Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is an important medical condition because it highlights the dangers and consequences of hormonal imbalances that are all too common these days. Along with unpleasant side effects such as unwanted facial hair and female balding, this disorder also produces infertility for thousands of women, and can also lead to potentially dangerous complications. It also drives many women, often at the advice of their physicians, unfortunately, to use hazardous artificial hormone treatments. Let’s see if we can learn a bit about the causes and effects of this condition, and some ways to safely treat and prevent it as well.

What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a somewhat common disorder involving abnormal operation of the female reproductive system. The term refers to the growth of multiple cysts on the ovaries of affected women, giving the ovaries an unusually large and “studded” appearance. In addition to the cysts, PCOS patients often exhibit abnormally high levels of androgens (so-called “male” hormones) irregular menstrual and reproductive cycles, excessive facial and body hair growth, and obesity.

PCOS is also known as Stein-Leventhal syndrome, and is actually a family of symptoms that women with PCOS may or may not experience. Certain of these symptoms are more common than others, and most patients will experience some but not all of them to varying degrees. There are many potential causes for PCOS, and some of the specifics of the illness are not precisely understood at this point. We do know that PCOS is the result of hormonal and metabolic dysfunction, and that it occurs in approximately 10% of American women. It is also known that it runs in families. PCOS may appear as early as adolescence, but is more common in middle-aged women, especially after weight-gain. PCOS is the number one cause of female infertility, and it also increases a woman’s risk for such debilitating illnesses as coronary disease and diabetes.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

Most women who are diagnosed with PCOS have at least one or more of the following symptoms. It is important to keep in mind that many of these symptoms can indicate medical issues other than PCOS, so they are not wholly definitive.

  1. Irregular menstrual cycles:  This is considered the most common sign of PCOS. Due to hormonal imbalances, the regularity of the menses is often thrown off, sometimes to the point of experiencing missing or total lack of periods. This phenomenon is known as amenorrhea, and is sometimes the first sign of PCOS. Other women with PCOS find that their cycles will change and exhibit abnormal (for them) behavior. Technically, to be considered irregular menstruation, cycles must occur less than eight times per year or last longer than 35 days each occurrence.
  2. Spontaneous ovulation:  Somewhat related to irregular menstrual cycles, this symptom often afflicts PCOS women. This can pose problems when it comes to birth control, as patients are not able to accurately predict ovulation.
  3. Abnormal appearance of ovaries:  This is another sign found in many PCOS patients. When viewed by ultrasound, affected ovaries may be enlarged due to the presence of fluid-filled sacs known as cysts on the surface of the ovaries. PCOS is not the only condition that can lead to multiple cysts, and some patients with PCOS never develop cysts.
  4. Obesity:  PCOS can be both triggered by obesity and cause women to gain weight and become obese. (Which came first, the chicken or the egg?). It is estimated that approximately 50% of all PCOS patients are obese.
  5. Hirsutism:  This is a condition that occurs as a result of excess amounts of androgens in a woman’s body. It causes abnormal growth of long course body hair, often on the face, tummy, back, chest, or upper arms and legs.
  6. Acne:  Increased amounts of acne and other facial blemishes are common for PCOS patients.
  7. Alopecia:  Also known as male pattern baldness, alopecia is the result of too many androgens in the body. Alopecia typically results in hair thinning and loss on the top of the scalp.
  8. Acanthosis nigricans:  Some PCOS patients experience unusually dark, velvety skin on certain areas of the body including the vulva, armpits, inner thighs, under the breasts, and on the nape of the neck.
  9. Skin tags:  Medically referred to as acrochordons, these small benign growths of skin typically appear on the neck, armpit, or other parts of the body due to hormonal changes associated with PCOS. They are also common for many women during pregnancy for the same reasons.
  10. Altered blood chemistry:  Many PCOS patients tend to have higher than normal levels of LDL (the “good cholesterol) and below normal amounts of HDL (the “bad” cholesterol). This is one reason why women with PCOS are at increased risk for heart disease.
  11. Hyperinsulinemia:  This is the official term for increased levels of insulin in the blood, and is a contributing factor towards increased risk for diabetes. Higher amounts of  both cholesterol and insulin are found more often in obese women with PCOS.

What Are the Major Causes of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

When it comes to PCOS, its all about hormones. The female reproductive system is regulated by a complex network of checks and balances that are mostly controlled by hormones. The pituitary gland, located in the brain, produces and releases various amounts of these hormones as needed. The main ones the pituitary gland is responsible for are luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH).

The ovaries are also involved in the act, and they mainly produce the “female” hormones known as estrogen and progesterone.  They also, to a lesser degree, make and release the so-called “male” hormones. These androgens  include testosterone, androstenedione, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).

For reasons that are not known for certain, women who develop PCOS begin to produce excessively high amounts of androgens, and the ratio of LH to FSH is often elevated as well. It is these hormonal imbalances that trigger many of the symptoms commonly associated with PCOS. The process of ovulation is particularly hard hit. One of the phenomena that often occurs is called oligo-ovulation. This is the term for ovulation that happens more frequently than normal. Anovulation indicates a total lack of ovulation, meaning the ovaries do not release any eggs at all.

In a related side effect of PCOS, the amount of insulin in the body is  also elevated. Insulin is a hormone as well, and it is manufactured and released by the pancreas. Insulin plays a critical role in how the body processes glucose to produce energy. The presence of excess insulin is also thought to be a factor in the production of abnormally high amounts of androgens.

What Complications Can Occur Due to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?

PCOS exposes women to many related risks. Major ones include:

  1. Type 2 diabetes:  This is due to abnormal amounts of insulin in the body of PCOS sufferers.
  2. Higher than normal cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood:  Both of these factors have been linked to increased risk for heart disease.
  1. Metabolic syndrome:  This cluster of symptoms is a conglomeration of the affects from hypertension, obesity, resistance to insulin, and elevated blood cholesterol.
  2. Dangerous side effects of artificial hormone therapy:  This is not likely to be listed in the “complication section” of most medical text books, but in reality, it is probably the most significant danger associated with PCOS. Unfortunately, in an attempt to correct PCOS, many health care providers will prescribe the use of various artificial hormones. The hazards of these drugs are well-established, including increasing risks for several types of cancer, coronary disease, strokes, and other debilitating illnesses. Instead of addressing issues such as diet, exercise, and safely losing weight, the conventional response to PCOS is to throw pharmaceuticals at the problem. This only increases health risks rather than alleviating them. This pretzel logic also applies to the use of statin drugs in PCOS patients with the goal of lowering cholesterol. Doctors give out statin drugs like candy, with no regard for the dangers to their patients. Is it any wonder they are one of the biggest sellers in the drug industry?
  3. Endometrial cancer:  PCOS patients often have higher than normal levels of estrogen. This reduces the ability of the endometrial tissue that lines the uterus to shed, and excess amounts of this tissue can lead to cancer.
  4. Infertility:  As mentioned above, PCOS is the largest factor in female infertility. The main reason for this is the irregularity or lack of ovulation.

How Can Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Be Treated or Prevented?

The most effective treatments for PCOS are natural, noninvasive therapies that we should be practicing anyway. Of course, as with most medical issues, there are conventional treatments that focus on drugs and surgeries. However, rather than tossing more chemicals into the mix or resorting to dangerous, expensive surgeries that may or may not be effective, doesn’t it make more sense to try to correct the hormonal imbalances behind PCOS in natural ways? Here are a few suggested ideas:

  1. Lose Weight!  This is the best way I can figure to get to the root of the problem rather than simply treating symptoms. Studies have shown that even losing 5% of body weight can turn PCOS around for many women.
  2. Change What You Eat:  Switching to a diet loaded with whole, natural foods will not only help you to lose weight by avoiding empty calories, but it will also combat some of the side effects of PCOS such as elevated insulin, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels.
  3. Exercise:  Regular physical activity has been proven to help regulate hormones and lower blood sugar. In addition, it will help you to lose weight and keep it off.
  4. Boost liver health:  The liver plays a key role at hormonal regulation, so foods that are liver-friendly will be of great benefit. Suggestions include fruits and vegetables such as  lemons, carrots, and beets.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a classic example of an illness that has been fostered by poor lifestyle and dietary patterns that are deeply ingrained into our culture. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as the “cure” for POCS and many other modern maladies is a return to sanity when it comes to our health and wellness. Not only will such steps reverse the effects of most diseases, but they will also help us to feel refreshed and alive as we were originally created to be.

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