PCOS, the causes, symptoms and how should one manage this tricky disease

If you have been having irregular periods or have suddenly been putting on weight, you might want to get yourself checked for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Worldwide, about 20% women who are in the childbearing age group suffer from PCOS, a hormonal disorder that affects their menstrual pattern and ability to have children.

PCOS is characterised by a hormonal imbalance in the female body where androgen (male hormones) levels are raised. The ovaries make more androgens than usual. High levels of these hormones affect the development and release of eggs for ovulation. Improper or absent ovulation in PCOS patients thus disrupts a woman’s menstrual cycle and leads to infertility.

“The exact cause of PCOS is unknown, but research suggests that several factors, including genetics, could play a role. Women with PCOS are more likely to have a mother or sister with PCOS,” says Dr. Rajalaxmi Walavalkar, who is a Delhi-based consultant for IVF and reproductive surgery at the Cocoon Fertility.

“The symptoms of PCOS can vary from woman to woman. Infrequent, absent, or irregular menstrual periods are common. Women with PCOS generally tend to put on extra weight. Weight gain and acne occur due to increased male hormone (testosterone) produced by the ovaries. Hirsutism which is increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach or back occurs because of the same reason,” explains Dr. Walavalkar.

Obesity and infertility aside, women with PCOS are also at an increased risk of diabetes mellitus, depression, hypertension and heart disease.

But how does one manage or avoid PCOS?

PCOS is largely a lifestyle related disease and needs to be tackled by making healthy lifestyle changes which includes healthy eating habits, regular exercise and maintaining a stress-free environment.

Weight loss: Many women with PCOS are overweight or obese, which can cause long term health problems such as metabolic syndrome, sleep apnea etc. Weight loss helps in reducing insulin resistance, which in turn helps with ovulation process. Losing 10% of your body fat could be enough to improve symptoms. However, weight loss with PCOS is extra challenging. You can help manage your PCOS by eating healthy and exercising regularly to keep your weight in check.

Supportive medications: “PCOS leads to insulin resistance and hence is treated with metformin. Metformin affects the way insulin controls blood glucose and lowers testosterone production. It slows the growth of abnormal hair and, after a few months of use, may help ovulation to return,” says Dr Anagha Karkhanis, an IVF specialist based in Delhi.

Healthy eating and hydration: It is important to eat low carb snacks/foods throughout the day and never skip a meal. Limit binge eating. It also helps to maintain hydration levels well and therefore drink more water.

Regular exercise: “Exercise helps lower insulin levels and regulates the fat burning hormones (gherlin and leptin) in the body. Interval training and aerobic exercises are beneficial for PCOS patients,” advises Dr Anagha.

Remaining stress-free: Stress may worsen symptoms of PCOS. It is therefore important to remain stress-free. Behavioural training and change in attitudes can remarkably decrease stress levels. Yoga and meditation can also help.

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