According to a November 2018 study by Monash University, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormone problem among women in the fertile age group, affecting six to 21 per cent of women.
“It’s also known as Syndrome X and Metabolic Syndrome,” reveals Dr. Raewyn Teirney, Australia’s leading fertility specialist and gynaecologist. “It’s characterised by increased male hormones in the bloodstream, skin problems and the ovaries developing tiny cysts – the result of immature follicles that did not grow and release an egg.”
“Symptoms include irregular periods, acne, scalp hair thinning (AKA alopecia), increased hair on the face and body, pigmentation of the skin around the neck, skin tags, difficulty losing weight and difficulty falling pregnant.”
It can be a hindrance to conception, due to infrequent release of eggs, but it’s not impossible to have a baby if you have PCOS, advises Dr Raewyn.
“Most women with PCOS actually do conceive naturally.”
10 valuable things to know about PCOS
1. Approximately one in 10 women of childbearing age have it
Don’t feel like you’re alone – it’s a common condition that can affect your fertility, as well as your metabolism and overall health and appearance. “While there is no cure, we can treat the symptoms,” says Dr. Teirney, “and women shouldn’t let feelings of the unknown frighten or overwhelm them.”
Speak to your GP and get a referral to a highly reputable gynaecologist, who can discuss your options in terms of medication and lifestyle options such as weight management and diet.
2. It’s Thought To Be a Survival Mechanism
This harks back to the old feast/famine theories of the pre-historic era where in times of starvation, women lost a lot of weight and stopped ovulating. “And of course, if you aren’t ovulating you can’t procreate,” explains Dr. Teirney.
“However, PCOS women tend to start ovulating when they lose weight. Therefore, in times of starvation, PCOS women are the ones who are thought to be able to continue conceiving, while other women may stop ovulating.”
“So, we theorise that PCOS is an ancient disorder associated with the survival of the human species, which means you’re very special. I tell all my PCOS ladies that they are fertility goddesses and they are important for the survival or the human race.”
3. It Is Associated With Weight
Typically, women with PCOS struggle to maintain a healthy weight while at the same time, women who gain weight can experience PCOS.
“Weight gain or being overweight is one of the symptoms that leads to its diagnosis,” says Dr Raewyn.
“The condition makes it difficult for the body to use the hormone insulin, which can cause sugar build up in the bloodstream and make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.”
4. But You Can Manage Weight if You Have PCOS
All is not lost. You can control your weight if you have PCOS and Dr. Raewyn suggests that a healthy, low fat and low sugar diet, regular exercise and moderate or very low intake of alcohol is a great way to start.
“Changing carbohydrate intake from refined, high carbs, to low GI complex carbohydrates is advisable.”
5. Thin women can also have PCOS
It’s thought that up to 20% of women with PCOS are quite lean and they in themselves face unique challenges. “As the condition is so frequently associated with obesity, diagnosis time is often longer for leaner women,” explains Dr. Teirney.
“If you think you may have it, signs to look for include irregular periods, acne, increased hair growth on the face and different parts of the body like the abdomen. Skin tags and pigmentation around the neck are also common symptoms.”
6. You Don’t Always Know You Have It
One of the reasons PCOS is so hard to self-diagnose is that there are frequently no symptoms, such as pain, says Dr. Raewyn.
“If concerned or you display any of the symptoms above, see your doctor who can run specific PCOS blood tests (testing for male hormone levels) and a pelvic scan looking at your ovaries for 20 or more follicles, which may indicate PCOS.”
“We look for two out of three indicators. One is a pelvic ultrasound showing 20 or more follicles in one ovary. Another is a blood test confirming raised male hormones or you show signs of raised male hormones such as excess body and facial hair and acne. The last criteria is infrequent or no periods suggesting lack of ovulation. When two out of these three criteria are present, we diagnose PCOS.”
7. It Can Affect Fertility But It Won’t Stop You having Kids
“We know that pre-conception care such as fertility tracking, following a healthy diet, getting the right pre-conception vitamins and implementing stress management techniques, can all contribute to improving chances of conception and enjoying a healthy pregnancy,” says Dr. Raewyn.
8. It May Increase Risk of Miscarriage
“Once you are pregnant, be aware that there may be a very slight increase in your risk of possible pregnancy complications, which can include gestational diabetes and miscarriage, so be sure to follow these tips and have regular check-ups with your doctor and/or obstetrician,” advises Dr. Raewyn.
“We don’t really know why, but we think it is linked to increased weight, which is why it is so important to maintain a healthy weight.”
9. A PCOS Management Plan Can Help
“PCOS related problems, especially infertility, may be changed with careful planning and chances of conceiving can be greatly improved,” reveals Dr. Raewyn.
“By applying certain steps, you may boost your chances of becoming pregnant.”
10. Follow this checklist:
- Check your Lifestyle
“The healthier you are, the better your chances of conceiving,” says Dr. Raewyn.
“The best start to a pregnancy is a healthy mother. Are you overweight? Weight loss studies show you only have to lose 5 to 10% of weight to begin ovulating again.”
“Are you eating enough antioxidants and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables? Are you exercising? Do you get enough good quality sleep? Do you smoke? If so, stop as it directly impacts reproductive health.”
“How much alcohol do you drink? If more than two drinks a day, I would suggest cutting back immediately. Each of these things will contribute either positively or negatively to your health, including your reproductive health, and impact your chances of conceiving.”
- Start Taking Folate
Folate is a vitamin all women who are trying to conceive should be taking on a daily basis.
“Ideally, you should begin taking this three months prior to trying to conceive and continue into your pregnancy,” advises Dr. Raewyn.
“This important vitamin helps to prevent spinal and brain problems, such as spina bifida in babies. It’s available in any pharmacy.”
- Check any medication you might be taking
The only drugs you should be talking are those prescribed for you by your doctor or approved over the counter medications as indicated by your doctor. Discuss these with your doctor and let him know you are trying to have a baby in case there may be any contraindications to a healthy pregnancy. At the same time, mention any herbal remedies you use as some can interact or effect the action of other medications.’
“Recreational and/or illicit drugs are toxic to both male and female reproductive organs, affecting both proper sperm and egg development and production,” says Dr. Teirney.
“They are also harmful to a developing baby and should be avoided at all costs.”
- Check your Stress Levels
Take time out to relax – go for a long walk, meditate, read your favourite book or just shut yourself off from the world for a while. We too often forget that we are as important as everyone else. Of course, it is important to look after loved ones but be sure to always put yourself and your health needs first, as you can’t pour from an empty jug.
If you have been trying for more than 12 months or you are over the age of 35 and been trying for six months without success, then you really need to seek medical help.
PLEASE NOTE: The Healthy Mummy is not a medical expert and although we consulted a medical professional and fertility expert to create this blog we would advise that any couple trying to conceive should consult their GP to discuss options that are appropriate to their personal needs.
This article was created with the help of Dr Raewyn Teirney who is one of the world’s leading fertility specialists. Through her career, she has helped over 4,000 couples realise their dream of becoming a family or expanding their family unit.
She specialises in both female and male reproductive medical issues and is a wealth of knowledge on many topics, including female and male infertility and Secondary Infertility, fertility preservation in oncology, ovulation disorders, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (POS), IUI Treatment (intra-uterine treatment), in vitro fertilisation: IVF, endometriosis, miscarriage and laparoscopic surgery.