After the birth of my first son, I quickly shed 30 pounds of baby weight, which made me think I was on the road back to my pre-pregnancy size. But those 30 pounds didn’t just sneak back; they brought along an extra 30 pounds as well. I attributed it to my increased hunger while breastfeeding, assuming I needed more calories. Yet, even after weaning my son two years later, the weight stubbornly clung on. No matter how hard I worked out, those extra pounds wouldn’t budge. So, I found myself shopping for a brand-new wardrobe.
Additionally, my menstrual cycle hadn’t returned as I expected after stopping breastfeeding. I was puzzled; shouldn’t it have resumed by now? My desire to become pregnant again was also thwarted. Before long, another bizarre symptom emerged: dark hairs sprouted on my chin and the edges of my cheeks.
Frustrated and concerned, I decided it was time to see a nurse practitioner. Blood tests exposed a hormonal imbalance in the form of elevated testosterone levels and low progesterone, which was linked to irregular ovulation. Combined with the weight gain, facial hair growth, and absence of menstruation, this was sufficient for her to diagnose me with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). A year later, an ultrasound further solidified the diagnosis by revealing cysts scattered across my ovaries.
My diagnosis raised numerous questions, particularly since I wanted to get pregnant again. Read on to discover more about PCOS and how it affects your menstrual cycle and prospects for future pregnancies.
What Is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal disorder that affects 5-10% of individuals with ovaries between the ages of 15 and 44. This condition is characterized by an imbalance of reproductive hormones that disrupt normal ovarian function, leading to various symptoms, including:
- Irregular menstrual periods
- Absence of ovulation
- Ovarian cysts
- Excessive facial and body hair
- Thinning scalp hair
- Weight gain
- Skin darkening
- Skin tags
The precise cause of PCOS remains uncertain, but it is likely influenced by both hormonal imbalances and insulin resistance, where the body produces insulin but struggles to use it effectively.
These imbalances can result in elevated androgen levels, which include hormones such as testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). Elevated androgen levels are a key characteristic of PCOS.
PCOS often leads to irregular menstrual cycles due to anovulation, which is the absence of ovulation. Since ovulation is necessary for the production of progesterone and, ultimately, for conception, PCOS is a common cause of infertility. Nevertheless, it is possible to conceive even with PCOS, as it is a treatable cause of infertility. Treatment generally aims to stimulate ovulation to increase the chances of getting pregnant.
Diagnosis Can Be Challenging
Over the years, several different criteria have been used to diagnose PCOS. Some diagnostic standards require a person to exhibit both elevated androgen levels and the absence of ovulation. However, the most current criteria involve having at least two of the following three symptoms:
- Elevated androgen levels
- Lack of or irregular ovulation
- Presence of polycystic ovaries
Advancements in technology have made it easier for doctors to identify ovarian cysts and make accurate diagnoses, but many individuals still experience delays in obtaining a diagnosis.
Why PCOS Diagnosis Matters
Whether you are trying to conceive or not, being aware of your PCOS diagnosis is crucial. In addition to fertility issues, untreated PCOS can lead to serious health complications.
Insulin resistance can increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over half of individuals with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes by the age of 40. Diabetes can impact your overall health and, if left unmanaged, potentially affect your fertility.
Furthermore, people with PCOS face an elevated risk of developing various health conditions, including metabolic syndrome, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, obstructive sleep apnea, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and inflammation.
If you feel that a healthcare provider is not listening to your concerns or you suspect you have PCOS without a diagnosis, seek out an OB-GYN or endocrinologist. These specialists have experience in diagnosing, treating, and working with individuals who have PCOS.
How to Improve Your Chances of Pregnancy with PCOS
Modifying your diet and exercise routines can help you manage PCOS and increase your chances of conceiving. Additionally, specific medications can assist in the process.
- Weight Loss: If possible, aim to lose excess weight. Even a 5% reduction in your weight can help restart your menstrual cycle. Obesity and insulin resistance are associated with reduced ovulation, lower pregnancy rates, and a higher risk of pregnancy complications.
- Diet: Focus on a diet that includes whole-grain foods that have a low impact on glucose and insulin levels. This can help regulate hormones and reduce inflammation, which can impact fertility. Opt for whole grains, beans, lentils, fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. Unsaturated fats, such as omega-3s found in avocado, nuts, seeds, and fish, may help lower androgen levels and improve fertility.
- Medication: If lifestyle changes are not effective on their own, several medications can help. Metformin, a diabetes medication that regulates blood sugar, can be beneficial. Other options include clomiphene (induces ovulation), gonadotropins (ovulation inducers), and letrozole (a breast cancer drug that can induce ovulation in people with PCOS). The best course of action depends on your individual circumstances, so it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider experienced in treating PCOS.
Risks of Pregnancy with PCOS
If you do become pregnant, it’s crucial to discuss potential risks with a healthcare provider, as PCOS can be associated with specific pregnancy-related complications. These potential risks include:
- Miscarriage: People with PCOS are three times more likely to experience early miscarriages. While the exact cause is not clear, insulin resistance and progesterone imbalances could be contributing factors.
- Gestational Diabetes: The risk of developing gestational diabetes is higher in PCOS pregnancies.
- Preeclampsia: PCOS pregnancies are more prone to developing preeclampsia and high blood pressure.
- Preterm Birth: There is an increased risk of preterm birth.
- Cesarean Section: PCOS pregnancies may be more likely to result in a cesarean section.
Overall, getting pregnant with PCOS is not impossible, but it may require additional support and monitoring during pregnancy to ensure a safe and healthy outcome.
If you are experiencing symptoms of PCOS or have concerns about your reproductive health, consult a healthcare provider who is knowledgeable in diagnosing and treating the condition. PCOS is a manageable condition, and with the right guidance, you can navigate its challenges and work towards a healthy pregnancy and beyond.