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Why Polycystic Ovary Syndrome needs more awareness

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition that affects roughly 1/5 women in the UK.

I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) two years ago. Since then, I have learned to cope with most of the physical and mental symptoms. But despite being such a common condition, I had never heard of it—even though I had been struggling with the symptoms for years.

So here are some facts about the diagnosis and symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome, and where you can seek support.

Diagnosis

Diagnosing PCOS can be challenging. The symptoms associated with it can often be mixed up with other disorders, such as fatigue, irregular periods, and hirsutism. There are however three main categories for diagnosis:

  1. Abnormal menstruation/periods
  2. Abnormal levels of male hormones (androgens)
  3. Polycystic ovaries (cyst-like structures on the outside of the ovaries)

If a doctor identifies two or more of these categories, then a diagnosis of PCOS is confirmed. Oddly, this means that a woman can have polycystic ovary syndrome without any polycystic ovaries.

PCOS symptoms

The symptoms above are all associated with polycystic ovary syndrome, but it's important to remember that if you have one or two of these symptoms it does not necessarily mean that you have PCOS. The symptoms need to point to the three categories highlighted in the diagnosis. For example, acne, facial hair, and thinning head hair are all signs of an excess of male hormones. Doctors will take blood to measure hormone levels, and also request an ultrasound examination to look at the ovaries.

Polycystic ovaries and irregular periods

The most common symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome is abnormal menstruation, which is a sign of polycystic ovaries.

Polycystic ovaries form when an imbalance of hormones like androgens and progesterone disrupt ovulation. The follicles which should release eggs do not ovulate effectively and swell to become fluid-filled cyst-like structures on the ovaries. On an ultrasound scan, this can make the ovaries appear larger than normal. This induces irregular menstruation.

The most common kind of irregular menstruation is where periods "vanish" for months on end without any reasonable explanation. Remember that being stressed and underweight can affect the regularity of periods, so this not necessarily mean that you have PCOS. Nevertheless, I would recommend that you should go and visit your GP/a doctor as soon as possible to determine the cause.

The second kind of irregular menstruation is periods become prolonged. Back in my first year of University, my periods vanished for five months and when I finally had one it lasted for a whole month. I was reluctant to visit my GP (due to embarrassment), but when I did and my blood was tested, it flagged up the symptoms of PCOS straight away.
It just goes to show that it is important to pay attention to your symptoms, and that awareness of the significance of them is vital for reproductive health.

Hirsutism

Hirsutism is a symptom of polycystic ovary syndrome and can also be a separate condition. It is the growth of male-patterned hair on women's bodies, particularly noticeable around the face and neck. Dark hair growth can also occur on the legs and around the female genitalia. This can cause serious confidence issues for women. Unwanted hair can be difficult to deal with when women today are advertised with hairless, smooth-skinned and perfect bodies.

I started shaving my neck and face when I was in Sixth Form; at first every other day, and now every day. The hair is unrelenting and always comes back with a vengeance. After getting diagnosed with PCOS, I went into a period of mild depression and lost a lot of body confidence as a result.

But I soon found a role model who inspired me to get back on my feet. Harnaam Kaur (pictured above), also known as "The Bearded Lady", has PCOS and Hirsutism. She accepted her facial hair after years of trying to remove it, and now campaigns against bullying and promotes a healthy attitude towards body-image.

Weight gain

Weight gain is a grey area in PCOS research. Most PCOS sufferers struggle with managing their weight due to their imbalance of hormones. But not everyone who is overweight has PCOS. What is known is that the more weight PCOS sufferers put on, the worse the symptoms become. To make matters worse, losing weight with PCOS can be extremely difficult for some women because the condition increases your chances of gaining weight.

But those pounds have to be shed in order to have the best quality of life possible with the condition. Otherwise, other serious health complications can come to light.

Other health issues

Sufferers of PCOS not only have the condition itself to deal with but also a hoard of other complications that can arise because of it. These include:

  • Infertility (due to irregular ovulation)

Increased likelihood of developing:

  • Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance
  • Ovarian cancer and cancers of the endometrium (uterine lining)
  • Endometriosis (where tissues of the uterus lining grow outside of the uterus and on other organs)
  • Health complications associated with weight gain (heart disease, high blood pressure, etc.)
  • Sleep problems (insomnia, sleep apnea)
  • Mental health issues (depression, anxiety)

For more information on diagnosis and treatment, visit NHS Choices.

Support

Despite being somewhat under the radar, PCOS support networks are active across social media. The PCOS Awareness Association is a charity focused on raising global awareness and provide support networks for women with the condition.

Another great charity is the UK based Verity, which aims to support women in the UK and provide funding towards research on PCOS.

Your GP can also provide support, and if you are struggling with depression and anxiety resulting from PCOS, mental health support is also available from various sources such as Mind or Samaritans.

For weight management, following pages such as PCOS Foods can be a useful way to gain tips for eating healthily and cutting down on foods which may be exacerbating symptoms.

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