by Dr. Anita Sadaty and Dr. Laura Paris, creators of the PCOS Solution Program.
Wonder if you have PCOS? Take the quiz:
Why care about PCOS beyond your symptoms?
Did you know that PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) is not just a condition that causes annoying symptoms such as difficulty conceiving, unwanted hair, acne, weight gain, and irregular periods?
Most women are concerned with their troubling symptoms, and for good reason! These symptoms can be frustrating, sabotage self-esteem, and cause heartbreak when you want to get pregnant and can’t.
However, beyond these symptoms that are frustrating today, PCOS causes long-term problems, which are important for every woman with PCOS to know about. It can be a downer to learn about them, but the bright side is that you can reverse the course of your PCOS and therefore turn around these long-term risk factors.
You can do this at any age! The important thing to know is that these long-term consequences are only for women with untreated or unresolved PCOS. If you do treat or solve your PCOS, these consequences go away.
Long-term consequences of untreated PCOS
This is a heavy topic – however, we would be doing a disservice if we didn’t teach you about these risk factors. Most women with PCOS have no idea about the long-term consequences of untreated PCOS, and it’s of utmost importance for you to know!
Infertility and “subfertility”
This is sometimes the first and only clue that you have PCOS. Untreated drivers of hormonal imbalance even if mild (say, occasional irregular periods or minor weight issues) can still spell trouble for egg quality, healthy ovulation, successful embryo implantation, and miscarriage risk. Don’t wait for a diagnosis, stay ahead of it. Jump on any health concerns with respect to your period and hormone balance.
If you have PCOS you are at increased risk of developing endometrial cancer (cancer of the uterine lining) later in life. Typical risk factors for any woman include a high BMI, unopposed or high estrogen exposure, diabetes and insulin resistance, and no biological children. All women of reproductive age ideally should experience a monthly build-up of a healthy endometrial lining each cycle to prepare for possible implantation of a pregnancy. If you don’t become pregnant, you shed your lining and have your period. PCOS is a condition of infrequent periods or “shedding.” This results in a thickened uterine lining, which predisposes you to precancerous and then cancerous changes.
This is a clear future risk of PCOS, as the majority of women with PCOS have insulin resistance. Many women don’t realize that insulin resistance and diabetes cause these significant health risks:
- Heart and blood vessel disease (heart attacks, strokes, poor leg circulation).
- Increased risk of ALL cancers.
- Increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Nerve damage (neuropathy of hands and feet, a painful tingling that also creates balance issues).
- Kidney damage (kidney failure requiring dialysis or kidney transplants).
- Skin damage (premature skin aging and risk of dermatologic conditions).
- Eye damage (leading to blindness).
- Limb amputation.
Don’t ignore a “pre-diabetes” diagnosis with the standard recommendations to “eat less sugar, exercise, lose weight and repeat blood work next year.” Don’t get us wrong, these are helpful suggestions, but how seriously are you taking them? Most doctors don’t teach the lifestyle approach because that is sadly not what they learned. They are waiting for your progression to diabetes so that you can be placed on anti-diabetic drugs as a therapeutic intervention.
There is some debate about the risks associated with PCOS and ovarian cancer. If you suffer from infertility, don’t have biological children, and use ovulation-inducing drugs during fertility treatments, then this may be cause for concern. This applies to all women who have these risk factors, not just those who have PCOS. Unfortunately, if you have PCOS you have a higher risk for infertility, and the need to use fertility drugs to achieve pregnancy. The good news is that if you DO become pregnant and have a child, your risk for ovarian cancer decreases.
Heart and vessel disease, abnormal cholesterol
It’s not a shock that cardiovascular disease is close behind diabetes risk. Unresolved PCOS is a clear path to these imbalances. High insulin and testosterone can lead to abnormal lipids (HDL, LDL, cholesterol, triglycerides). These are surrogate markers of inflammation. Using drugs to lower these levels misses the point. Cholesterol runs high in order to try to repair the damage being done to your blood vessels. Artificially lowering cholesterol without addressing the underlying causes, particularly in women, is of virtually no benefit to reducing heart disease risk according to studies.
Sleep apnea is when your airway becomes blocked during sleep, usually by a collapse of the soft tissue around your neck. This results in short episodes of not getting oxygen (“holding” your breath) up to hundreds of times a night. Unbeknownst to you, you are snapped out of sleep in order to breathe. Studies indicate that if you have PCOS your risk of developing sleep apnea is significantly increased, regardless of weight. Obstructive sleep apnea is not just a risk if you are overweight. There are other PCOS-related factors that increase risk. Why is this important? Firstly, sleep apnea causes hypoxia (low oxygen) which inflames your whole body – not good for any woman, and definitely not good for PCOS. Apnea also increases your risk for many health issues:
- Automobile accidents related to daytime sleepiness.
- High blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
- Heart rhythm disturbances and congestive heart failure.
- Pulmonary hypertension (affecting the blood vessel system of your lungs).
- Chronic fatigue.
- Reduced life expectancy.
PCOS is more than just the sum of your symptoms. This diagnosis has pretty significant consequences for your health in both the short and long term. Don’t play down these risks and don’t wait for a disease to appear.
Fortunately, you can quite easily reduce or nix all these health consequences by reversing your PCOS. The best place to start is with our DIY program the PCOS Solution. This will also teach you exactly what kind of help you need from your doctor.