In the United States alone, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) affects over 5 million women of reproductive age, making it one of the most commonly diagnosed endocrine disorders. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the condition, which leads to many pervasive myths about PCOS and fertility.
Let's explore six of the most common myths about PCOS.
In this article:
- What is PCOS?
- 6 Common Myths About PCOS and Fertility
- Myth #1: You Can’t Get Pregnant If You Have PCOS
- Myth #2: PCOS is Your Fault
- Myth #3: Losing Weight Will Cure Your PCOS
- Myth #4: All People With PCOS Are Overweight
- Myth #5: PCOS is Reversible
- Myth #6: If You Have PCOS, You’ll Get Diabetes
- Stay Hopeful & Take Action
What is PCOS?
Before we dive in, let's define what Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) actually is, what the typical symptoms of PCOS are, and who to talk to if you suspect you may have the condition.
PCOS is a common condition in women of reproductive age that causes hormonal imbalances which can then cause a plethora of related, challenging symptoms. Think: hirsutism (unwanted hair growth), acne, weight gain, hair loss, insulin resistance, and sub-fertility (trouble conceiving).
The three major symptoms of PCOS are:
- Irregular or non-existent periods
- High androgens (male hormones)
- Cystic-appearing ovaries
Note: While not every patient will have all three markers, they must exhibit two out of the three symptoms above to be diagnosed with PCOS.
If not properly managed, PCOS can cause long-term health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Additionally, women with PCOS are at higher risk for anxiety and depression. To avoid these physical and mental health issues, it’s important to seek professional care to get any symptoms under control.
6 Common Myths About PCOS and Fertility
If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, one of the best things you can do is educate and empower yourself with evidence-based information so you can live a long, healthy life.
Whether you are newly diagnosed with PCOS, have lived with it for years, or simply want to support a loved one with the condition, separating myth from fact is essential to well-being and the management of this complex syndrome.
Here are six of the most common misconceptions about PCOS:
Myth #1: You Can’t Get Pregnant If You Have PCOS
Contrary to popular belief, this is (fortunately) not true for people with PCOS.
While PCOS is one of the most common causes of sub-fertility, it is generally due to ovulation dysfunction that can be easily fixed in most patients, rather than an intractable, advanced fertility problem that does not respond to treatment.
Many people with PCOS are able to conceive on their own, and those who do not will typically respond quite well to entry-level fertility treatments like ovulation induction and intrauterine insemination (IUI). There are also advanced treatments like in vitro fertilization (IVF) if needed.
Rest assured: Having PCOS doesn’t automatically mean you are infertile, and if you are having difficulty conceiving, many treatments (most of them non-invasive) are available to help those who need a little assistance to grow their family.
Myth #2: PCOS is Your Fault
This is another harmful (and inaccurate) assumption that can worsen the mental health of many people with PCOS. Those with the condition should never feel like they did something to cause their PCOS, or that it is their fault they are struggling with PCOS symptoms.
As researchers continue to study the genetic components of PCOS, the impact of family history and other factors becomes more apparent. About 10% of the general population will have PCOS, and if you have a primary relative with the condition, that number can be doubled.
However, because it is such a complex syndrome with many contributing factors, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of PCOS. However, one thing holds true: you did not cause it, and shouldn’t blame yourself for having the condition.
Myth #3: Losing Weight Will Cure Your PCOS
One of the first pieces of advice most people with PCOS receive is to lose weight. While shedding pounds can alleviate certain symptoms (including reducing insulin resistance), weight loss is not a cure-all.
That said, PCOS is very sensitive to changes in body weight - both up and down.
Having PCOS can make losing weight more difficult by slowing down your metabolism, causing more intense cravings, and other challenging factors. Blanketed weight loss advice, especially when not tailored to the individual, can often do more harm than good.
Extreme dieting and intensive exercise can actually be detrimental to your metabolism and raise levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), which makes losing weight even harder. A slow, maintained level of weight loss (1-2 pounds per week) is healthier and more sustainable.
Always talk to your doctor about the right path forward for you. If you don’t currently have a doctor helping you manage your PCOS, look for a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist who has special training and experience treating the condition.
Myth #4: All People With PCOS Are Overweight
Although the majority of people with PCOS are in the overweight category, a small but significant segment of patients (20%) actually have a body mass index (BMI) in the “normal” range.
These cases are referred to as “lean PCOS,” and can actually be more difficult to diagnose.
Learn more about this variation of PCOS from Nurse Practitioner Monica Moore:
Myth #5: PCOS is Reversible
Unfortunately, this myth is categorically untrue, despite some PCOS "experts" claiming otherwise. PCOS is managed over a lifetime, it is not cured.
No magic supplement or diet will reverse your PCOS.
That being said, symptoms can be reduced dramatically with proper treatment and lifestyle changes. By understanding your risks, finding ways to manage your symptoms, and working with healthcare professionals who specialize in PCOS, you can live a healthy, happy life.
PCOS nutrition experts recommend the following dietary changes:
- Choose foods low in saturated fats
- Pick lean meats or fish and low-fat dairy
- Include high-fiber foods by eating fresh vegetables and fresh fruits
- Choose heart-healthy fats, while limiting high-fat foods
- Avoid processed carbohydrates and added sugars, limit sweets
- Opt for complex carbohydrates/whole grains
Other lifestyle-related adjustments you should consider:
- Add in 30-60 minutes of physical activity each day
- Eliminate smoking and recreational drugs
- Eat regular (and balanced) meals
- Find tools or methods to manage your stress
- Engage in good sleep hygiene to improve your quality of sleep
Myth #6: If You Have PCOS, You’ll Get Diabetes
While people with PCOS often struggle with insulin resistance, which can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes, there are many things you can do to avoid this progression.
More specifically, poorly controlled hemoglobin A1c (blood sugar) levels are correlated with the following issues for those trying to conceive:
- A longer time to achieve a pregnancy
- A higher chance of miscarriage
- An increased risk for birth defects in early pregnancy
However, with proper diet and exercise (and in some cases, medication), you can keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range and work to avoid diabetes altogether.
Stay Hopeful & Take Action
There are many ways to manage PCOS symptoms, improve your chances of conceiving, reduce your risk of further related health issues, and lead a healthy, fulfilling life with PCOS.
Taking steps to reduce your stress levels, increase movement, improve your diet, and surround yourself with a good healthcare team will help you feel more confident that you are on the path to optimizing your health and achieving family-building success!
Looking for PCOS support? Illume's comprehensive PCOS Program is run by providers who are passionate about helping you understand PCOS, how to manage it, and how to achieve your personal goals - whether you’re trying to conceive, wondering about your future fertility, or simply wanting to increase your overall health and wellbeing. Reach out to us today!
Dr. Joshua Hurwitz is a Partner in Reproductive Endocrinology at Illume Fertility and is board-certified in both Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology & Infertility. Dr. Hurwitz joined the practice in 2006, bringing a passion for patient care and teaching. He is also the Division Director of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility (REI) services in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at Danbury Hospital.