By: Dr. Hilary Booth, ND
About 1 in 10 women have a condition called polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), but women often go undiagnosed until they experience issues related to fertility. This is because PCOS is a very broad diagnosis, meaning each patient may experience a different grouping of symptoms, and they don’t necessarily need to reflect a “classic” PCOS picture to be properly diagnosed.
What is PCOS?
In women with PCOS, the ovaries develop multiple follicles (cysts) and these follicles can produce excess testosterone. These follicles often do not grow to maturity, so they are not ovulated each month. This alters women’s monthly hormone cycling and can cause irregular periods.
Excess testosterone produced by the cysts can also cause problems in the body. It can cause acne (especially around the chin and jaw), thinning hair on the head, and extra hair growth on the face, abdomen, thighs or chest.
Insulin resistance is also prevalent in women with PCOS, which means the body has difficulty regulating blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance can make it difficult to lose weight, cause fatigue, and increases testosterone production in the ovaries. It is important to note though, that there are many women with PCOS who are not overweight, leading to common misdiagnosis.
Hints that you might have PCOS
If you have two or more of the following, it may be worthwhile to do lab testing and an ultrasound to properly diagnose and treat PCOS:
- Irregular or infrequent periods
- Acne (especially along the chin and jaw line)
- Hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen or thighs
- Thinning of the hair on the head
- Acanthosis nigricans (dark areas of skin on the back of the neck, groin, or underarm)
- Difficulty losing weight / easily gains weight (especially around the abdomen)
- Cysts on the ovaries (seen on ultrasound)
- Insulin resistance / impaired glucose tolerance
How is PCOS treated?
Even if you have been given a diagnosis, unfortunately conventional medicine’s treatments are aimed at symptomatic relief. Generally women are offered metformin (a diabetes medication), and the birth control pill. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I treat PCOS based on your individual symptom picture. For example, if you have high testosterone levels and irregular periods, I would use herbs and supplements to lower your testosterone and regulate your cycle. If you have difficulty losing weight and insulin resistance, I would use diet and supplements to stabilize blood sugar levels and assist with weight loss.
The important thing to remember is that since PCOS is such a broad diagnosis, the treatment must be targeted at each individual’s presentation in order for them to see improvements in their overall health.