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What Are the Symptoms of PCOS?
Created with Allara Health
As a gynecologist at Allara Health, a health care provider that specializes in treating polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Stacy Henigsman, DO, helps patients get to the root cause of their PCOS symptoms. Her patients are paired with a registered dietitian to create a holistic care plan, which can include dietary and lifestyle changes, nutrition counseling, and medication.
Each plan is different but always involves education—around PCOS symptoms and the lifestyle adjustments that can help manage them. We asked Dr. Henigsman to share the basics with us here.
Symptoms of PCOS and the Lifestyle Shifts That Help Alleviate Them
By Stacy Henigsman, DO
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition that affects 1 in 10 women. It’s characterized by elevated testosterone (hyperandrogenism), irregular periods, and polycystic ovaries. Symptoms of PCOS also include infertility, insulin resistance, weight gain, acne, hair loss, and facial hair.
1. Irregular Periods
The average menstrual cycle is 28 days, but anywhere between 21 and 35 days is considered normal. An irregular period is defined as either (1) eight or fewer menstrual cycles per year (or what’s called oligomenorrhea); (2) menstrual cycles shorter than 21 days; or (3) menstrual cycles longer than 35 days. Women with PCOS may have irregular periods or none at all.
2. Ovarian Cysts
An ovarian cyst is a sac or pouch filled with fluid (or other tissue) that forms in the ovary. An occasional ovarian cyst is common—they typically come and then go away without health concerns. But with PCOS, many cysts/follicles (12 or more per ovary) are present on the ovaries, and they are typically smaller in size and do not go away as non-PCOS cysts do. Ultrasounds are used to identify ovarian cysts, but external signs may include abdominal pain, pelvic pain, or bloating.
Infertility is the absence of a pregnancy within 12 months of having unprotected intercourse or within six months for women older than 35. In women diagnosed with PCOS, infertility is typically caused by a lack of ovulation.
4. Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance is a decrease in the cells’ ability to respond to insulin, which is needed to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. If cells do not respond properly to insulin, excess sugar can remain in the blood, leading to prediabetes and diabetes. Insulin resistance contributes to elevated testosterone, infertility, abnormal facial hair, acne, and weight gain in women with PCOS.
5. Weight Gain
Insulin resistance and hormonal imbalances play a significant role in weight gain in women with PCOS, who tend to gain weight very easily and have a difficult time losing it.
Cystic acne is a chronic acne condition that is associated with PCOS. This type of acne often flares up around the lower part of the face—jawline, chin, and upper neck—and tends to be larger, deeper, and slower to resolve. Treatment often includes medication that helps lower elevated levels of androgens and a balanced diet.
7. Hair Loss
Hair loss, or androgenic alopecia, is caused by elevated testosterone levels. It usually occurs in a distinct pattern—a Christmas tree or triangle shape—at the midline of the scalp.
8. Facial Hair
Abnormal facial hair growth—coarse, dark hair that appears on the chin and upper lip—is called hirsutism. These coarse hairs are caused by elevated levels of testosterone and are clinically referred to as terminal or androgenic hairs.
Lifestyle shifts can help address the underlying causes of PCOS symptoms. Because every woman is different and has a different combination of symptoms and lifestyle, treatment plans must be tailored to each patient’s needs. But most women can benefit from a balanced diet and regular exercise. Here are some general guidelines:
It’s generally recommended that adults do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorously intense physical activity per week, or an equivalent combination of both. This can include muscle-strengthening activities on two nonconsecutive days of the week. Any type of exercise is helpful, though—the best is the one that a patient enjoys and will regularly perform.
A nutrient-dense diet rich in whole foods, with lots of fruits and vegetables, is best. I recommend anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, leafy greens, eggplant, fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and olive oil. For hair loss, getting enough iron, zinc, and B vitamins is particularly important. And generally limiting refined carbohydrates, solid fats, processed meats, and sugary beverages is strongly advised.
PCOS SLEEP TIP
from goop PhD
One effective treatment method for sleep apnea and other sleep disturbances is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), which involves a machine (with a mask that covers the nose and mouth) that delivers gentle air pressure to keep your airways open while sleeping. CPAP has been reported to improve sleep apnea as well as insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS.
Stacy Henigsman, DO, is a gynecologist practicing at Allara Health, a platform devoted exclusively to treating women with polycystic ovary syndrome. She previously specialized in minimally invasive gynecologic surgical procedures.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.