As we have all seen by now, 23-year-old Harnaam Kaur went public with her struggle with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and how she has found a way to embrace her life with PCOS. Her condition caused an excessive amount of hair growth since the age of 11, which made her the victim of taunts and bullying at school and on the street. After struggling through years of embarrassment, self-suicide, depression and trying to hide from the world, Kaur decided to become a baptized Sikh—a religion where cutting body hair is forbidden. Recently, Kaur decided to face her bullies head-on after becoming confident with herself and her condition.
I feel more feminine, more sexy and I think I look it too. I’ve learned to love myself for who I am nothing can shake me now.
Women’s Health: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health, between “One in 10 and one in 20 women” of reproductive age is diagnosed with PCOS – polycystic ovarian syndrome.
What is polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
PCOS is a hormonal disorder in which the ovaries produce excessive amounts of androgens – a group of hormones such as testosterone that play a role in male sex characteristics and reproduction. The ovaries can often become enlarged with small fluid-filled sacs that look like cysts – hence the term polycystic. PCOS can affect women in many ways, both long-term and short-term. Menstruation, fertility, appearance, and body weight are some factors that are affected.
With PCOS, women typically have some, all, or a mixture of these symptoms:
- Missed, irregular, or heavy periods
- Hormonal acne
- Lack of ovulation – which leads to infertility/inability to get pregnant. PCOS is actually the most common cause of female infertility if it is not treated.
- Hirsutism (excess dark, coarse facial hair on the lip, chin, back, stomach, toes, chest)
- Cysts on the ovaries or adrenal glands
- Oily skin
- Male-pattern baldness or hair thinning
- Pelvic pain
- Anxiety or depression
- Patches on the skin –especially on arms, breasts, or thigh that are thick dark brown or black
- *Obesity or being overweight
*Obesity or being overweight is not characterized as part of the PCOS definition, although more than 50% of women with PCOS are either overweight or obese according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
What causes PCOS?
There is no one, single cause of PCOS known. Physicians often cite genetics as a potential reason. Insulin is also thought to play a role because many women who have PCOS. Insulin is the hormone our body uses to control the levels of glucose in the blood after we eat. Woman with PCOS sometimes have higher levels of insulin – which may increase production of androgens. Sometimes cysts on the adrenal glands or ovaries will push down on the organs and cause excess androgen production. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the ovaries and adrenal glands produce about 40 – 50% of the body’s testosterone so they can be key players in excess hormone production.
Do I Have PCOS?
A series of tests can be used to diagnose PCOS. Your physician will use any of the following steps to determine if your symptoms are signs of PCOS.
- Medical history and physical exam: including but not limited to menstrual cycle, weight changes, physical appearance
- Pelvic exam: checking to see if the ovaries are enlarged or if there is any pelvic pain present.
- Blood tests: If you see an endocrinologist, they might do a series of blood tests to check your glucose and androgen levels. Often, specialists such as endocrinologists will conduct more comprehensive tests that measure many key hormones and functions. To learn more about the endocrine panel, you can view some of the common endocrinology blood tests and hormones here.
- Vaginal, Pelvic, and/or Abdominal Ultrasound: Ultrasounds use sound waves to take pictures. Doctors may want to use ultrasounds to check for ovarian or adrenal cysts.
How is PCOS treated?
Because PCOS is caused by hormonal imbalances, there is no one-pill cure. PCOS, however, can be managed in several different ways to prevent problems such as infertility or insulin resistance. Common treatments for PCOS include:
- Birth control pills: can help regulate periods, reduce androgens, and help with the hormonal acne, and hair growth.
- Metformin or other diabetes medicines: Metformin has not been approved by the U.S. FDA for PCOS use, but often it helps control insulin levels and lowers testosterone production in women with PCOS.
- Fertility medications: for women who are not ovulating and want to get pregnant.
- Anti-androgens such as spironolactone (aldactone): have been shown to help reduce hair growth in women by reducing the impact of male hormones. It’s important to consult a doctor if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant, or will be breast-feeding because anti-androgens can have adverse effects on the baby.
- Laser hair removal, epilators, or facial hair creams to curb excess facial hair if you are worried about your physical appearance.
- Healthy lifestyle choices with diet and exercise to help with weight gain/loss and overall health.
After consulting with your doctor, you can choose a treatment or combination of treatments that work best for you. There is no one “right treatment” as everybody’s body is different and will react differently to certain medications and therapies.
Self-Care and Emotional Health with PCOS
Being diagnosed with PCOS may be difficult emotionally and spiritually. You may be self-conscious about how you look, anxious about future health problems, or worried about getting pregnant. Getting diagnosed and treatment for your PCOS can help alleviate many of these concerns and help with self-esteem, especially for younger women.
There are many women who face the same challenges everyday and it is important to practice self-care methods that work for you. The most important part of treating PCOS is to take the proper steps now to promote overall good health – physically, mentally, and emotionally. In addition, there are resources and support groups for PCOS that can help you manage your PCOS efficiently and effectively.
For more information on PCOS:
- PCOS Foundation: http://www.pcosfoundation.org/support-groups
- PCOS Network: http://www.pcosnetwork.com/
- South Asian Health Solution: http://southasianhealthsolution.org/recognize-pcos-in-south-asian-girls-and-women/
- Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) Fact Sheet: womenshealth.gov
- Consult with your primary care physician or gynecologist.
*Medical Disclaimer: We are not medical doctors and therefore cannot give medical advice or diagnose any condition. The information in this article is for educational purposes and to raise awareness, especially in the South Asian community where these issues are often not discussed. Please consult a physician.
Vaidehi Mujumdar is an aspiring physician, writer, and researcher based in Washington DC. She’s a contributing writer for India.com’s US Edition. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Feminist Wire, Media Diversified, and others. See more of Vaidehi’s work on her website.