PCOS – The basics you need to know – As one of the most common causes of fertility issues in the UK, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) isn’t talked about enough. The condition affects up to 10% of women and yet many of us have never heard of it or know what symptoms to look out for.
This Polycystic Awareness Month, Nuffield Health’s GP National Lead, Dr Unnati Desai, explains everything you need to know about what PCOS is, what the symptoms are, and how you can manage it.
What is PCOS?
PCOS is a multisystem condition affecting the ovaries, certain metabolic functions, or the skin, and affects women in their childbearing years. The exact cause remains unclear, but it is a condition which is associated with increased risks of other health concerns developing in the women that are affected such as diabetes, stroke, fertility difficulty, sleep apnoea and cancer of the womb and it is estimated that up to 10% of women in the UK have the condition.
It is a condition which is diagnosed following investigations and exclusion of other specific conditions. An accepted criterion requires the presence of at least two out of three of the following:
Infrequent periods (less than 9 periods a year), or no periods
High levels of androgens (testosterone) in a blood test or symptoms that suggest higher androgen levels such as excess hair growth on the face or body, loss of hair from the scalp, acne
Multiple cysts on the ovaries (more than 12 cysts on one ovary) on an ultrasound scan
Symptoms often start in the years after puberty into the early 20s. However, women may not be diagnosed with the condition until they present to their doctor with menstrual irregularities, difficulty getting pregnant, acne or excessive hair growth or loss in the areas that men tend to be affected.
What are the symptoms?
Many women may have very mild symptoms, so much so that they don’t realise they have the condition until they present with difficulty conceiving.
However, there are still many women who do have symptoms. Those women will have some or all the symptoms listed below, to different degrees of intensity, depending on the individual. These symptoms include:
Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS, but there are ways to improve symptoms, increase the chances of getting pregnant and decrease your risk of other health concerns developing.
One of the most recommended routes is living a healthy lifestyle. Maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet, not smoking, decreasing your alcohol intake, and doing regular exercise will reduce your overall risk of long-term health concerns.
It is common for women with PCOS to gain weight quickly and find it harder to lose, however, there are some dietary changes and adjustments which can help for example, following a low glycaemic index (GI) diet.
The Low GI diet follows the same principles as the Mediterranean diet, concentrating on whole grains, low-fat meats, fruits, vegetables, beans, and healthy fats, such as nuts, olive oil and avocados. All these foods contain essential nutrients needed to fight the effects of PCOS, such as magnesium to balance insulin resistance and essential fatty acids which can help rebalance hormones and help with fertility.
It is also important to choose good quality, lean meat as grass-fed livestock are less likely to have been fed genetically modified food and contains fewer hormones, all things which make POCIS harder to manage.
It is recommended that those with PCOS do a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day, five days a week, which should be a combination of cardio and strength training.
Bodyweight workouts such as Pilates and yoga can also improve the function of insulin within the body.
Clinical regional fitness lead, Olivia Tyler said: “Daily activity is important in glycaemic control and vigorous aerobic exercise can help to also increase insulin sensitivity. Adding in some resistance training per week will also help as this increases metabolic activity which also improves insulin sensitivity.
“It’s important to maintain a healthy weight which can be done by keeping a good balance of energy expenditure vs energy intake – essentially making sure that more energy is going out than is coming in.
“Regular activity and pre-preparing good meals for the week can help to manage weight gain and ensure that you are getting in good nutrition and eating enough to avoid excessive snacking.”
If you are concerned that you have PCOS, please visit your GP for more advice, or you can book a Female Health Assessment with Nuffield Health to discuss your female healthcare concerns.