You May Have PCOS…
and Don’t Even Know It.
When I was around 6 or 7 years old, I started changing.
I gradually went from a happy, slim and active child, to a cranky, overweight, inactive child. Within a year, I had gained around 80 lbs. With time, I also developed other symptoms such as wiry, curly hair, darkened inner thighs and joints, skin tags, early puberty, and amenorrhea — the infrequency or absence of the menstrual period, etc.
My symptoms got attributed to many things: kids these days are lazy, they don’t like brushing their hair or scrubbing themselves properly at bath time, they are moody, etc. Others I kept secret: I quite enjoyed not having a period. But things came to a halt when by 15 years of age I had virtually no energy or motivation to do anything, and had developed suicidal tendencies. It took a family member who had recently entered the medical field to notice that there was something wrong with me. So after much lab work, and specialists, I was diagnosed with two health conditions: Severe Hypothyroidism and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (also known as PCOS, and Stein-Leventhal Syndrome.)
These two conditions may present some similar symptoms, often indistinguishable from one another, but PCOS is a reproductive condition that occurs in women, and may occur at any moment of their reproductive lives. It is both the most common reproductive disorder in women, and one of the least understood. It is not known what causes it, exactly, but there are suspected genetic markers.
PCOS is a hormonal imbalance which is suspected to be brought on by an excessive amount of insulin present in the bloodstream. (In some circumstances, it might be triggered by excessive weight, or by the excessive injection of exogenous insulin, along with already present insulin resistance.) This excessive amount often causes ovaries to fail at releasing eggs at ovulation, which then become stuck to ovary walls, and become inflamed sacs of fluid. With the accumulation of these fluid sacs, ovaries become enlarged and begin to produce excessive amounts of androgens, or male hormones. The body’s tissues and cells also become resistant to insulin, creating a vicious cycle of insulin overproduction which may lead to rapid weight gain, metabolic syndrome, depression, infertility, and increased likelihood of developing cardiovascular issues, cancers, type 2 diabetes, etc.
Many of the daily symptoms of living with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome are simply the unpleasant ones: male pattern baldness, dry, wiry hair, acne, weight gain, darkened patches of skin around the neck or joints, skin tags, hirsutism (or excessive facial hair), etc. No two women need to have the exact same symptoms, and some will never gain weight, for example – however most women will have at least 2 of these:
- Excessive male hormone production;
- Irregular menstrual periods; or
- 12 or more ‘follicles’ or cysts (fluid filled sacs) around their ovaries.
The most common complaint with the condition is that it makes it very challenging to lose weight and to conceive. In fact, most women will be diagnosed when they are actively trying to either lose weight, or to conceive with their partners. While PCOS has no cure, there are a variety of ways in which to treat the condition, ranging from making dietary changes (as in diabetes, limiting the excessive consumption of carbohydrates, especially of sugars and refined fours) and activity changes, to considering hormonal therapy, or various surgical interventions for those trying to conceive. The younger the age at which one tries to conceive, the better.
By far, some of PCOS’s most aggravating challenges are psychological: Personally, it is a rather painful thing for me to see my balding spot in the mirror, to see my damaged inner thighs, or to have to deal with hair removal from my face – especially since it has become rather thick and obvious… or to suffer setbacks in weight loss, if I struggle with my eating habits. These challenges often contribute to depression in women, especially when solutions don’t come easily, or without good expense. Medical insurance plans will not cover cosmetic fixes, never mind how much they might affect the mental health of the patient. Other treatments such as birth control pills, or anti-androgen medications, which help burn off excessive cysts and preserve the ovaries over the long term, might be denied to a patient due to an employer’s religious concerns. These might be very real problems to a woman living with PCOS, without counting the more serious health implications. Still, more common medications such as Metformin may be used to control and treat PCOS, especially when in conjunction with anti-androgens.
If you, or a loved one, are struggling with many of these symptoms, you are not alone. But it is important to visit one’s medical team, and see an endocrinologist, or gynecologist of one’s choice. They can test appropriately in order to rule out the condition from others, and help begin the path to relief.