Obesity, abnormal hair growth and lack of menstruation: Symptoms of polycystic ovarian syndrome

Since most of these women tend to be overweight, there appears to be a strong link between PCOS and the body’s insulin levels.

Since most of these women tend to be overweight, there appears to be a strong link between PCOS and the body’s insulin levels.

by Sima Aidun — 

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a health problem that can affect a woman’s menstrual cycle, fertility, hormones, insulin production, heart, blood vessels and appearance, is the most common hormonal reproductive problem in women of child-bearing age. PCOS is seen in four to 10 percent of women of reproductive age.

While the cause of PCOS is unknown, equally uncertain is the role genetic factors play in the syndrome, although women with PCOS frequently have a sister or mother with the same condition.

Since most of these women tend to be overweight, there appears to be a strong link between PCOS and the body’s insulin levels. Women with PCOS have higher blood insulin levels, which can lead to insulin resistance and eventually type II diabetes. Excess insulin also causes the body to produce high levels of male hormones, called androgens. Inside the skin cells, androgens, especially testosterone, change to dihydrotestostrone (DHT) with the help of a special enzyme (5-alpha reductase). DHT is largely responsible for acne and excess hair on the face and body.

However, not every PCOS patient develops abnormal hair growth because the level of 5-alpha reductase is genetically determined and differs from person to person. When more of the enzyme is present inside skin cells, more DHT is produced and, as a result, the chances of abnormal hair growth are higher.

High insulin levels can also affect female hormonal production. Imbalances in female hormones influence ovulation and menstruation. Women with PCOS often suffer from infrequent menstrual periods, no menstrual periods and/or irregular bleeding and infertility.

If you suspect you have PCOS, visit your doctor so he or she can take a medical history and conduct a physical exam to evaluate the areas of increased hair growth. Try to allow the hair to grow naturally for a few days before the office visit. Your doctor will also perform an ultrasound on your ovaries to check for the presence of cysts and order blood tests to measure your female hormones, glucose, testosterone and insulin levels.

The goals of PCOS treatment include the following:

  • Regulation of menstrual cycle, enhanced fertility and decreased risk of miscarriage
  • Loss of excess fat and improvement of muscle tone
  • Increased energy on a consistent basis
  • Reduced acne
  • Decrease in unwanted hair growth
  • Normalized skin tone and texture
  • Minimized heart disease and diabetes risk
  • Reduced dependence on expensive medications
  • Reduced need for ovarian surgery or hysterectomy

Naturopathic treatment of PCOS targets the underlying imbalances created by the syndrome and focuses on exercise and weight reduction, which can lead to regulation of the menstrual cycle, decreased insulin levels, and reduced risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, all serious side effects associated with PCOS.

It is important to alter your diet to contain foods low on the glycemic index, low simple carbohydrates, low animal products and high fiber, all of which help reduce weight, regulate blood sugar and balance insulin levels.

Nutritional and herbal therapies can help regulate insulin levels and subsequently balance blood sugar, reduce androgen or male hormone levels, improve fertility and reduce the risk of heart disease.

In conventional medicine, birth control pills are often used to regulate menstrual cycle, reduce male hormone levels and clear up acne. Understandably, they are not used in women who desire to achieve pregnancy. Diabetes medications such as Metformin are used to manage blood sugar. Fertility medications and medications to decrease abnormal hair growth or decrease male hormone levels, such as Spironolactone, also are used.

 

Characteristics of women with PCOS

  • Infrequent or absent menstrual periods and/or irregular bleeding
  • High levels of male hormones, called androgens (e.g., testosterone)
  • Infertility or inability to get pregnant because of not ovulating
  • Increased growth of hair on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs or toes
  • Acne, oily skin or dandruff
  • Weight gain or obesity, usually carrying extra weight around the mid-section
  • Elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance or type II diabetes
  • May or may not have many small fluid-filled cysts in the ovaries
  • High cholesterol or high blood pressure
  • Male-pattern baldness or thinning hair

 

Dr. Sima Aidun is a naturopathic medical doctor and founder of Natural Solutions for Women in Scottsdale, Ariz. Focusing primarily on women’s healthcare, she specializes in annual women’s wellness exams, menopause issues, PMS and abnormal bleeding fibroids. 480-314-7600.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 24, Number 6, December 2005/January 2006.

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