Many women suffer from medical conditions that could affect female fertility levels and don’t even realize it. According to UCLA health statistics, 15% of couples have an increased risk of infertility. This percentage is not small, but it does not mean that nothing can be done about it.
In this series, we’ll be discussing medical conditions that impact female infertility and how to spot female infertility symptoms as well as what to do about them. One of the most common medical conditions that impact infertility in women is PCOS.
What is PCOS?
PCOS, an abbreviation for polycystic ovary syndrome, is a medical condition that affects a woman’s hormones causing imbalances that could possibly affect fertility. PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries – the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone – which are needed to regulate the menstrual cycle.
Simply explained, polycystic ovaries occur when the ovaries develop a large number of follicles (collection of fluid) which prevent the eggs from being released. This means that ovulation fails to happen, making it difficult for a woman to conceive.
Symptoms of PCOS
There are many women who have PCOS with very mild symptoms or are unaware that these symptoms are caused by PCOS. If you have two of the following symptoms, then the probability that you suffer from PCOS is quite high:
Irregular or missed periods
If you ever miss a period entirely or your cycle prolongs for more than 35 days, this is a strong sign that PCOS is affecting your menstrual cycle. If your period is abnormally heavy or extremely light, it can also be a sign that PCOS is interfering with your menstrual cycle.
Excess facial and body hair
Another common symptom of PCOS that is easy to recognize is having excess facial and body hair, severe acne, or even male-pattern baldness. These symptoms are caused as a result of an excess of the male hormone androgen.
Cysts in the ovaries
When your ovaries contain cyst-like follicles that surround the eggs, it prevents the eggs from being released and results in a malfunction in the ovaries.
Other symptoms of PCOS include:
- Light/heavy periods
- Weight gain specifically an increase in belly fat
- Hair thinning or male-pattern baldness
- Excess skin on the neck or armpits
- Dark or thick skin under the breasts, on the back of the neck, as well as in the armpits
- Pelvic pain or intolerable menstrual cramps
- Mood swings
Causes of PCOS
The exact causes behind PCOS are still unknown. However, there are a few factors that increase the risk of PCOS in women:
If someone in your family has PCOS, you’re more likely to be at risk.
When cells have insulin resistance, they are unable to help the body use sugar from foods for energy. This results in the pancreas making more insulin which triggers the ovaries to produce more male hormones.
When the body has excess inflammation, it produces high levels of androgen to fight it.
PCOS and pregnancy
Because PCOS affects the menstrual cycle and sometimes interrupts ovulation, it can cause fertility problems in women that make it harder to get pregnant. In fact, between 70-80% of women with PCOS have difficulties getting pregnant. However, that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get pregnant.
While PCOS is a chronic disease that cannot be entirely cured, the symptoms can be managed to help balance the hormones. This can allow women with PCOS to get pregnant. With lifestyle changes as well as other medical treatments that help regulate the menstrual cycle and improve ovulation, women with PCOS could get pregnant.
Living with PCOS:
Lifestyle changes that improve PCOS symptoms:
The symptoms of PCOS can improve with lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, weight loss, and physical activity. In fact, losing 5-10% of body weight can improve PCOS symptoms as well as improve cholesterol levels, lower insulin, and reduce risks of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Following a low-carb diet
For people with PCOS, it is best to follow a low-carb diet to reduce insulin levels as well as lose weight and keep it off. A diet that gets its carbohydrates from healthy carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains has a low glycemic index. This can help regulate periods a lot better than any other diet that can aid in weight loss.
Exercise isn’t just beneficial for a person’s physical and mental health, but it can also help improve PCOS symptoms and aid with weight loss. Exercise also reduces the risks of developing type 2 diabetes as well as heart disease, which are high-risk factors for women with PCOS.
Exercises at least 3 days a week for around 30 minutes to aid in weight loss and improve ovulation and insulin levels. However, exercise is most effective when supported with a healthy diet.
Medical treatment for PCOS symptoms
There are several treatment options for women with PCOS. While lifestyle changes can be effective, the intensity of the symptoms and PCOS complications may require medical intervention. These include:
Birth control contains the hormone progestin which when taken daily for women with PCOS can:
- Help restore a normal hormone balance
- Regulate and improve ovulation
- Reduce symptoms of excess hair growth and acne
This drug which is used to treat type 2 diabetes can help improve insulin levels in PCOS, too. If your insulin resistance is high, Metformin combined with lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can not only lead to weight loss but also reduce blood sugar levels and regulate your menstrual cycle.
If PCOS affects your fertility and you’re struggling to get pregnant, your doctor may prescribe Clomiphene which is a fertility drug that can facilitate pregnancy for women with PCOS. Keep in mind that this medication increases the probability of having twins.
Hair removal treatments
As excess body and facial hair is one of the common symptoms of PCOS, hair removal medications such as Eflornithine cream can be prescribed to reduce the growth of hair. Other treatments also include laser hair removal and electrolysis which help get rid of hair on the face and body.
If other treatments don’t work, surgery can be an option to improve fertility in women with PCOS. A surgery known as ovarian drilling uses laser or heated needles to help improve ovulation and regulate the menstrual cycle.
Sources used in this article:
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) – Mayo Clinic
- Polycystic ovary syndrome – NHS
- Polycystic Ovary Symptoms: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments and More
- Polycystic ovary syndrome – Johns Hopskin Medicine