When I went to a fertility specialist in August 2012 for help conceiving my son, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Are your cycles regular?” Another was, “Have you been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?”
My answers were “yes” and “no” – and if he’d asked me, “Do you know what Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is?” I would have had to answer “no” to that one too.
I’d never heard Polycystic Ovary Syndrome but it sounded like it was good that I didn’t have it. Any sort of condition with the word “syndrome” in it sounded so ominous to me.
Since then, I’ve been up and down on the fertility roller coaster, and in that time, I’ve met a number of women with the condition, known informally as PCOS. Quite simply, PCOS is a disorder of the endocrine system that affects hormone production. Among other things, women with PCOS often produce abnormally high levels of male-related sex hormones, including androgen hormones and testosterone.
It’s not unusual for women to have ovarian cysts. I developed ovarian cysts when I was trying for my son. In fact, I had an IUI cycle cancelled due to cysts. Usually cysts aren’t detrimental, and even polycystic ovaries (when the ovaries have several cysts) might not negatively affect your fertility.
It’s when cysts cause a hormonal imbalance that result in lots of other symptoms, like acne, obesity and absent periods, that determines whether or not you have PCOS rather than polycystic ovaries. Since PCOS is an endocrine disorder, it’s specifically related to your hormone production.
And if you’re trying to conceive, PCOS can affect your fertility, while polycystic ovaries might not. In a nutshell, the abnormal hormone levels associated with PCOS lead to problems with ovulation. Women with PCOS often have trouble ovulating on their own and ovulate irregularly. This obviously leads to infrequent or missed periods (one of the hallmark symptoms of PCOS).
If PCOS is left untreated, it can have devastating long-term effects, including:
- Cardiovascular disease (the #1 medical-related killer of women worldwide)
- Pregnancy-related disorders
- Seizure disorders
PCOS has also been associated with early miscarriage. Studies have shown that miscarriage rates among women with PCOS may be twice as high as rates for the general population.
But it doesn’t have to be all gloom and doom. PCOS is a relatively common condition, affecting up to 10% of women, and many women learn how to manage the condition so that it doesn’t negatively affect their lives. Many women also go on to have healthy babies in spite of having PCOS.
Here are some tips for living with PCOS and boosting your chances of having a healthy baby:
- Eat a healthy diet. You’ve heard the saying, “You are what you eat.” Food is amazing medicine. Eating a well-balanced diet of foods rich in fiber, protein, and vitamins and minerals will go a long way toward optimizing your health. Since women with PCOS have lowered insulin resistance, which is why they’re so susceptible to both diabetes and obesity, it’s important to minimize your sugar intake, and to avoid refined carbohydrates as much as possible.
- Move your body. In addition to helping us feel good, exercise can help you manage your PCOS. By boosting your metabolism and burning calories, it can aid in your weight loss efforts, and help keep diabetes at bay. Most experts recommend that you exercise 150 minutes a week; chat with your doctor about specific recommendations for you.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is already bad for you, and can actually be worse for you if you have PCOS. Women with PCOS produce higher levels of androgens than women who don’t have the condition. Smoking can also exacerbate androgen production, so smoking and PCOS is a horrific combination, especially if you’re trying for a baby. I don’t think there’s anything more to say about this. If you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
- Seek appropriate treatment and be an active participant in your care. PCOS is a medical condition, and like any medical condition, it’s important to seek out help to treat it. Find a knowledgeable doctor with whom you feel comfortable. Many specialists can work with you and develop your treatment plan to co-exist with your plans to conceive. Educate yourself on the medication and treatment options available. Ask your doctor questions about your treatment plant to make sure you understand and are comfortable with progress in your care. Have regular check-ups to monitor how your treatment is going and make tweaks if needed.
- Find support among other women. As in so many aspects of fertility and women’s health, it is so easy to feel like something is wrong with you. PCOS is a medical condition, and having it does not make you defective. In addition, since PCOS is a hormonal condition, it can be easy to get depressed, frustrated or overwhelmed with managing it. One of the best ways to deal with this is to seek out support among other women with the condition. It’s a great way to not only foster a terrific support system, where you receive and give support, it can help you not feel so alone in living with the condition.
Do you have PCOS? How do you cope? How is it affecting your fertility treatment? Sound off in the comments below!
Hugs and kisses,
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