What Is PCOS?: Understanding The Symptoms And Diagnosis Of This Common Health Condition
Women's Health

What Is PCOS?: Understanding The Symptoms And Diagnosis Of This Common Health Condition

The irregularity of a woman’s menstrual cycle can often be overlooked and even dismissed as an insignificant occurrence. However, when symptoms like absent or infrequent periods, excessive acne, abnormal facial hair growth, and infertility come into play, it may be a sign of an underlying health condition to pay attention to, such as PCOS.

What Is PCOS?

“The hallmark symptom of PCOS is not polycystic ovaries as the name suggests, but instead menstrual dysfunction.” Trinidad says, “PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects women most commonly after the start of their menses until menopause,” where there is an increase in male androgens (or hormones) and, in some cases, cysts (fluid-filled sacs) on the ovaries, as well as fertility issues. According to studies, up to 80% of women with PCOS struggle with menstrual dysfunction or painful or irregular periods, with signs of the condition appearing as early as adolescence.

“PCOS is a hormonal disorder that affects women most commonly after the start of their menses until menopause.”

While the exact cause of PCOS is not fully understood, Trinidad says that it is commonly linked to “a combination of genetic and environmental factors” that can be passed down within one’s family line, but the source is still unknown.

What Are The Symptoms of PCOS?

Women with PCOS may experience trouble sleeping, mood swings, trouble getting and/or staying pregnant, and constant fatigue. And while the primary signs of PCOS show up differently for each woman, some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Irregular Periods: “Some women may experience cycles that are prolonged, while others may not experience a cycle at all. Some women may experience extremely heavy and painful cycles accompanied by large clots, while others may just lightly spot,” Trinidad says.
  • Hyperandrogenism: According to Trinidad, when a woman has an imbalance in her male and female hormones, this can result in an overproduction of her male hormones, leading to excess facial hair and body hair (hirsutism), acne, male-pattern baldness or thinning hair.
  • Insulin Resistance: “This is when the body's hormone insulin is not working effectively, [which] leads to high blood sugar levels in the blood, which in turn dramatically increases a woman’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes,” she says. “This is why PCOS is also known as diabetes of the ovaries.”
  • Weight Gain: PCOS weight gain is known to affect women specifically around their stomach area, and this weight is extremely difficult to lose despite all efforts with diet and exercise due to the imbalance of insulin, aka the growth hormone.”

Managing PCOS Through Diet & Lifestyle Changes

For those looking to manage their PCOS while optimizing their overall health and well-being, Trinidad suggests finding support from women who know and understand life with the condition. ”Oftentimes, I see women give up because they are trying all of the fad diets and sketchy supplements from brands they find on TikTok,” she says. “By finding someone with experience, you can cut out much of the fluff and get straight to the results.”

This can be done by:

Committing To A Balanced Diet:

“Have a balanced diet that includes nutrient-rich foods. Learn about the two different types of carbs, such as complex carbs (whole grains, legumes) instead of refined carbohydrates (white bread, sugary snacks). Add lean protein, like chicken, fish, and tofu, into your diet and make this your macro goal for each meal. Lastly, add healthy fats, and don’t skip out on fruits and vegetables."

Moving Your Body:

“This doesn’t have to be an intense workout session. Moving your body to your favorite jams or walking for 20 minutes after dinner can help you lower your insulin levels and lose weight with PCOS. Working out too intensely can stress out your stress hormone, cortisol, and make your hormone imbalances even worse.”

Choosing Low-Glycemic Index Foods:

“Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) are digested more slowly, and they do not break down into high amounts of sugar. Low glycemic foods can also help reverse insulin resistance by helping to balance your blood sugar levels.”

Managing Stress:

“As much as I know we are tired of hearing it, you have to learn to manage your stress levels. Chronic stress can make hormonal imbalances worse by increasing your stress hormone cortisol which can have a domino effect on impacting your other hormones and causing imbalance.”

Black Women & PCOS

PCOS disproportionally affects women of color, and Trinidad says that while she isn’t opposed to mainstream medications that are commonly prescribed to women with PCOS, conventional medicine typically targets the symptoms and not the root cause. “I believe it’s dangerous for women to not be educated about the potential side effects of these medications or informed that they do not, in fact, fix the root cause,” she shares.

“Instead, they put a temporary bandaid on the symptoms until you stop taking the medication, and your symptoms can come back worse than before.”

The Benefits Of Balancing Our Hormones

In order to reach a place of balance with one’s hormones as it relates to PCOS, Trinidad says that certain dietary and lifestyle changes must be put in place in order to reverse your symptoms. “Our hormones are tiny messengers that tell our body what to do and when to do it,” Trinidad explains. “The benefits of having balanced hormones range from having improved mental health, healthy pregnancy, absence of mental fog, and appropriate sleep cycles so that you can wake up refreshed.”

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