The symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome can cause embarrassment. But, as one extreme sufferer tells Hannah Frankel, there is help out there
Like many women, Angie, 32, used to spend a good half hour in front of the mirror before going into work. Less usual is the fact that all this time was spent removing unwanted facial hair. Then there was the small issue of her spiralling weight, severe acne and the hair on her head that was falling out in great clumps.
But such highly visible and embarrassing symptoms - to different degrees of severity - can occur among women who suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). About 10 per cent of women of reproductive age have PCOS, which is caused by cysts in the ovaries. These cysts trigger hormonal imbalances that in turn interfere with the menstrual cycle.
In Angie's case, her body produces high levels of testosterone, which is what causes acne as well as excess hair over her face, breasts, stomach and tops of her legs. PCOS has also made her insulin resistant, which effects her metabolic system and makes her more likely to put weight on and much less likely to lose it.
"I put on one-and-a-half stone in four weeks, without eating any differently," says Angie, who teaches at a primary school in east London. "I made sure I only ate low calorie food and did plenty of exercise, but I still went up to size 20."
Meanwhile, Angie was also having highly irregular periods - sometimes not menstruating at all and sometimes having periods that lasted six months, which left her anaemic and tired. She also struggled to fall pregnant and had two miscarriages in a year.
"It got to the stage where I'd simply had enough," Angie says. "I felt physically drained in the classroom and the children would be very honest, coming up and asking me why I had hairy arms or a moustache. It does get embarrassing and demoralising."
Now, having gone on a Glycemic Index (GI) diet of low carbohydrates and lean meat, she has dropped three-and-a-half stone to a healthy size 14. She is controlling her condition quite successfully with a drug designed for diabetics called Metformin and has started to use a prescriptive cream called Vaniqa that blocks hair growth. Following fertility treatment, she is now 32 weeks pregnant.
"After 13 years of battling with awful symptoms, Ism finally taking control," she says. "I'd advise other women not to let GPs fob them off with the contraceptive pill, which only masks the problems and can make matters worse. There are lots of other options on the market that can help."
Professor Stephen Franks, an expert in endocrinology at Imperial College, London, agrees. He says that women who are distressed or self-conscious about irregular periods, excess body hair, acne or hair loss should seek advice from their GP, who may refer them to an endocrinologist or gynaecologist who can talk them through all the possible options.
"In terms of infertility, there is a drug called Clomid that stimulates ovulation in the vast majority of women," he says. "There are also drug treatments that can effectively reduce the level of testosterone. Antibiotics can help the acne. We have a beautician in our clinic who gives cosmetic advice for women concerned with their appearance, which can also boost their confidence. If women are at all concerned, they should go to their GP instead of suffering in silence."
What to look out for
- Irregular or non-existent periods or ovulation.
- Difficulty in becoming pregnant or recurrent miscarriages.
- Unwanted facial or body hair.
- Thinning hair or baldness on the scalp.
- Oily skin andor acne.
- Being overweight, rapid weight gain or difficulty in losing weight.
- Emotional lability.
For more information visit www.verity-pcos.org.uk.