PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) can be difficult to diagnose as not every woman has the same symptoms. What’s more, there are a host of conditions that result in similar symptoms, so it’s not always obvious when PCOS is the root cause.
Although there’s no single test that can diagnose PCOS, a combination of ultrasounds, blood tests, blood pressure checks and physical examinations rule out other possible causes. Hormone tests also determine whether excess hormone production (i.e. high androgen levels) is caused by PCOS or another hormone-related condition.
A PCOS diagnosis can usually be made if other conditions with similar symptoms have been ruled out and women meet at least 2 of the 3 following criteria.
Please note that this blog post is not a substitute for official medical advice. If you are concerned about your symptoms, suspect you have an underlying health condition, or wish to make dietary/lifestyle changes, please consult your doctor first.
How Can PCOS Be Detected
You have an irregular period if the length of your menstrual cycle (the time between your periods starting) keeps changing.
A typical menstrual cycle lasts 28 days, although an average cycle can last a little shorter or longer than this (anything between 21 – 35 days is considered normal).
Many women with PCOS have irregular periods, or no periods at all because the ovaries aren’t getting the right hormonal signals from the pituitary gland. As a result, abnormal levels of androgens (often referred to as “male” hormones) disrupt the monthly cycle of ovulation and menstruation.
Regular periods help to prevent the thickening of the lining of the uterus. Irregular periods can lead to abnormal cells building up inside the womb. It’s important to have at least four cycles a year to prevent a build-up that may include abnormal cells.
If you have fewer than four periods a year, book an appointment with your doctor. It’s not necessarily a cause for concern, but it pays to make sure there aren’t more serious underlying problems that need addressing.
PCOS causes lots of small, harmless cysts to develop on your ovaries. These cysts are small egg follicles that don’t grow to ovulation and are caused by hormone imbalances.
Your doctor may recommend a pelvic exam, which involves a manual and visual examination of your reproductive organs to check for masses, growths or other abnormalities.
To help see the cysts on your ovaries, he or she may arrange an ultrasound scan of your pelvic area.
High levels of androgens (hypoandrogenism)
In women, androgens are produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands and fat cells. Hyperandrogenism is when androgen levels are higher than they should be. To measure your androgen levels for a PCOS diagnosis, a doctor will check your blood.
Hyperandrogenic conditions are associated with health problems such as insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Symptoms of hyperandrogenism include:
- Hirsutism (excess facial or body hair)
- Androgenic alopecia (patterned, progressive hair loss from the scalp)
- Persistent acne
- Oily skin
- Insulin resistance (when the body makes too much insulin and can’t control it properly, often a precursor to diabetes)
- High blood pressure
- Low HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) and high LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol)
- Obesity (namely, carrying more fat around the stomach region)
- Irregular or absent periods
- A deep or hoarse voice
Why is a healthy lifestyle so important for PCOS cysters?
High androgen levels are also responsible for other health risks that accompany PCOS.
Fat distribution can be an issue for women with PCOS.
Androgen levels appear to affect where fat is stored in the body, and higher levels of the hormone can lead to women carrying more fat around the stomach. Excess fat around the abdomen can be dangerous as it surrounds internal organs and also increases the risk of developing health risks, including heart disease, diabetes and liver problems.
The risk of insulin resistance is higher for PCOS cysters.
Insulin helps the body to control blood sugar levels, but insulin resistance is when cells in the muscles, fat and liver don’t respond well to insulin and can’t use glucose from your blood for energy. To compensate, the pancreas makes more insulin and over time, your blood sugar levels increase. This can also lead to obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
A healthy lifestyle is the most effective way to manage and minimize PCOS symptoms.
This includes a balanced and nutritious diet, maintaining a healthy weight relative to your age/height, and being as active as possible.
In fact, a significant percentage of women with PCOS are overweight or obese. Both research and evidence show that PCOS cysters who are overweight can experience significant improvements in symptoms when they lose a small amount of weight. Healthy and incremental weight loss can also improve menstrual regularity.
If you are looking for next steps in understanding what you can eat and how you can manage these root issues of PCOS, we have meal plans and recipes for you to choose from in The Cysterhood, designed by Tallene, a Registered Dietitian. Taking action now can help you achieve your long-term goals, from sustainable weight loss to alleviating the symptoms of PCOS.
High fiber foods can combat insulin resistance. These include:
- Chia seeds
- Dried fruits
If you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, these are the foods worth avoiding or cutting down on:
Processed foods tend to have a higher glycemic index (GI). Which is linked to insulin production and diabetes. Processed foods include biscuits, white rice, white bread, cakes, and ready meals.
There’s a hormone called IGF-I (Insulin-like growth factor), which increases androgen production in women with PCOS when they consume dairy products. Many dairy products are also high in secret sugars (e.g. flavored yogurts and ice cream), which can further exacerbate high insulin levels and weight gain issues.
Going gluten-free isn’t an option for everyone, but PCOS cysters have experienced a host of benefits if they’re able to cut down on their wheat and barley intake. Try it for 30 days and see how you feel. There’s evidence to suggest that gluten is highly inflammatory. As many people with PCOS have elevated levels of chronic inflammation, this could be having a major impact on exacerbating your symptoms.
As we know, weight gain and obesity are closely linked to PCOS. Unhealthy fats such as fast food and fatty red meats can lead to weight gain and increase estrogen levels, both of which can exacerbate PCOS symptoms.