Spotlight on PCOS
About 10 percent of women have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which high levels of androgens, or male hormones, and other hormones prevent ovulation or cause irregular ovulation.
The condition often goes undiagnosed: A third of women diagnosed with PCOS saw at least three health professionals over the course of two years before finally receiving a diagnosis, according to a University of Pennsylvania study published in 2017 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. But this is one condition where early detection is crucial. Women with PCOS are much more likely to be insulin resistant, meaning their bodies can make insulin but not use it effectively, which leads to elevated glucose levels. More than half of women with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes or prediabetes before age 40.
Symptoms of PCOS include irregular periods, a lot of hair on the face or chin, thinning scalp hair, weight gain, and darkening of the skin around neck creases, the groin, or under the breasts. If you notice any of these signs, see your doctor. The condition is usually diagnosed with blood tests to measure certain hormone levels, such as androgens, as well as an ultrasound to look for any tell-tale cysts on the ovaries.
“Sometimes a doctor will dismiss a woman who complains of irregular periods by putting her on the birth control pill, but they really need to do a formal workup so that they can monitor her closely for signs of diabetes,” says Andrea Dunaif, MD, chief of the Hilda and J. Lester Gabrilove Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Bone Disease for the Mount Sinai Health System.
If you don’t have diabetes but have PCOS and are beginning to develop elevated blood glucose, then your doctor may also prescribe metformin. Women who took the drug and made changes to their diet and exercise habits reported more improvements in symptoms (including weight loss and regular periods) than women who took a placebo, according to an Australian study published in 2015 in the journal Human Reproduction Update.