Health Insights

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Causes and Symptoms

PCOS presents itself as a complex set of symptoms. But not many women are aware of it's causes and underlying symptoms. Read to find more about PCOS.

Certain health conditions warrant consistent lifestyle change once you’re diagnosed with them – and one such condition is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). In fact, PCOS is so much more than its name–it not only affects your reproductive system but also your metabolic health.

PCOS presents itself as a complex set of symptoms that may go ignored for years. The symptoms can vary from woman to woman; while some may not show any obvious symptoms, others may show nonspecific symptoms, such as weight gain, fatigue and irregular periods, that are often observed in many other disorders. This can lead to PCOS going undiagnosed for years, until the symptoms become severe or obvious.

Knowing more about the causes and symptoms can help you make an informed choice on when to see your doctor to seek a formal diagnosis.

What causes PCOS?

While research is still ongoing to determine the exact cause of PCOS, we know that PCOS is an outcome of a combination of causes including genetics, lifestyle factors and hormonal imbalance.

1. High levels of androgen
Your ovaries produce the female hormones – estrogen and progesterone. They also naturally produce androgens (male hormones) in small quantities. High levels of androgens are involved in bringing about male-like characteristics, such as excess body hair and male pattern baldness. In women with PCOS, hormonal imbalance causes the ovaries to produce more than normal levels of androgen. Higher levels of androgen in women can interfere with the normal functioning of ovaries by preventing them from releasing an egg (ovulation) during each menstrual cycle, and can cause hirsutism i.e. abnormal hair growth on the body and face, which are two main signs of PCOS.

2. High levels of insulin
Insulin is another hormone produced by the body that helps move glucose (or sugar) from the bloodstream and into the cells to use it as a source of energy. When cells stop responding to insulin, it is called insulin resistance, and it leads to high levels of glucose in your blood. To compensate for the increasing blood glucose, the body produces even more insulin to help clear out the excess glucose. As a result, your insulin levels become higher than normal. This causes weight gain and diabetes. High levels of insulin can also increase androgen production, which can then cause other symptoms of PCOS such as hirsutism and acne. Insulin resistance is also linked to the development of dark, velvety patches of skin near the neck and underarms, a condition known as acanthosis nigricans.

3. Genetics
Some studies suggest that PCOS may have a genetic component — so if you have a mother or sister with this condition, you may be at increased risk of developing PCOS. However, research is still inconclusive in determining the exact genes or mutations involved.

4. Lifestyle factors
Weight loss is often the first line of treatment in managing the symptoms of PCOS. Researchers are still studying the relationship between obesity and PCOS and it is not yet clear if being overweight causes PCOS or is a result of having PCOS. But it is also important to keep in mind that not all women who are overweight or obese develop PCOS — women with normal weight can also develop PCOS. Often lifestyle factors such as being sedentary and following unhealthy eating habits can lead to insulin resistance and raise your risk of developing PCOS.

What are the symptoms of PCOS?

While symptoms can vary in severity, here are some common symptoms of PCOS that you should look out for:

1. Irregular, absent or heavy periods: Having a menstrual cycle with a gap of more than 35 days between your periods, or having multiple period cycles in a single month, indicates irregular periods Some women may also experience amenorrhoea (no periods) for several months or even experience heavy bleeding.

2. Weight gain: If you have experienced sudden weight gain or if you find it difficult to lose weight, you may have PCOS. Women with PCOS tend to have higher levels of insulin that can cause weight gain especially in the abdominal area and also make it difficult to lose weight.

3. Hirsutism: Excess and abnormal growth of hair on your face and body.

4. Acne: You may experience oily skin and acne on the face, chest and back as a result of excess production of androgens.

5. Hair thinning: While it is not uncommon to lose some hair everyday, increased levels of androgens can exhibit male-like pattern baldness or hair thinning.

6. Skin darkening: High levels of insulin can result in a condition called acanthosis nigricans — which is seen as darkened patches of skin usually around neck creases, armpits or groin.

7. Mood disorders: Not just your physical health, PCOS can impact your mental health as well. Coping with infertility issues, acne, weight gain and hirsutism can impact your self-esteem and body image. Mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are common in women with PCOS.

If you experience any of the above symptoms, it is best to visit a doctor to get a proper diagnosis. While these symptoms don’t necessarily mean you have PCOS, they could also be underlying symptoms of other conditions. Early detection and treatment can make a huge difference in managing your PCOS and maintaining your overall health.

Disclaimer: Content on Veera is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice, or as a substitute for medical advice given by a physician

Reviewed by

Dr. Iris Lee

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