Facial Hair, Weight Gain: Disorder Strikes 1 in 14 Women

Thursday, September 13, 2007

It's the most common hormone disorder in women, yet it often goes undiagnosed for years. What is PCOS, and what symptoms do women need to look out for?

Christine Dezarn was more than frustrated after years of infertility left doctors stumped. Then came a disturbing development.

"I gained 70 pounds over a period of less than a year without changing my lifestyle, and I began to grow facial hair," said Christine.

Christine never thought the symptoms were related. Then she ran across another woman in a chat room with the same symptoms. She'd been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS.

"Polycystic ovary syndrome is actually the single most common hormonal disorder of women," said Dr Ricardo Azziz of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "It affects one in at least 14 women."

Yet it's often missed. Dr. Azziz specializes in reproductive endocrinology and is conducting research on PCOS.

"There are a lot of physicians who don't clearly understand what polycystic ovary syndrome is, and so their patients also don't know," said Dr. Azziz.

An exact cause isn't known, but there's a growing body of evidence that insulin resistance plays a part. It triggers excess production of male hormones.

While infertility and irregular periods can result, those aren't the only risks.

"It is linked to an increased risk of diabetes. It is linked to increased risk of heart disease. It is linked to an increased risk of obesity," said Dr. Azziz.

Visible symptoms include facial hair growth or hair loss, weight gain, and adult acne.

Christine formed a support group to help patients and physicians connect the dots.

"PCOS attacks everything that makes a woman feel feminine and sexy," said Christine.

The disorder has been found in girls as young as nine. It also seems to run in families. Dr Azziz is conducting a study to figure out why.

"This is not something to take lightly. This is not just about fertility," said Christine. "It's a lifelong endocrine condition that must be treated."

Diet and exercise are important, too. Since patients may feel depressed or isolated, getting support or counseling may help.

Christine takes medication for insulin resistance and has seen most of her symptoms subside, although she is still dealing with infertility issues.

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