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Managing the Symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

A woman jogging and exercising at the park 

Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a common condition that affects about 1 in 10 reproductive-aged women. PCOS causes the reproductive hormones to be out of balance, which can lead to the ovaries becoming enlarged and developing many small cysts.

Symptoms of PCOS include irregular or missed periods, hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face and body), acne, glucose intolerance, weight gain or obesity, and elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Many women with PCOS also struggle with infertility. Additionally, the chronic lack of menstruation puts women with PCOS at a higher risk for uterine cancer.

While PCOS cannot be cured, there are many options available to manage the symptoms, including options to improve fertility, says University Hospitals OB/GYN physician Diana Carmona, MD. These can include medications as well as lifestyle changes such as diet, exercise and weight loss.

Diagnosing PCOS

Physicians use a set of criteria to diagnose PCOS. Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you and may diagnose you with PCOS if you meet two of the following three criteria:

  • Hormone imbalance: a blood test will measure your hormones to see if you have elevated androgen levels
  • Infrequent periods (oligomenorrhea): This is defined as less than nine menstrual cycles a year
  • Polycystic ovaries: This can be determined through an ultrasound

Treatment Options

Medications. Doctors often prescribe hormonal birth control pills or an intrauterine device (IUD) to help regulate periods and manage the symptoms of PCOS. Other medications, such as Metformin, can be used to help regulate menstruation and hormones and control blood sugar.

Dr. Carmona says women trying to conceive can be prescribed cyclic progesterone to regulate periods. They may also be prescribed fertility medications such as Clomid or Letrozole to help induce ovulation.

Weight loss. Weight loss can be one of the most effective ways to manage PCOS and its symptoms without medication.

“Losing 10 percent of your body weight can improve ovulation and pregnancy rates, decrease other PCOS symptoms such as hirsutism, and improve glucose tolerance and lipid profile,” says Dr. Carmona. Weight loss can also make fertility medications more effective.

Diet and exercise. Simple lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise can promote weight loss, improve glucose tolerance and decrease PCOS symptoms. Eating a healthy diet is important for controlling blood sugar and can aid in weight loss. There is no standard diet for PCOS, but most experts agree that limiting starchy and sugary foods and incorporating anti-inflammatory foods can help. Beneficial foods include natural, unprocessed foods, high-fiber foods, and healthy fats, such as olive oil and avocado.

Examples of healthy PCOS foods include:

  • Dark, leafy greens such as spinach and kale
  • Dark red fruits and berries, such as blueberries, red grapes and cherries
  • Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna
  • Legumes such as beans and lentils
  • Nuts, including walnuts, almonds and pistachios
  • Spices such as turmeric and cinnamon

Foods to limit or avoid may include:

  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Fried foods and fast food
  • Sugary beverages
  • Processed meats and red meat

Experts also recommend getting 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, or a combination of the two. You should talk to your physician before starting any exercise routine.