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September 9, 2020 • read
PCOS myths and facts
Did you know that September is PCOS awareness month? This condition, which affects up to 10% of women and up to 25% of trans men, causes uncomfortable symptoms and long term health risks. While the exact causes are still unclear, we do know PCOS linked to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance creates high glucose levels in your bloodstream, which boosts your production of androgen hormones. An excess of androgens can cause a host of health problems, from acne to infertility.
Despite how common PCOS is, there are many myths and misconceptions about the disorder. Even doctors are prone to falling for misleading information. We’ve gathered some of the most common myths about PCOS, and the facts to set them straight.
1. Since it’s called polycystic ovarian syndrome, you need ovarian cysts to be diagnosed
The controversy over PCOS begins with its name. Many doctors and researchers argue that the name polycystic ovary syndrome should be changed to represent the experience that all patients go through. The truth is, you don’t need ovarian cysts to have PCOS. Doctors can diagnose patients with PCOS if they meet two out of the three following criteria:
- Irregular periods
- Increased androgen levels
- Cysts found on ovaries, confirmed by ultrasound
Plenty of people who’ve been diagnosed with PCOS don’t have ovarian cysts. But, they still benefit from treatment to regulate their hormones and menstrual cycle.
2. PCOS is pronounced peek-ohs
Here’s a fun bit of medical insider knowledge — doctors use the term p-c-o-s, spoken letter by letter. It’s only the general public who’ve given PCOS its moniker of peek-ohs.
So, if you want to impress your healthcare provider friends, or bring up a neat bit of trivia at the dinner table, you can drop that fact!
3. PCOS is similar and predictable for every person who has it
This is a huge myth. The fact is, PCOS is unique to every person who has the condition. Since PCOS is a syndrome, there’s a wide spectrum of symptoms and severities a patient can experience.
For example, some people with PCOS go months and months without having a period. Other patients have monthly periods that last for weeks on end. Some people will experience depression and anxiety, while other patients will report stable and cheery moods.
Your hormone levels are personal to you, which is one of the reasons trial and error are required for hormonal treatments. It’s hard to predict how introducing new hormones into your body will interact with your baseline endocrine system. Another fun fact — your endocrine system is a network in your body that includes all your hormone-secreting glands.
4. PCOS doesn’t interfere with pregnancy
Unfortunately, PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility. The very good news is that having PCOS doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sterile. Most people with PCOS can conceive when given the right treatment. Treatment usually includes a combination of medication and lifestyle adjustments.
Since PCOS is so closely tied to insulin resistance, adopting a healthy diet of low-glycemic index, mostly plant foods will help bring down blood sugars. Try lots of leafy greens, legumes, and unsweetened beverages. Exercise is also good for regulating blood sugars.
If you’re looking to conceive, talk to your doctor about which medications will help with your unique health profile. Clomid is the most common fertility treatment for PCOS. It stimulates your body to produce more estrogen, which puts your hormones in a better balance for conception.
Pregnancy and PCOS don’t have to cancel each other out. It’s best to get a doctor’s support to navigate your pregnancy safely.
5. All birth control treats PCOS
While it’s true that many patients are prescribed hormonal birth control for their PCOS, only certain types of birth control are effective. Each type of hormonal birth control contains roughly the same amount of estrogen. But, progestin levels vary a lot across birth control options. Your doctor will likely prescribe a birth control with progestin that has low androgenic activity to treat PCOS. Certain progestins closely mimic androgens, which would be quite unhelpful for someone with PCOS!
Some of the benefits people with PCOS see from taking hormonal birth control are lighter periods, reduction in unwanted hair growth, and fewer acne breakouts. Hormonal birth control is not for everyone, and your doctor should walk you through the possible side-effects of whichever option you choose.
6. Doctors can diagnose PCOS easily
There are probably lots of doctors who wish this myth were true! In actuality, diagnosing PCOS is a process of exclusion. Your doctor first has to make sure the symptoms you’re presenting with aren’t caused by other conditions, like thyroid or adrenal disorders. There’s no definitive test to prove or disprove that someone has PCOS. As mentioned above, a patient must have two out of three factors present — irregular periods, increased androgen levels, and ovarian cysts.
7. A special PCOS diet will treat this condition
This myth is partially true, depending on how you look at it. There’s no particular “PCOS diet” that will act as a quick-and-easy cure. But, diet and exercise have a big role to play in managing insulin levels. A diet that helps you maintain low blood sugar levels can also help you manage PCOS symptoms.
A good diet breakdown for someone with PCOS is higher fat, lower carbohydrate, and lots of fiber. Focus on whole plant foods, not too much red or processed meat, and high-fibre starches in place of refined carbohydrates.
8. PCOS makes you gain weight
There’s some confusion about which comes first, PCOS or excess weight. The good news is that PCOS itself does not cause weight gain. Being overweight is a risk factor for insulin resistance, which can bring on PCOS. Once someone has PCOS, further weight gain can make symptoms worse.
Losing weight, even just a few pounds, can help improve PCOS symptoms. The healthy diets mentioned above are good starting points. Since PCOS is a lifelong condition, it will take a lifestyle adjustment to stay healthy and comfortable long term. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Try taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or having blueberries instead of a chocolate bar. Little changes add up to big progress.
9. Only women can get PCOS
It’s important to recognize that not everyone with ovaries is a woman. Many trans, non-binary, and intersex people deal with PCOS each and every day. Discomfort around seeking medical attention for a gendered disease that isn’t associated with your own identity may lead people to opt out of getting help.
An estimated 25% of trans men have PCOS — that’s approximately 2.5x the rate of cisgender women. Studies have found a link between long term hormone therapy (testosterone), PCOS, and ovarian cancer.
Whether or not you have PCOS, it’s important to spread awareness of how this disorder impacts people’s lives. Even more importantly, let’s spread awareness of treatments and positive outcomes. People with PCOS can live full, healthy lives if they’re supported with the right medication and lifestyle encouragement. It’s important to speak to a doctor to understand what treatment works best for your body’s chemistry. PCOS, as with any hormonal disorder, requires an individualized treatment approach.
If you’d like to see an endocrinologist from the comfort of your home, our doctors are here for you.
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