If you’re struggling with infertility and you have a lot of irregularities around your period, there’s a chance both problems may stem from polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
Polycystic ovarian syndrome isn’t just an infertility issue, but a constellation of symptoms that many women have. And if you have a messed-up menstrual cycle, significant weight gain, or infertility, there’s a chance you may have it. You can thank an imbalance in your male and female hormones (androgen and progesterone) for getting you on this crazy train.
Even if you don’t have PCOS, it’s likely you know plenty of people who do—according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 10 women of childbearing age have the syndrome. And while any woman can develop PCOS, you’re more likely to have it if your mother or sisters had it, or if you’re overweight or obese.
For some women, the symptoms start as soon as they get their first period, while others develop the syndrome later on—after significant weight gain, for instance.
Your body on PCOS
PCOS is one of those issues that may require some detective work (and some testing) before you get a diagnosis. Some of the most common PCOS symptoms include:
- Irregular periods: Your period may not follow a set schedule, may not occur often, or it may extend long beyond the typical five to seven days (lucky you). Women may also experience painful periods or pain during ovulation, says Dr. Janelle Luk, medical director and founder of Generation Next Fertility in New York City.
- Hormonal imbalances: The increased levels of androgen can cause male-like hair patterns—including male pattern baldness, facial hair, and excess body hair—along with severe acne. You may also have a lower than normal level of progesterone, a key female hormone associated with fertility.
- Blood sugar fluctuations: We all get hangry from time to time, but if you have PCOS, this goes one step further. “Sometimes, women may also experience sugar cravings and blood sugar fluctuations that physically manifest themselves in a lack of energy or feeling light-headed,” Dr. Luk says. These issues sometimes lead to weight gain, and PCOS can also boost your chances of developing prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
- Polycystic ovaries: Normally, ovary follicles release eggs during ovulation. But if you have PCOS, excessive androgen could be working against ovulation. Your ovaries may appear swollen, and may contain several follicles that aren’t releasing their eggs. But this isn’t a dead giveaway that you have PCOS. Having cysts alone isn’t enough for a PCOS diagnosis, and your doctor should assess your menstrual cycle (or lack thereof), hormone levels, and weight fluctuation.
And just because you don’t check the box for every symptom, doesn’t mean you don’t have PCOS or PCOS infertility. You don’t have to have all the symptoms to be diagnosed with PCOS, and sometimes PCOS actually flies a bit under the radar. Your best bet is to head to a doctor who can specifically check for PCOS.
How PCOS could impact your fertility
If the PCOS symptoms—like that insane menstrual cycle—don’t suck enough, they can also do a number on your ability to become pregnant. According to Dr. Luk, PCOS often creates infertility issues due to its impact on periods and ovulation; if you aren’t ovulating, you aren’t releasing an egg.
PCOS infertility can make getting pregnant challenging, but it’s hardly impossible. While it’s super common, it’s actually one of the most treatable causes of infertility in women. If you know you have PCOS, Dr. Douglas suggests talking to your doctor about proactive steps you can take to balance your hormones and create a plan if and when you decide to try to get pregnant.
What your doctor might recommend
Medication is generally the first step to try to get everything moving. If you’re trying to conceive soon, progestin therapy might be used to level out your hormones.
Metformin, a medication that is used to treat type 2 diabetes, can also help treat PCOS. Although metformin isn’t FDA approved for the treatment of PCOS, decreasing insulin resistance in women with PCOS has been shown to give spontaneous ovulation rates a boost, says Dr. Marra Francis, MD, FACOG, an OB/GYN in The Woodlands, Texas.
Some women may need to move on to ovulation-inducing medications, like Clomid, but women with PCOS need to be carefully monitored if they do. If you have PCOS and take Clomid, you may be at increased risk of releasing more eggs than the one or two typically released with each Clomid cycle, which could result in twins.
If these treatments still can’t help you conceive, your doctor may move onto other protocols. Get ready—here come the injections, like Follitism or Menopur. If the injections alone still don’t get you pregnant, IVF may be your best bet, according to Daniel Kort, associate medical director and practice practice director at Neway Fertility in New York City.
Summing it up
PCOS can lead to some really crappy symptoms. But fortunately, there are plenty of tools and treatments you can use to combat your PCOS and boost your chances of getting pregnant.