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Could you have PCOS and not know it?

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Interracial Group of Three Beautiful Women Friends SmilingThe answer is yes!  Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a metabolic disorder that affects 6-10% of women in the US and can often go undiagnosed or untreated.  If left unmanaged it can lead to diabetes, heart disease, endometrial cancer and/or reproductive issues such as irregular periods, infertility, and pregnancy loss.  Some bad stuff, huh?

So what exactly is it?

The exact mechanism is unknown but PCOS is an endocrine disorder that affects your hormones. Typically your ovaries produce a small amount of testosterone and other androgens, but with PCOS they produce more than a normal amount and can cause extra hair on your body or acne. Due to the hormone imbalance many women with PCOS develop small cysts on their ovaries, hence the name “Polycystic” meaning “many cysts.”  Women with PCOS are also typically insulin resistant and do not metabolize carbohydrates efficiently .  Their blood sugars tend to be high and they crave carbohydrates.   Since about 50% of women with PCOS are obese, those women who are lean are often overlooked at having PCOS.

How do you know if you have it?

As with any diagnosis it requires a doctor to make the final confirmation.  However, if you have the following symptoms I encourage you to let your doctor know so he/she can run the proper tests.

  • Irregular (more than 40 days) or absent periods
  • Excess hair growth on face, chest, stomach
  • Acne
  • Infertility
  • Excessive abdominal weight
  • Difficulty losing weight
  • Hair loss from head
  • Dark, dry patches of skin
  • Intense carbohydrate cravings

Is it treatable?

Yes, but first it must be diagnosed. The good news is PCOS can be managed with drugs and lifestyle changes. Many women are placed on Metformin or thiazolidinediones to help manage their insulin levels.  Diet and lifestyle changes can also have a big impact on blood sugar levels, heart health, weight loss and fertility.  Here are some ways to to help mange PCOS with diet and lifestyle:

  • Weight loss of 5-10% can improve fertility and blood sugar levels in those that are overweight/obese
  • Participate in 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week
  • Eat less refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white pasta, white rice, candy, cookies, and pastries
  • Eat more fiber containing carbohydrates such as 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice rice, whole grain pasta and fruit
  • Include lean proteins such as chicken, fish and turkey in your meals
  • Include healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil and peanut butter
  • Check out ChooseMyPlate.gov to learn about portion sizes
  • Certain supplements such as cinnamon may help manage blood sugars

Diet and lifestyle changes can be in integral part in managing PCOS. Such changes may be easier said than done. Working with a dietitian can help make the journey easier and provide you with the skills you need to succeed.  If you would like to learn more on your own I would recommend the PCOS Workbook by Angela Grassi.  Most importantly, if you feel you may have PCOS please see your doctor soon.

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