By Dr. Felice Gersh
Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder in women, affecting up to one in five of us. And yet there are still many of us who don’t know we have it, don’t know anything about it, and find it difficult to get the information we need.
Many women only discover they have PCOS when they’re trying to get pregnant because it’s a common cause of infertility. This was the case with one of my patients, who had told her previous doctor that she was unable to conceive. There was no effort made to treat the underlying cause of this woman’s issue and she was recommended immediately for IVF treatment. Shortly after she conceived, she miscarried. It was only after I treated her for the root cause of her problems that she became pregnant and, after a normal full term, delivered a healthy baby. Clearly, we need to do more to raise awareness of a condition that brings so much pain and sadness to so many people.
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Understanding why conventional medicine is failing women with PCOS.
Due to the fact that it very often goes undiagnosed, women suffering from PCOS receive fragmented care. A PCOS sufferer will usually identify what they perceive to be their biggest “problem” and seek out a medical professional who specializes in that area. If it’s excessive facial hair that’s bothering her, she might go to a dermatologist. If it’s irregular periods, then a gynecologist. The result? There isn’t one person looking at the patient’s overall health.
This means that most of the time, when a doctor treats PCOS they’re treating the symptoms of PCOS and not the underlying cause. Some of these treatments, such as Isotretinoin (Accutane) for acne, have serious potential side effects such as liver damage, mood swings, and GI tract issues. Overall, traditional treatments for acne have far less success for sufferers of PCOS than they do for non-sufferers. To support the overall health of the woman and therefore diminish all the symptoms, a holistic approach is required.
Looking at the big picture of hormonal health.
There is no cure for PCOS, and the conventional medical establishment does not approach PCOS with the intention of curing it. This means that women are in danger of getting stuck in a pattern of treating symptoms as they arise. Meanwhile, neither they nor the medical community is giving thought to the day-to-day lifestyle choices that can greatly reduce those symptoms and improve their quality of life. Common symptoms include irregular or no menstrual period, excess body and facial hair, acne, difficulty getting pregnant, and irritable bowel syndrome. There are also numerous conditions that are associated with PCOS—such as type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, obesity, obstructive sleep apnea, heart disease, mood disorders, and endometrial cancer.
Treating the root cause: inflammation.
But there are effective ways to treat PCOS and allow those who have it to return to the life they deserve. An underlying factor of PCOS and a driver of many of its symptoms is the existence of chronic inflammation in the body. By making lifestyle changes, such as pursuing a healthy diet; establishing a sleep routine; and reducing stress through meditation, progressive relaxation, or tapping, the chronic inflammation in the body can be substantially reduced. Both exercise and nutritional supplements can also be effective.
The first step in treating this widespread condition that causes so much pain to so many women around the world is to educate and inform. By knowing which symptoms to look out for, women can ensure they don’t fall into the trap of taking an isolated, whack-a-mole approach and get the holistic treatment that will have the greatest effect.
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Felice L. Gersh, M.D. is board certified in both ob-gyn and integrative medicine, and is the medical director of a practice dedicated to the special health needs of women, the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, California.
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