PCOS and fertility – Dr. Jessica Farren
PCOS is a common conditions that may influence fertility, approximately 1 in every 10 women is affected by PCOS. Often it doesn’t cause any problems, but we explain in more detail below its impact and how it can be managed.
What is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome?
‘Polycystic ovaries’ is simply a way of describing what your ovaries look like on an ultrasound scan. Ovaries should have little cysts (collections of fluid – more properly referred to as ‘follicles’) on them – from which eggs are ultimately released – and ovaries appearing ‘polycystic’ just means that they have a few more of these little cysts (and are therefore overall usually a little larger) than average. Most women who have polycystic ovaries do not have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
However, the appearance of PCO on scan has been associated with hormonal imbalance, in which there is relatively more of the hormone testosterone (this is generally thought of as the male hormone, but actually women need some of it too – just not too much), and a lack of response to insulin (the hormone that deals with sugar in the blood – and a lack of it can cause diabetes) – which overall can lead to a combination of symptoms – a ‘syndrome’.
A group of experts got together a few years ago to agree some criteria for a PCOS diagnosis. These are called the ‘Rotterdam criteria’ and they require someone to have at least two out of three of the following:
- Polycystic ovaries on scan
- Infrequent or absent ovulation – which usually means irregular periods (if you are not on the pill)
- Signs of high testosterone (usually bad skin (acne) or excess hair growth), or high levels of testosterone on blood tests
So, confusingly, this means that you can be diagnosed with PCOS even if you don’t have polycystic ovaries!!
It often runs in families – so women with the condition will often report their mother or sisters having similar symptoms, or a family history of diabetes.
PCOS and fertility
One of the features of PCOS is not ovulating regularly, meaning it can take longer to get pregnant. If time is on your side, you are still having periods most months (having a period is usually a sign that you’ve ovulated), and you’re happy to accept that it may take a little longer, then there’s no reason to do anything. Often maintaining a healthy lifestyle, with a good diet and regular exercise, and keeping your weight within the recommended range, will improve your fertility.
In fact, I have lost count of the number of friends who thought they’d better start trying earlier than they might have done ‘because they have PCOS’ and have been surprised to conceive immediately! However, if your periods are very infrequent, or you are above the age of 35, then you might want to consider discussing it further with your GP – and consider referral to fertility services – sooner than the standard recommendation (of one or two years of trying).
Fertility services (once they have done a thorough check to confirm that this is the only reason why you are not conceiving – i.e. a check of your womb and fallopian tubes, and also your partner’s sperm count) can prescribe medication to help you ovulate regularly (usually a medication called clomiphene). You can only be on this for a limited amount of time, and you need to have regular checks to make sure it is working and you are on the right dose. It does increase your risk of a twin pregnancy.
If ovulation induction isn’t successful, sometimes a procedure called ‘laparoscopic ovarian drilling’ is considered – in which a keyhole procedure is performed while you are asleep, and small holes are made in the ovary (it’s not known exactly how or why this works – but there is good evidence for it!). IVF may also be appropriate.
PCOS and pregnancy
PCOS seems to be associated with a slightly higher risk of early miscarriage.
Women with PCOS may be more likely to develop diabetes in later pregnancy (gestational diabetes). Some units will advise that all women with a past diagnosis of PCOS have a test called a ‘glucose tolerance test’ in pregnancy (usually at about 6 months) to check for diabetes.
Other implications of PCOS
Women with PCOS are more likely to develop diabetes in later life. Keeping a healthy weight significantly reduces this risk. It has also been shown that women with PCOS are more at risk of cardiovascular disease (including heart attacks and strokes) – so need to keep a close eye on their lifestyle and blood pressure to reduce this risk.
In PCOS, the lining of the womb (the endometrium) may be thickening under the influence of high levels of the hormone oestrogen, but, because of a lack of regular ovulation, is not being shed. A very thick endometrium is more prone to develop abnormalities in its cells, which can, if untreated, lead to endometrial cancer in later life. For this reason, women with PCOS and infrequent periods are advised to take medication (usually progesterone) to induce a bleed at least four times each year. Alternatively, women who do not wish to get pregnant might consider the intra-uterine system (IUS) called the Mirena coil ©.
Having PCOS seems to be associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Some of this may be a reaction to the symptoms themselves, which can be understandably upsetting. Research has shown that mindfulness and meditation are helpful for low mood and anxiety. Adia has a daily meditation and relaxation programme that you can try. Regular exercise has also been shown to be helpful.
PCOS and your skin/hair
Having too much testosterone can give you bad skin or excess hair growth on your body or face (doctors call this ‘hirsutism’).
A healthy diet is likely to improve your skin. You may wish to consider permanent forms of hair removal such as laser. You can see your GP for prescribed treatments: medicated cream for spots, or one particular type of contraceptive pill may be particularly helpful (called co-cyprindrol (Dianette©))
What should I be eating if I might have, or be prone to, PCOS?
There is some thought (though limited evidence) that the condition itself causes weight gain – but weight gain definitely exacerbates the symptoms and the risks associated – so it can be a tricky vicious cycle to find yourself in.
Keeping your weight within a normal range (BMI 19-25), with a healthy diet and regular exercise regimen (at least 30 minutes, 3 times a week), is the most important way to manage the condition and all its potential complications. Weight loss has been shown to not only improve fertility, but also psychological symptoms, and future risks of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Our nutritionist, Katie Darymple:
Women with PCOS are known to have higher than normal insulin levels. One way to lower insulin levels is to change and modify your diet.
Insulin is produced by our pancreas in response to the glucose in our blood which comes from the sugar in our diet. The low glycaemic index (GI) diet helps to control blood glucose levels, as foods with a low GI do not cause spikes or high levels of blood glucose. The sugars from low GI foods are released slowly into our blood and therefore do not result in high levels on insulin.
Low GI foods include wholegrains which are high in fibre, such as oats and wholegrain pastas and breads. Beans, nuts and pulses are also low GI foods.
If you are considering a low-GI diet focus on:
- Eating 3-4 different vegetables per day
- Switching white bread, pasta and rice for wholegrain alternatives
- Incorporate beans and pulses into your meals
- Stay away from processed or refined foods which are high in sugars, such as crisps, sweets and chips.