September is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) Awareness Month, and in case you aren't familiar with the condition, PCOS is a hormonal imbalance that affects about one in 10 women of reproductive age. Since the condition is so common, you'd think there would be more education on the subject — but, sometimes, PCOS symptoms (such as acne, unusual bodily hair growth or loss, irregular periods, and unexpected changes in weight) can be confusing, and oftentimes they go unnoticed or untreated for years, or are confused for another illness. Though more awareness and education on this condition is emerging, there are still a handful of myths about PCOS that often lead to misinformation and misdiagnosis.
According to Dr. Janelle Luk, co-founder and medical director of Generation Next Fertility in New York City, women with PCOS experience an imbalance in their reproductive hormones; specifically, Luk explains, this means there are too many male hormones (called androgens) in the body, and not enough female hormones (progesterone). As a result, Luk says, that hormonal imbalance interferes with a woman's ovulation, and many other aspects of her overall health.
Luk tells Elite Daily that when people think of PCOS, many tend to think of the fertility struggles that can be associated with the condition. And while PCOS can indeed make pregnancy more difficult (but not impossible — more on that in a bit), it’s also important to note that PCOS impacts so much more than just fertility. "The truth is, studies show that more than 50 percent of women with PCOS will have diabetes or prediabetes before the age of 40, and the risk of heart attack can be multiple times higher in women with PCOS," Luk explains. "PCOS also increases one’s risk of having a metabolic disease."
According to Luk, it’s important that women everywhere know the facts about PCOS so they don’t assume things like, “Well I don’t want to get pregnant so PCOS doesn’t matter to me.” The truth is, Luk says, the condition impacts your body on multiple levels.
Too often, she adds, women “suffer in silence” until they're diagnosed with PCOS later in life, when they're dealing with things like infertility, years after they first began experiencing the symptoms. "You do not want [that] to happen, which is why you want to be fully informed about the statistics, symptoms, even your family history — especially [since], for many women, it can begin to develop soon after their first period," Luk explains.
To begin informing yourself, here are six common PCOS myths, debunked.
Though the condition often leads to infertility issues due to its effects on menstrual cycles and ovulation, Luk stresses that this does not mean a woman with PCOS can't ever be a mother who carries her own child. "That’s where reproductive endocrinologists like me come in, and we can help you get pregnant both naturally and via fertility treatments," Luk explains. "We help assess your own body’s cycle, hormone levels, and your unique situation as a woman and patient, and create a plan that can include everything from a modified diet (because food also impacts your hormone levels) to medical intervention."
The good news, Luk adds, is that PCOS is one of the most common, but treatable causes of infertility in women. "Once we diagnose it, we can find the best plan for you to help you ovulate, which will thus help you get pregnant," she tells Elite Daily.
If you think you did something that caused your body to develop PCOS, Luk says that is most definitely not the case. "PCOS has several known roots, from genetics to hormone imbalances from within your body. You didn’t choose to have increased androgen production in your body, and you certainly aren’t controlling that," she says.
In fact, Luk explains, many women begin developing PCOS when they're quite young, well before they even know what the condition is. "More and more scientists think that insulin may play a role [in] PCOS and believe women with PCOS have higher insulin resistance," the doctor explains. Again, if you have PCOS, this is not something that you caused yourself.
"Overall it’s important to note that this isn’t your fault, but the empowering thing to remember is that you do have the power to treat it with your physician and wellness support team," Luk tells Elite Daily.
According to Luk, one of the biggest things to remember about this health condition is this: PCOS is not one-size-fits-all. "Though it’s true that a family history of PCOS can increase your chances of developing it as well, that isn’t the only cause," she tells Elite Daily. "In fact, recent studies have shown us that other environmental factors play a role in the development of PCOS." These factors, the doctor explains, can include unhealthy behaviors like smoking, a poor/unbalanced diet, and lack of exercise. Another common factor, Luk says, is obesity.
"That being said, there are also countless women who have PCOS and are not overweight. The key thing here to repeat is that PCOS is NOT one-size-fits-all," Luk reiterates.
While some women with PCOS do have irregular periods, it's not the end-all-be-all, according to Luk. "Abnormal periods can be due to multiple things: over-exercising, fibroids in your uterus, stress, thyroid issues, severe diets, even breastfeeding," she explains.
The key here, the doctor says, is to make sure you notice when your period is irregular (or not happening at all), and then talk to your doctor about what might be causing this.
"Though [birth control] was once the most common way women with irregular periods were treated, this is no longer the case and not necessary for every woman," Luk tells Elite Daily. "In fact, in some ways [pills] are only a band-aid for your PCOS symptoms — it doesn’t stop them or fix PCOS, it only masks the symptoms like your period problems."
Again, birth control isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for PCOS, and in fact, there are several treatment options that can help with PCOS symptoms, especially when they're related to your period. According to Luk, these include lifestyle modifications (i.e. healthier eating habits, exercise routines, etc.), fertility medications, and even a surgical procedure known as ovarian drilling (which Luk says can increase your chances of successful ovulation by, essentially, triggering it).
"As you can see, there are several options, from the traditional to the holistic, when it comes to treating your body and your period," Luk explains. "The best path for you? It’s totally a personal choice you should be making with your doctor, keeping in mind your body, your symptoms, and your overall reproductive goals."