Up to one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women can be affected by Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) – a chronic hormone disorder that affects fertility, physical health and emotional well-being. Also, women with PCOS have up to four times the risk of developing heart disease and four – seven times the risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is a chronic hormonal disorder that affects 12-18 per cent of reproductive aged women across Australia, with Aboriginal women at a higher risk of developing the condition. PCOS is a hormonal condition. In women with PCOS insulin (the hormone that controls sugars in blood) and male type hormones (such as androgen and testosterone) are produced in higher levels.
Women with PCOS can display the following symptoms:
•hair growth on the face and other areas
•acne or pimples
•delays and difficulty in getting pregnant.
PCOS is caused by a number of factors such as genetics and lifestyle. There is a genetic link with the condition, so if a mother or grandmother had PCOS, it is possible that the daughter or granddaughter may be diagnosed with PCOS. Weight, diet and exercise levels can affect hormone levels too.
If you suspect you may have PCOS, you will need to visit your GP or an Aboriginal Medical Service and get tested. Tests may include an ultrasound of the uterus, ovaries and the pelvis. This is a painless test with no radiation. A quick blood test can also check for increased male hormone levels.
Risks associated with PCOS
Women with this syndrome have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease, so it is important to get blood tests for cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose metabolism (glucose tolerance tests). Women with PCOS should have these tests every two years.
The good news is that PCOS can be treated and managed and as women get older the symptoms become less severe. Managing weight and increasing physical activity can improve symptoms and lower future risk of diabetes and heart disease. Staying active on most days, eating well and losing a couple of kilos (if overweight) are the best way to help lower your levels of insulin resistance.
Women with PCOS tend to put on weight more easily due to the higher levels of insulin and insulin resistance. Try eating a healthy diet mainly of plant-based, natural foods like fruit and vegetables and small amounts of low-fat meats. Avoid fried foods and foods with added sugar, salt and fats. Keep track of your weight and if you find it creeping up, take action like being more active.
Hair and skin problems
The higher levels of male-type hormones in the blood can cause more body hair on the face, stomach and back, and thinning in the middle of the scalp. Excess hair can be difficult for women to deal with, but can be managed by hair removal treatments. Waxing, hair removal creams, threading, electrolysis and shaving are all good ways to remove hair.
Many women with PCOS have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep, snore or breathe unevenly. If you have these problems tell your doctor. ∙ Period problems It is very common for women with PCOS to have periods that don’t come for many months or periods that come too often. The best ways to help your periods to become regular is to be active, eat a well-balanced diet, lose a few kilos if overweight, and take medications recommended by your doctor such as the oral contraceptive pill.
Women with PCOS tend to have more social and emotional wellbeing (SEWB) issues like anxiety and depression and may not feel good about how they look. If you are suffering from the emotional effects of PCOS, it is important to seek advice from your GP, counsellor or a psychologist. If you are worried about how you are feeling, you can yarn with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander SEWB worker or doctor at your local community health service. Other things that help improve SEWB are being more active and getting support from your friends and family.
A new booklet has been developed about PCOS called ‘Yarning About Polycystic Ovary Syndrome’. This booklet is essential reading for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who wish to better understand a condition that may affect them, their daughters, or other women in their community. It is also a vital resource for health professionals such as GP’s, diabetes educators, nurses, dieticians, health workers, endocrinologists and gynaecologists to provide to their clients. Here is a link to the booklet: www.managingpcos.org.au It has been developed by the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Organisation in conjunction with the Aboriginal Women’s Health Business Unit at the Royal Women’s Hospital in Melbourne.