Plan for Women with PCOS?

We all know that healthy eating habits and regular exercise are recommended for everyone. This helps improve overall health. Because of this, these guidelines are especially important for women with PCOS. It will help them with weight management and blood sugar regulation.

Here are a few healthy eating suggestions for women with PCOS:

Low-Glycemic Diet

A low-glycemic (GI) diet will help control insulin levels. The glycemic index refers to the way food affects blood sugar. Eating whole grains, nuts, and seeds is a good idea. We also recommend eating, fruits, vegetables, and other low-carbohydrate foods. Women with PCOS have reported several benefits on this meal plan. This includes quality of life and menstrual regulation.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet includes berries, fatty fish, leafy greens, and extra-virgin olive oil. Because PCOS may be considered chronic inflammation, its anti-inflammatory properties can help relieve its symptoms. It may also help reduce the oxidative stress on your body. 


The DASH diet helps reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart disease. This diet may also help with PCOS symptoms. Avoid foods that are high in saturated fats and sugar. Foods such as fish, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products are highly advisable. We also recommend eating a lot of fruits and vegetables. Fruits that contain natural sugars, such as dates, are recommended. They are also a good source of antioxidants for heart health.

There are other guidelines other than following the diets above. We recommend eating four to five small meals throughout the day. Make sure this includes a healthy breakfast. We also advise you to drink a lot of healthy beverages. This includes water, low-fat or fat-free milk. We also recommend avoiding sugary drinks.

What is the Role of Exercise for Women with PCOS?

Staying physically active is crucial for adolescents and women with PCOS. Some women may prefer to engage in various forms of exercise. We recommend doing this instead of relying exclusively on medication. Exercise decreases insulin levels. It assists with maintaining a healthy weight. It also improves cardiovascular health and elevates your mood. Studies suggest that exercise has a positive impact on physical and psychological well-being. It improves your health-related quality of life. You should aim for at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. This may consist of a combination of aerobic training and resistance training. This will help you achieve the desired health benefits.

PCOS is a lifelong condition. However, there are many ways to successfully manage the symptoms. You may also help prevent the associated health risks. If you have any of the signs and symptoms, you should consult with a health provider. This will ensure that you get an accurate diagnosis. A teamwork approach is best. You may prefer getting different professionals for addressing the different parts needed. This includes the medical, psychological, nutritional, and exercise recommendations to treat PCOS.

Educational outreach efforts are needed in schools, medical settings, and the community. This will help improve awareness about PCOS. Many women do not know what PCOS is. This is in spite of it being a relatively common condition. Continued research is also needed. This will help increase the understanding of this condition. It may also lead to developing new treatment options. These investigations include genetic and environmental contributors. We also need to investigate more effective treatments for infertility. It is especially important to find the relationship between PCOS, obesity, and other risk factors.


Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common hormonal condition. It has both physical and emotional consequences for women. There is still a great deal we need to learn about PCOS. However, making lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on your health. Having a treatment plan is the first step. Make sure that it is targeted towards your individual goals. Your health provider will guide you towards the most appropriate ways to manage your symptoms. They will also reduce your risk for other medical problems. Healthy eating, weight management, and exercise can go a long way. It will help you take control of your PCOS. The good news is that most women with PCOS can lead healthy and productive lives. You will be able to do this without being hampered by annoying symptoms. Keep in mind that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. There is definitely no need to suffer in silence!

Scientific Information

  • Reproductive Hormones – A hormone is a substance produced by glands that send signals from the bloodstream to various tissues in the body. Reproductive hormones are usually made in the ovaries. They secrete female sex hormones in women comprised of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone.

  • Androgen – A male sex hormone that regulates the development of male characteristics.

  • Ovarian Follicle – A small, fluid-filled sac in the ovary that contains one immature egg.

  • Insulin – A hormone that allows blood glucose to enter cells and provides them with adequate amounts of energy.

  • Insulin Resistance – When the cells in muscles, fat, and liver have difficulty taking in glucose from the blood.

  • Sleep Apnea – A potentially serious sleep disorder that causes breathing to stop and start repeatedly during sleep.

  • Skin Tags – Small, excess flaps of skin in the armpits or neck area.

  • Ovulation – The process when a mature egg is released by the ovary into the fallopian tube and is then available to be fertilized.

  • Endometrial Cancer – A type of cancer that occurs in the lining of the uterus.

  • Osteoporosis – A condition in which you lose bone more quickly than you make it. This can lead to weak, brittle bones and a higher likelihood of bone fractures.

Written by:
Alice Schluger, PhD
Health Psychologist



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