PCOS or Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is a state of hormonal imbalance that is quite common in women. It can occur any time after puberty or even later in life and women of all ethnicities are susceptible to it. The hormonal imbalance causes a problem in ovulation. In a healthy menstrual cycle, the ovaries release an egg each month. In women with PCOS, the egg may not develop as it should or may not get released. This causes irregular periods and can cause infertility. In PCOS, the body doesn’t produce the hormones needed to ovulate. As ovulation doesn’t occur, the ovaries form small fluid-filled sacs known as cysts. These cysts abnormally produce a male hormone known as androgen which is present in very small amounts in women.
Some symptoms of PCOS are –
- Irregular menstrual cycle – Women with PCOS have irregular periods. Some have delays while some have periods every few days. Some women might also completely stop having periods.
- Excessive hair growth on face, chin, chest, stomach and other parts of the body where usually men have hair.
- Thinning and loss of hair – Many women with PCOS start losing scalp hair and face male-pattern baldness.
- Weight gain – Many women start gaining weight especially around the abdomen and many even become obese.
- Women with PCOS also face the problem of acne on the face, chest and upper back.
- Skin tags – Skin tags are small pieces of excessive skin on the neck or on armpits.
- Patches of darkened or thickened skin in the armpits, on the back of the neck and under the breasts.
Women with PCOS suffer many other health problems as well. Some related problems include – diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, endometrial cancer which is the cancer of the uterus or the womb. Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Obesity or being overweight can lead to problems in sleep. Women with PCOS are at a risk of developing Type II diabetes. In families, where mothers or sisters already have diabetes or PCOS, women are at a higher risk of developing PCOS. PCOS can also cause problems during the time of pregnancy or even infertility.
Effect of PCOS is not limited to physical health. It is also linked to the mental and emotional health of women. Research suggests that along with these physical ailments, PCOS is also associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder in women.
Problems like weight gain, excessive facial hair or hair loss, skin tags etc. can also prove to be extremely detrimental to women’s emotional and mental well-being. It can cause distress, affect their mood negatively, and lead to poor self-confidence and body image. This physical manifestation of PCOS can make women feel extremely self-conscious and anxious in social settings. In most cultures, beauty is linked to a woman’s face and body. Women are shamed to have excessive or even visible facial hair and for having excessive weight. Due to this, some women might reduce their social interaction while some might completely avoid attending any social event at all. This causes frustration and puts women with PCOS at a higher risk of depression, anxiety and even eating disorders.
A study on how PCOS affects women’s mental health states the way women feel about living with PCOS. Many described PCOS as a ‘thief of womanhood’. They felt as if PCOS robbed them of their self-concept and the essence of being feminine, and attractive.
Some women with PCOS have insulin resistance, resulting in higher levels of insulin in the bloodstream. Higher resistance to insulin is also linked to an increased risk of anxiety and depression. Women with PCOS have hormonal imbalance. They have higher levels of androgens, which is a male hormone that also carries testosterone and lower amounts of serotonin, which is a hormone related to positive feelings. Low level of serotonin is a cause of anxiety and depression. Hence, women with PCOS are more prone to being depressed or anxious. Irregular menstrual cycles, complications in pregnancy and infertility are also strongly related to psychiatric problems.
In addition to this, the distress regarding physical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes etc. leads to a compromised lifestyle and further causes psychological problems like stress, anxiety and depression. Living with PCOS can be extremely stressful as it is not completely curable; it can only be treated and managed which requires women to make certain lifestyle changes and regulate their diets.
Impact of PCOS can be seen in women’s physical health, mental health and also their quality of life. Living with the symptoms, physical health conditions and an affected quality of life further add to the risk of developing mental health issues.
Even though there are no known causes of PCOS and it can not be cured, we know that it can be managed. If you are someone living with PCOS, here are some tips on how to take care of your physical and mental health –
- Get the right information – Consult a doctor and educate yourself about PCOS and its associated health risks.
- Eat a nutrition-rich diet full of healthy fruits and vegetables.
- Develop a habit of exercising regularly. Engaging in physical activities such as dancing, running or any sport can immensely help in coping with PCOS.
- Take care of yourself not only by eating right but also by focusing on your mental health. Engage in your favourite activity, read a book or paint a little to manage the stress associated with PCOS.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself while trying to lose weight as losing weight with PCOS can be tough and may take you longer than others.
- Talk to friends and family and seek support.
- Remember that pregnancy might be tough but it is possible.
- Ignore any hurtful or unpleasant remarks that people make. Remember that symptoms of PCOS are complex. Living with PCOS is not easy so be proud of yourself!
Kitzinger, C., & Willmott, J. (2002). ‘The thief of womanhood’: women’s experience of polycystic ovarian syndrome. Social science & medicine (1982), 54(3), 349–361. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0277-9536(01)00034-x
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