Home Health Understanding Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Unraveling Irregular Periods, Infertility, and Excessive Hair Growth

Understanding Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Unraveling Irregular Periods, Infertility, and Excessive Hair Growth

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When Nur, who prefers to go by her first name only, began menstruating at the age of 10, she didn’t realize that irregular periods were not typical. Her menstrual cycle varied significantly, lasting anywhere from 15 to 25 days, with occasional months-long gaps between periods. While her peers experienced monthly cycles lasting about a week, Nur dismissed her concerns about her irregularity.

However, at the age of 21, Nur faced her longest stretch without a period: eight months. Feeling exhausted and concerned about her health, she sought medical advice and was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) within a week.

The revelation was overwhelming for Nur, who had never heard of PCOS before. “It was a lot to take in at 21,” she said. “I wish I had been more informed about the condition and its prevalence to alleviate my fears.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated eight to 13 percent of women of reproductive age are affected by PCOS. This hormonal condition, explained Dr. Anupriya Agarwal, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, impacts a woman’s menstrual cycle, fertility, and appearance due to the presence of numerous small cysts in the ovaries.

Dr. Veronique Viardot-Foucault, director and senior consultant of clinical endocrinology at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), described PCOS as “multi-factorial and complex,” with unclear exact causes, though it often runs in families. Lifestyle factors like lack of exercise and overeating also play a role.

PCOS disrupts the body’s ability to use insulin efficiently, leading to higher insulin levels and increased production of male hormones called androgens, which cause hormonal imbalances. Symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, difficulty conceiving, excessive hair growth, hair loss, oily skin, acne, weight gain, and mood disorders.

To diagnose PCOS, a gynecologist assesses a woman’s medical history, performs a physical examination, conducts blood tests, and may use ultrasound imaging. PCOS diagnosis requires meeting at least two of three criteria: irregular periods, increased facial or body hair, and presence of ovarian cysts.

Women with PCOS face an elevated risk of developing medical issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, uterine cancer, and mood disorders. Early diagnosis is crucial to managing symptoms and preventing complications, emphasized Dr. Viardot-Foucault and Dr. Agarwal.

While PCOS cannot be cured, it can be managed through lifestyle changes and medical treatment. Lifestyle modifications like diet and exercise play a significant role in symptom control. A balanced diet rich in fiber and lean protein, along with regular physical activity, can alleviate symptoms and improve overall health.

Studies show that losing five to 10 percent of body weight can restore ovulation, regulate menstrual cycles, increase pregnancy chances, and reduce long-term risks. Medical treatments such as oral contraceptives, insulin-sensitizing medications, and ovulation-inducing drugs help address irregular periods, fertility issues, excess hair growth, and weight concerns in women with PCOS.