Women have enough to worry about regarding their routine reproductive health—from painful periods to childbirth to menopause. But chronic conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) go beyond discomfort and pose serious concern. Thankfully, you can protect yourself from the serious complications of PCOS with knowing and acting on a number of facts.
1. First things first: What is PCOS?
PCOS is chronic condition that only exists during a woman’s active reproductive years, when ovaries are functioning.
“Symptoms of PCOS commonly emerge in women in their mid-20s to early 30s, primarily because there’s enough reproductive time for the symptoms to appear,” said Dr. Larisa Gavrilova-Jordan, a reproductive endocrinologist and infertility specialist at Augusta University Reproductive Medicine and Infertility Associates.
The condition causes a number of things to happen, which are as follows:
- Hormone imbalances between estrogen and progesterone make the ovaries unable to release eggs (called anovulation), which leads to irregular menstrual bleeding.
- Estrogen, a hormone that stimulates growth of the lining of the uterus, is elevated.
- There’s no progesterone, a hormone that restricts estrogen production, so the lining continues to grow.
- The absence of a period, which is the shedding of the lining of the uterus, leads to build-up, causing unpredictable breakthrough heavy bleeding and unrestricted growth of the lining. This may cause a precancerous condition called hyperplasia and sometimes endometrial cancer.
2. PCOS carries complications
A number of complications can result from having PCOS, ranging from mild to severe.
Mild complications include the following:
- Irregular or absent periods
Severe complications include the following:
- Cancer, specifically endometrial cancer
“People seem to think that obesity and acne are the problem,” Gavrilova-Jordan said. “The real problem is anovulation and endometrial cancer risk. It’s like a snowball effect.”
To Gavrilova-Jordan, who is starting to see more severe, longer-untreated, pre-cancerous conditions, endometrial cancer is the most devastating complication of all—not only because it leads to loss of uterus and can be life-threatening but “because it’s preventable,” she emphasized.
3. Lifestyle matters
Lifestyle plays a major role in PCOS. Exercising food portion control and eating three meal a day are simple yet commonly omitted weight-management strategies. In patients with PCOS, these strategies can significantly minimize or reverse many PCOS symptoms.
“The most common and potentially harmful mistake people with PCOS make is skipping meals,” Gavrilova-Jordan said. “Patients commonly admit that skipping meals might contribute to weight loss. In reality, they’re putting their metabolism in starvation mode and spiking their insulin levels when they finally get to eat, packing all calories into the fat the abdomen and liver.”
Gavrilova-Jordan said this is harmful, because PCOS is driven by high levels of insulin and poor eating habits.
4. Act fast—early detection and intervention can help
Like all other chronic conditions, early detection and intervention is key. With PCOS, there isn’t a cure, but it’s a highly manageable condition. If left untreated, however, complications can worsen and become serious.
“The earlier a diagnosis is made and active management is initiated, the least likely women are to have severe symptoms and complications,” Gavrilova-Jordan said.
5. Know your stuff
“I recommend to my patients that they learn about their condition and remain active in its management,” Gavrilova-Jordan said. “I point them to various resources that can help, because the better they can understand PCOS, the better they can manage it and prevent most of the symptoms and devastating complications such as endometrial cancer.”