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Polycystic Ovarian Disease

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Some time ago, a 20-year old engineering student walked into my clinic, along with her mother. Just as I told them to take their seats, she burst into to tears saying “Doctor, I’ve been diagnosed with poly cystic ovarian disease…will you please help me?”

I was a bit taken aback by her reaction, but I reassured her saying that poly cystic ovarian disease (PCOD) is a common problem that can be managed efficiently and there’s no need to worry.

PCOD has indeed become a common problem – infact a lifestyle disease and we are seeing an increasing number of patients with this problem.

So what are polycystic ovaries?

Polycystic ovaries are slightly larger than normal ovaries that have twice the number of follicles (fluid-filled spaces within the ovary that release the eggs when you ovulate).

However, having polycystic ovaries need not necessarily mean that you have polycystic ovarian disease (also called poly cystic ovarian syndrome). But if there are two or more following symptoms present, it can be PCOD.

Irregular, infrequent periods or no periods at all

An increase in facial or body hair and/or blood tests that show higher testosterone levels than normal

Ultrasounds scan that shows polycystic ovaries.

How does PCOD affect you?

PCOD is a condition that can affect your periods, fertility, hormones and appearance. It can also affect your overall health across time. It is estimated that this disease affects 2 - 26 among 100 women.

What are the usual symptoms?

Irregular/no periods

Excess hair growth on the face, chest, abdomen, or upper thighs – a condition called hirsutism

Loss of hair on head

Becoming overweight - experiencing a rapid increase in weight/ having difficulty in losing weight

Oily skin and acne

Reduced fertility - difficulty getting pregnant

Patches of thickened, velvety, darkened skin (acanthosis nigricans)

Depression and psychological problems

What are the causes of PCOD?

Though the exact cause of PCOD is unknown, it is often hereditary. Most of the PCOD symptoms presented are due to abnormal/ change in hormonal levels. Though Testosterone is considered a male hormone, it is also produced in small amounts by ovaries, in all women. Women with PCOD have elevated levels of testosterone, which causes most of the symptoms.

Abnormal levels of androgens can prevent the ovaries from releasing an egg every month (ovulation), cause the unwanted hair growth and acne.

Those with PCOD may not respond to insulin –the hormone that controls blood glucose levels. High levels of insulin can lead to weight gain, irregular periods, fertility issues and also elevate levels of testosterone.

What are the long-term health risks of PCOD?

PCOD not only affects the reproductive system, but the entire body.

It increases the of serious health conditions including heart ailments, diabetes and hypertension.

The risk of developing diabetes is higher if one is:

Over 40 years of age

Have family history of diabetes

Developed diabetes during a pregnancy (gestational diabetes)

Is obese (a body mass index (BMI) of over 30)

Another condition that is associated with PCOS is metabolic syndrome, which leads to both diabetes and heart diseases.

Besides, if the number of periods is less than a year, the lining of the womb (endometrium) can thicken too much, leading to a condition called endometrial hyperplasia. This condition can subsequently lead to endometrial cancer or cancer of uterine lining. However, PCOD does not increase the chances of breast or ovarian cancer.

What are the treatment options for PCOD?

There is no cure for PCOD. However, it can be managed very efficiently with positive changes lifestyle and medicine, if required.

Many women with PCOD manage symptoms and long-term health risks without medical intervention, by adopting a healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Treatment for PCOD is personalised as symptoms and health problems, vary. Special treatment is given in case the patient wants to have a baby.

For overweight women, losing weight itself can help regulate the menstrual cycle. Even a loss of 5- 10 kg can be helpful in making menstrual periods regular. Weight loss can also improve cholesterol and insulin levels and relieve symptoms such as excess hair growth and acne.

Combined hormonal - birth control pills can be used for long-term treatment in women with PCOD (in those who do not wish to become pregnant). These pills regulate the menstrual cycle and reduce symptoms like hirsutism and acne by decreasing the androgen levels. They also decrease the risk of endometrial cancer.

Insulin-sensitizing drugs used to treat diabetes are used in the treatment of PCOD. These drugs help the body respond to insulin and decrease the androgen levels, which in turn improves ovulation. Restoring ovulation helps make menstrual periods regular and more predictable.

There are various ways to protect the lining of the womb using the hormone progestogen. This can be a five-day course of progestogen tablets (every three or four months)/ taking a contraceptive pill/ using the intrauterine contraceptive system (Mirena).

What can be done to increase the chances of pregnancy in women with PCOD?

Successful ovulation is the first step toward pregnancy. For overweight women, this can be achieved through weight loss. Medications can also be used to induce ovulation. Surgery on the ovaries can be opted for only medical management does not work. Such procedures are performed only if there is no other option.

How can long-term health risks of PCOD be managed?

Lead a healthy lifestyle

Change to healthy balanced diet: include fruits, vegetables, whole grain products, lean meat, fish and fibre. Avoid high sugar, high fat foods and alcoholic drinks.

Eat meals on time, especially breakfast.

Exercise regularly for at least 30 minutes a day – brisk walking is the best and easiest option.

Losing weight helps:

Manage insulin resistance/ developing diabetes

Lowers risk of heart problems

Lowers risk of uterine cancer

Regularises periods

Reduces acne

Decrease in excess hair growth

Improved mood and self-esteem

Do regular health checks

Women with PCOD and over the age of 40 should do regular blood sugar tests.

Women with PCOD and over the age of 40 should do regular blood sugar tests.

If you have had no periods/ have irregular bleeding, see a doctor immediately for uterine disorder/ cancer assessment.

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