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How Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Affects Hormone Levels

Friday 16 April 2021
Dr..Jubil Tom

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Jubil Tom, MD

on 14 June 2021

Table of Contents

I. What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

II. Signs and Symptoms of PCOS

III. Causes and Complications

IV. Diagnosing PCOS

V. Treatment Options

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a common condition among women of reproductive age. It is a hormonal disorder that can cause a decrease or increase in the frequency of a woman’s menstrual period. PCOS may also cause the female body to produce excessive amounts of the male hormone androgen. As a result, the ovaries may fail to regularly release eggs, leading to long-term complications with fertility and diseases like diabetes and heart failure. [1]

Many causes can contribute to PCOS, although the exact cause is usually unknown. Due to the potential health complications of PCOS, early diagnosis and treatment are important. Your doctor can determine how to treat polycystic ovary syndrome based on your health history, underlying conditions, and lifestyle habits. At your appointment, you may hear drug names like Clomid (clomiphene), Femara (letrozole), or Aldactone (spironolactone). But what is Clomid? Or Femara and Aldactone? These are common PCOS medications that may be prescribed to stimulate the ovaries, treat infertility, or block androgens. Read on to learn more about PCOS symptoms, complications, and treatment options. 

a woman with a headache

Signs and Symptoms of PCOS

The main sign of polycystic ovary syndrome is a disrupted menstrual cycle (irregular menstrual cycles). This typically includes either fewer periods or more frequent periods. It is more common for women with PCOS to experience fewer periods because a lack of ovulation means that the uterine lining does not need to shed monthly. However, this can cause the uterine lining to build up for longer periods, so periods may be heavier than normal when they do occur. [2] 

Because PCOS can cause increased production of the male hormone androgen, acne may break occur. Oilier than usual skin on the face, chest, and upper back are signs that you may have excess androgen. Hirsutism may also occur as a sign of PCOS. Hirsutism refers to accelerated hair growth. More than 70 percent of women with PCOS experience excess hair growth on their face, back, belly, and chest. [2]

Polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms may also include weight gain and male-pattern baldness. In women who have PCOS, 80 percent are overweight or obese. [3] Male-pattern baldness involves thinning hair that falls out. Alongside these symptoms, you may also notice dark patches on the skin, especially in body creases like the neck, under the breasts, and in the groin. Headaches may also become more prevalent. [2]

a pregnant woman

Causes and Complications 

As mentioned above, doctors do not currently know the exact cause of PCOS. But excess insulin, low-grade inflammation, genetics, and high androgen levels may contribute to this condition. Excess insulin can cause increased androgen production, and so can low-grade inflammation. PCOS may also be heredity. Research suggests that there may be certain PCOS-related genes. [1]

The most immediate risk for women with PCOS is infertility. The cysts that PCOS causes can disrupt ovulation and prevent the release and fertilization of the egg, preventing pregnancy. A fertility specialist might have a chance of helping to overcome this complication. [4]

Because PCOS is commonly accompanied by obesity and insulin resistance, it can have the same long-term complications as diabetes. Insulin resistance prevents the cells in your body from absorbing blood sugar efficiently. This can have negative health implications, including cardiovascular and nervous system diseases down the line. [4]

PCOS may also lead to metabolic syndrome, characterized by a series of symptoms that increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. PCOS may also cause psychological complications like depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. For a full list of possible PCOS complications, consult your doctor. [4]

Diagnosing PCOS

There are three types of tests available to detect PCOS, although no single test can definitively tell if you have PCOS or not. Your doctor will likely begin the diagnosis process by discussing your medical history and any recent changes in your menstrual period frequency. Your doctor may also check for hair growth, acne, and insulin resistance. The three PCOS tests are: 

  • Pelvic exam: This test uses manual inspection to check for abnormal growths or masses in your reproductive organs.
  • Blood test: This test analyzes the hormone levels in your blood and checks for excess androgen.
  • Ultrasound: This method examines the ovaries and the lining of the uterus. 

a doctor examining lab tests

Along with these tests, your doctor will likely utilize periodic blood pressure and cholesterol checks to minimize the risk of complications. You may also be screened for depression, anxiety, and obstructive sleep apnea. [5]

Treatment Options 

Because there is no cure, treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome will largely depend on the goals you wish to achieve. If your goal is to conceive, your treatment plan will focus on ways to overcome your difficulty of getting pregnant. If your goal is to relieve acne, hair growth, or other PCOS symptoms, your treatment plan will be tailored accordingly. No matter the case, a healthy diet and regular exercise can strengthen the immune system, help you reach an optimal weight, and improve symptoms of PCOS. Losing weight can make your periods more regular, as well as help to maintain blood sugar levels. [6]

Clomid (clomiphene) may be prescribed to treat PCOS-related infertility. Clomiphene is an oral medication that can stimulate your body to produce more estrogen and FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone), encouraging egg follicle production during ovulation. Femara (letrozole) may be used to minimize hormone fluctuation in the case your body is producing too much estrogen. Aldactone (spironolactone) may be prescribed to prevent the risk of heart failure or high blood pressure associated with PCOS. Discuss your goals about PCOS treatment with your doctor today. 

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