September 19, 2023

What to Know about PCOS this PCOS Awareness Month 

By: Ruby Baxley, SWHR Communications and Policy Intern 

Polycystic ovary syndrome, commonly referred to as PCOS, is an endocrine disorder that affects the balance of reproductive hormones, which can lead to issues with fertility and menstrual cycles. It affects an estimated 5 million women in the United States, and although most women with PCOS are between 15 and 44 years old, PCOS can affect any women of any age.  

Although PCOS has been understudied and its exact causes unknown, some suspected risk factors include genetics, such as having a sister or mother with PCOS, being overweight, and being insulin resistant. There is a complex relationship between PCOS, obesity, and insulin resistance. As one study states, “In women who are predisposed to PCOS, the metabolic and hormonal issues that are present such as insulin resistance and hyperandrogenism, can lead to weight gain and eventually obesity. Obesity in turn can exacerbate the symptoms of PCOS such as further metabolic issues and reproductive abnormalities.” Between 35-80% of women with PCOS are insulin resistant.  

PCOS can also put women at risk for developing other health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and more. Living with PCOS can also affect a woman’s mental health. Previous studies estimated that 40% of women with this condition experience depressive symptoms. 

Symptoms of PCOS include an irregular menstrual cycle, excess body or facial hair (hirsutism) resulting from higher-than-normal levels of male hormones, and cysts on the ovaries. Yet, signs and symptoms of PCOS present differently across individuals which contributes to the underdiagnosis (the World Health Organization estimates that up to 70% of PCOS cases are undiagnosed). About 70-80% of women with PCOS also struggle with fertility. Other symptoms due to hormonal imbalance include weight gain and acne.  

To receive a PCOS diagnosis, a general practitioner may analyze cholesterol, sugar, and androgen levels. A physical exam is performed to look for signs of acne or excess hair growth. The physician may also calculate body fat percentage based on height and weight. Managing symptoms of PCOS may involve taking contraceptives with elements of estrogen and progestin and engaging in lifestyle changes and exercise, and specifically reduced caloric intake and minimum of 150 minutes of exercise per week. 

Looking ahead, there are many opportunities in the PCOS space, and specifically in PCOS research. Areas that have been flagged by experts in the field for research opportunity include predisposing conditions that increase PCOS risk, such as genetic background and environmental factors. Current PCOS research examines risk factors for women and young girls and deciphering who is at risk, and active clinical trials for PCOS include studies on new medication therapies and the effects of PCOS on pregnancy. 

For more information and resources about PCOS, view the links below: