I first found out I had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) when I ended up in the hospital. I was 15, had barely had my first period, and was doubled over in a high-school classroom. My teacher thought I had appendicitis and, with how much pain I was in, I couldn't help but agree. It turned out to be that a cyst, or a small fluid-filled sack on my ovary had just decided to, essentially, implode. Before that, I had never heard of polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that affects me and a whole lot of other women.
What's it like to have PCOS? Well, it's effing exasperating. One of the most frustrating things about PCOS is that there's not a clear understanding of what causes it, though it's thought that your genes, insulin resistance and inflammation play a role. But a lot of symptoms of PCOS have a chicken-and-egg-dilemma— for example, losing weight can improve your PCOS, but PCOS makes it more challenging to lose weight.
And polycystic ovary syndrome affects a huge number of women. Estimates vary, but most put the figure at around 10 per cent of women aged 15 to 44, all of which have it to varying degrees of severity. While many women will have the occasional ovarian cyst throughout their lives, PCOS is different. It's not the occasional cyst, but regularly occurring ones paired with a hormonal imbalance — namely an increased level of androgens, also known as "male hormones," which can lead to a number of other side effects.
One of the confusing things about PCOS is the different ways it can manifest. There are a range of symptoms and complications, some women will have more of them and others less. I have a completely different experience than some of my other friends who have it. But there are many ways that cysts can affect women and many different ways that polycystic ovarian syndrome can make a woman feel. Here's a look at what it means.
Irregular periods are one of the most common signs of PCOS — and one of the most annoying side effects. Periods can be incredibly heavy, but it's also not unusual to go months without one or sometimes have multiple periods in a row with only a week in between. I tend to bounce in between the two, which makes life unpredictable and often frustrating. Unexpected period sex tends to just be part of the fun.
Another common sign and side effect of PCOS is weight gain — particularly around the abdominal area. There is a link between the hormone imbalance of PCOS and insulin resistance, making it hard for women with these cysts to lose weight. But losing weight is helpful to get other symptoms more under control. That's the chicken-and-egg problem I mentioned, and one of the hardest parts of PCOS to grapple with.
Hair growth (or hair loss)
Hirsutism, or too much hair growth in areas where men normally have hair, is common in women with PCOS — in fact it's thought to affect up to 70 per cent of women who suffer from the condition. This can include growth on the face, chin, neck and body. But some women end up having hair loss, in ways similar to male-pattern baldness. For me, it's chin hairs and nipple hairs for days, but I know I have it easier than a lot of women, as I've never experienced too many problems with facial hair.
Another side effect of excess androgens is acne. While some women may escape it, many end up with severe acne because of the hormonal imbalance. I've been lucky enough to avoid any real skin problems, but for some of my friends with PCOS it's a constant battle.
Emotional stress and infertility
In addition to the physical side effects, there is an emotional strain that many with PCOS experience. In part because of the stress that irregular periods and weight gain can cause, but also because of PCOS' association with infertility. It is the most common cause of infertility, but that doesn't mean that having cysts automatically means you can't have children. Although many women with cysts go onto conceive, it can make it more difficult. So if you want children and have PCOS, it's not unusual to stress about fertility issues in your future. The hormones and follicles can both interfere with your ovaries' ability to function, meaning they may not be producing or releasing eggs regularly, so the constant irregular periods are a reminder that something might be really wrong.
Combine that with frustration about the physical side effects, an inability to get a diagnosis or treatment plan, and stress about complications of PCOS like sleep apnea, diabetes, depression, and others — and it's easy to see why some women's mental health is affected.
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Damage to your sexual desire and sex life
For some women, PCOS means just not wanting to have sex or not experiencing their normal levels of sexual desire. In fact, one study found that nearly 60 per cent of women with PCOS experience some sort of sexual dysfunction, mostly including problems with satisfaction and sex drive. This can be exacerbated by the birth control that some women will take to attempt to curb their PCOS symptoms. Hormonal issues, the physical symptoms which can lead to body insecurity, and general stress can all combine to take a major toll on your sex life.
Having PCOS can feel like a daily annoyance or a huge medical issue, depending on your symptoms and severity. But you're not alone. Don't be afraid to talk to your doctor and reach out to your friends — you may find that some of them are having the same problems. Always ask for help.
This article was originally published on Bellesa.
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