After years of intense pain, dramatic weight gain, and missed periods, I sat in the doctor’s office for what seemed like the billionth time trying to explain my symptoms to her. “It sounds like you have polycystic ovarian syndrome,” she informed me.
The months following included ultrasounds, even more pain, and one specialist informing me that if I just “lost the weight” then all my PCOS problems would be solved. For those of you who have never heard of this illness before, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (or PCOS) is a hormonal condition where cysts grow on the ovaries and where there is a drastic imbalance of hormones. Although these cysts are relatively harmless, the side effects that come from them are not. Having polycystic ovaries could mean the development of issues such as infertility, cancer, heart disease, and stroke. PCOS effects approximately 10% of females, but many go undiagnosed because they don’t know what to look for. The lack of awareness of PCOS has the potential to be life threatening. So, from somebody who has the unfortunate experience of cysts growing on her inner egg cartons, here are some of the signs to watch for.
Irregular Menstrual Cycle
An irregular menstrual cycle is the top symptom of PCOS. Most females with the illness have fewer than 8 periods in a year, and some people don’t have any at all. I can remember a time when I didn’t have a single cycle for two years. While some readers may be thinking that I’m lucky, let me assure you that I am not. Missing that many periods is unhealthy, and it means something is wrong with my body. It also means that the longer I go without a menstrual cycle, the more it is going to hurt when I finally have one. This may not be true for every woman with PCOS, but for me the pain is so severe that I cannot get out of bed for the first few days of my period. It is a searing, migraine inducing, incapacitating pain that is persistent and stubborn. This pain doesn’t even have to be accompanied with a menses! It can happen anywhere at anytime, regardless of cycles. Irregular cycles, especially painful ones, are big warning signs for PCOS.
Abnormal Hair Growth and Hair Loss
Bearded ladies are real. Rose Geil, Harnaam Kaur, and Diamond Smith are the names of females in the media who have come forward with their full beards flowing, and each of them has been given a diagnosis of PCOS. While these are extreme cases, abnormal hair growth is unfortunately a top contender for the symptoms of the disease. That isn’t to say that hair growth is abnormal, because it is a perfectly normal function of the body. What medical professionals deem as abnormal is the growth of hair on a female that would typically be seen on a male such as the face. However, it could also mean that places where hair is typically seen on a female, such as legs and arms, grows in excess. This is called hirsutism, and it affects up to 70% of individuals with PCOS. But while you may be finding an excess of hair on other parts of your body, you may find that the hair on your head is thinning and falling out. It may seem like these two phenomena are opposing, but they are linked through the overactive testosterone that comes with the hormonal imbalance of PCOS.
Many of those suffering with PCOS are overweight or obese. At the very least, there is likely some element of struggle when it comes to weight management. According to the International Journal of Obesity and Other Related Metabolic Disorders, half of those with polycystic ovaries are overweight or obese. Why does PCOS cause such drastic weight gain? Remember, it all relates with imbalanced hormones. PCOS makes it more difficult for the body to use the insulin that is produced which typically helps transform sugars and starches into energy. If the insulin isn’t being used, it’s being stored. This alone can contribute to weight gain. The build up of insulin is said to also increase the production of a hormone called androgen, which makes it even easier to gain weight and even harder to lose it. It is an ongoing struggle that could lead to many other medical issues such as: high blood pressure, heart disease, and type II diabetes.
While there are many other symptoms associated with having polycystic ovaries, the above are the top three that most, including myself, will experience. But these symptoms aren’t the worst of it. For myself, the worst part of PCOS are the mental health complications. The most common mental health concern associated with PCOS is depression. It seems that there is a strong link between hormonal imbalance and depression. Who could have guessed? Although not all who have polycystic ovaries will develop mental illnesses, PCOS does increase the likelihood. My mood swings are often out of control. I am easily irritable, overly emotional, and sometimes I lash out when I don’t mean to. While the physical pain of PCOS is overwhelming, the mental side effects are just as bad if not worse.
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is different for everyone, and my experience with it will not ring true for all who also live with it. I am not an expert in the area, and there are many other symptoms associated with the condition. The above mentioned are simply the ones that are most prevalent for myself. But one thing that I am sure of is that there is no cure for PCOS. It is a condition that I and many others must learn to live with and endure for the rest of our lives. It is painful, incredibly inconvenient, and has intruded upon my life more times than I can count. It has put me at risk for various secondary health concerns and at times, the symptoms make me feel unfeminine, unattractive, and hopeless. But I am not alone, and neither are you. So, here’s to my cyster sisters! You are strong, you are beautiful, and you are capable. If you feel as though you may be experiencing symptoms of PCOS, please speak to a health professional. While the condition is not curable, the symptoms are treatable which is the first step of preventing even more severe complications.