Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, or PCOS for short, is a condition that affects the ovaries and how they work. It’s a common condition, affecting around one in every ten women of reproductive age. (That is, those women that have started their periods but have not yet experienced the menopause.)
Although it’s common, it isn’t always easy to diagnose, as the symptoms can be mistaken for something else or simply passed over as “just” heavy or irregular periods.
As well as period related symptoms, PCOS can also affect the skin and cause oiliness and acne. So this week, we’re going to talk about PCOS, what it is, possible causes and how it can affect the skin.
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and what are the symptoms?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome affects women of childbearing age. It affects the function of the ovaries and can cause three main symptoms:
- Irregular or no periods, caused by irregular ovulation (the release of an egg by the ovaries, that usually happens around every 28 days)
- Excessive facial or body hair caused by high levels of certain hormones called androgens
- Enlarged ovaries (often only diagnosed via an ultrasound scan)
The name ‘polycystic ovary’ is however, a little misleading. Despite ‘poly’ meaning many and ‘cystic’ meaning cysts, a woman with PCOS doesn’t actually have any cysts. Instead, PCOS causes the formation of multiple fluid filled sacs called follicles that form around the eggs in her ovaries.
These follicles can grow to around 8mm in size and are essentially harmless. But since these follicles are surrounding the eggs, the eggs cannot be released, meaning that ovulation each month doesn’t occur.
PCOS can also cause the following symptoms, many of which can be distressing:
- Irregular and missed periods
- Heavy bleeding when a period does occur due to built up tissue from the womb lining not being shed during missed periods
- Difficulty becoming pregnant due to a lack of ovulation
- Weight gain
- Unwanted and excessive hair growth (called hirsutism) on the face, chest, back, arms and buttocks
- Thinning hair on the scalp, potentially leading to noticeable hair loss
- Regular headaches
- Skin problems including oiliness and acne breakouts
A woman with PCOS also has an increased risk of developing further health conditions such as high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes later in her life.
What causes PCOS?
It’s as yet unknown what causes a woman to develop PCOS. However, doctors do know that there’s a genetic link. This means that if a close female family member (grandmother, mother or sister) has or has had PCOS, then you have a higher chance of also having the condition.
Researchers also think that PCOS is associated with having a high level of male hormones, called androgens. Androgens are the male sex hormones, and include testosterone. They’re also naturally present in female bodies, just normally to a lesser extent.
If a female has a high level of androgens, then she may develop PCOS. It’s thought that these androgens interfere with the ovaries. This can then prevent the ovaries from doing their normal job of releasing female hormones and producing an egg each menstrual cycle.
There’s also evidence that having high levels of insulin could also be a possible cause of PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that helps to manage blood sugar levels. High levels of insulin can lead to a condition called insulin resistance, whereby we need more insulin to deal with blood sugar levels.
Insulin resistance can affect the production of androgens such as testosterone, causing higher than normal testosterone levels in the body. This is why insulin resistance is possibly a contributing factor to PCOS.
How can PCOS affect the skin?
Because PCOS is linked with a higher level of androgens, it can also cause skin problems including oily skin and acne breakouts.
One of the main causes of acne is an imbalance of hormones. In particular, having a higher level of androgens, in particular, testosterone. If a woman has PCOS, she may notice that specifically, she develops acne around the lower half of her face, including the lower cheeks, chin, jawline and neck.
In fact, having irregular periods and acne prone skin can be the first sign a woman has that she may have PCOS. If this is you, then it’s best to make an appointment with your GP to discuss your symptoms.
What are the treatments for PCOS?
Frustratingly, there is no ultimate cure for PCOS, doctors can only help women manage their symptoms. The contraceptive pill can help to regulate menstruation. Other hormonal treatments such as progesterone supplements can also help to regulate periods.
The oral contraceptive pill can also be useful for women who are experiencing hormonal acne. But we would advise taking a more holistic approach to skin care before taking the contraceptive pill solely for your skin. We go into more detail on that below.
There are also medications available that can help to eliminate unwanted hair by blocking the effects of excess male hormones. Medications to help reduce hair thinning and hair loss are also available.
All of these medications are available on prescription, and need to be prescribed by your GP or specialist.
If PCOS is causing you fertility problems, then you may be referred to a fertility specialist who can talk to you about IVF and other assisted reproduction treatments. It’s still entirely possible for a woman with PCOS to have a child, she just might need a little extra medical help to do so.
Can PCOS be treated naturally?
One of the most helpful ways of managing the symptoms of PCOS is living a healthy lifestyle. For example, insulin resistance is linked with obesity. So if your doctor thinks your PCOS could be being caused by insulin resistance and you’re overweight or obese, they may talk to you about weight management strategies.
If PCOS is causing you to experience acne, then here at Sönd, we can help. We’re acne sufferers ourselves, and after a frustrating and fruitless search for natural skin care products that work to support the needs of acne prone skin, we decided to create our own.
Our skin care products feature our hero ingredient - a silica salt complex. This alkalising agent helps to nourish the skin deep within the lower layers, helping to tackle the root cause of acne and oily skin.
If you’re suffering with skin that gets stressed out, whatever the cause, then our skin care products could be exactly what you’re looking for! If you’re unsure, you could try our Sample Trio. This super set includes samples of our Clean Slate Cream Cleanser, Sidekick Day Cream and Midnight Feast Night Cream.
So whilst we can’t help your period related PCOS symptoms, we can help you feel more comfortable in your own, clearer, skin.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any of the symptoms we’ve discussed, and they’re bothering you, then you could benefit from talking to your GP or other medical specialist. They can refer you to a specialist doctor who can then diagnose PCOS or find another cause for your symptoms.
Normally, PCOS is diagnosed via a combination of talking to your doctor about your symptoms, a series of blood tests and an ultrasound scan.
Sometimes, just knowing that there’s a medical reason for your symptoms can make you feel better. But if you do have PCOS, your medical team can then discuss the best treatments to help you manage your symptoms.
Getting further help for PCOS
PCOS can be a very difficult condition to live with. Especially as it can cause a wide range of symptoms varying from problems with your skin to difficulty becoming pregnant.
If PCOS is a condition that affects you and you’d be interested in getting more help, we may have the answer. We’re going to be working with expert fertility specialists in the near future and we’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback. So please do get in touch and ask us any questions you have!