Originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard. Have you ever heard of polycystic ovarian syndrome? It affects as many as one in 10 women in their reproductive years and can mean you have an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Yet, if you’re not familiar with it, you’re not alone.
PCOS goes undiagnosed because many health-care people have an outdated understanding of it. We used to think it was a condition that affected only overweight women, and that the way to diagnose it was by detecting multiple cysts on a woman’s ovaries using ultrasound.
We now know that PCOS affects both thin and overweight women, and that a woman with PCOS might have ovarian cysts, but she also might not.
I believe that detecting PCOS is important because the health of a woman’s menstrual cycle is a gauge for her overall health. It also has a major impact on fertility.
What defines PCOS is a triad of things: elevated insulin (a hormone controlling blood sugar), elevated androgens (male sex hormones) and irregular or absent periods.
The so-called cysts, by the way, are actually follicles, where egg cells were developing, in preparation for ovulation. Normally, the follicle bursts and releases the egg cell. In PCOS, ovulation doesn’t always occur, so the follicles linger around for an inappropriately long time. Sometimes they dissolve, but sometimes do eventually burst and cause a lot of pain.
Here are five ways to detect if you might be affected by PCOS.
Irregular periods: Do your periods vary in length? PCOS can cause anything from mild variations of a few days to complete cessation of periods. If you’re periods are consistent in length, but longer than 35 days, you may also have PCOS.
Acne — The increased male sex hormones present in PCOS can cause acne on the face, back or chest. Oily skin or hair can also be signs.
Mannish hair-growth/loss — Again, those increased male sex hormones also cause male hair patterns — darker or more hair on the face, chest and “treasure trail” area (lower abdomen), and thinning at the crown of the head.
Mid-section weight gain — High levels of insulin can cause a build-up of fat around the waist.
Off-the-charts sugar cravings — If you feel ravenously hungry, shaky and hot when you haven’t eaten in a few hours, you are suffering from a condition called functional hypoglycemia. Your body is used to having a lot of sugar handy, and a large drop in blood sugar has sent it into panic mode. This condition is related to elevated levels of insulin.
PCOS should not be diagnosed by ultrasound. It should be diagnosed by monitoring menstrual cycle patterns and analyzing symptoms. Blood tests for insulin and testosterone can act as supporting evidence.
The conventional treatments for PCOS are birth control pills and diabetes medications. Hormones may also be given to women seeking pregnancy.
Naturopathic doctors prefer to restore the body’s own ability to regulate its hormones. This requires a change in diet. Increasing exercise and managing stress effectively may be necessary, too. There are also a whole heap of supplements, herbs and acupuncture protocols that can create a swifter return to normal.
If you think you may be affected by PCOS, there are lots of resources to turn to. The best thing you can do is to start tracking the patterns in your basal body temperature. This is described in detail in an excellent book called Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. There are also excellent apps for your computer, phone or tablet that allow you to enter in your basal body temperature each day and, given enough months of use, can actually predict when you will ovulate. Ovuview is a free example.
If that sounds like information overload, I recommend seeking out the advise of your doctor or naturopath. With enough time and commitment, PCOS is completely reversible.