Women's Health Sep 20, 2022

Keep Your Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Symptoms at Bay

Karla Maguire, MD, MPH from Women’s Health explains polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and offers lifestyle tips for symptom management

Reviewed by Karla Maguire, MD, MPH

Written by Lauren Schneider

A woman is sitting on a bench wearing a bike helmet and holding a water bottle. Her bright green road bike is blurry in the foreground.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a hormonal condition estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to affect up to 12% of reproductive-age women nationwide. The disorder is characterized by enlarged ovaries that produce an elevated amount of male sex hormones (androgens), causing the following symptoms:

  • Irregular period (cycle shorter than 21 days or longer than 35 days)
  • Amenorrhea (lack of menses)
  • Hirsutism (acne and excessive body hair)
  • Weight gain
  • Infertility

“Like with many conditions, lifestyle is the first step when it comes to PCOS management,” says obstetrician-gynecologist Karla Maguire, MD, from Women’s Health, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton. Here, she shares lifestyle tips to help people with PCOS address their symptoms.

Maintain a healthy weight

Weight loss is a useful strategy for preventing the effects of hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance. According to Dr. Maguire, “even small amounts of weight loss (5 to 10% of your body weight) can help with symptoms, start ovulation again, and allow you to become pregnant if you wish to do so.”

Establish a consistent exercise routine

Along with promoting weight loss, exercise is believed to have intrinsic benefits in alleviating PCOS symptoms. The CDC recommends that adults aim for 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Dr. Maguire says the best exercise regimen for PCOS is one you can stick to. “Anything that you like to do that’s fun and that you’ll keep doing is the best activity to pick.”

Mind your sugar intake

You do not have to adhere to complicated diets to reap the rewards of healthy eating. “There is no one diet that has been proven in studies to work best for PCOS,” says Dr. Maguire, adding that monitoring your carbohydrate intake is one adjustment you can use keep your blood sugar under control.

Blood sugar regulation is crucial for PCOS because many people with the condition are resistant to insulin. Normally, insulin regulates blood sugar levels by transporting glucose from the bloodstream into cells. When cells stop responding to this insulin, it is known as insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is linked to some of the most common comorbidities of PCOS including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Consider the benefits of oral contraceptive treatment

In addition to the health challenges posed by metabolic dysregulation, another major complication of PCOS results from disrupted ovulation. People with irregular periods caused by PCOS are still exposed to estrogen despite the hormonal imbalances associated with the condition. The resulting buildup of endometrial lining can lead to endometrial hyperplasia, a known precursor of endometrial cancer.

“We really want patients with PCOS to have at least four periods a year,” says Dr. Maguire notes that hormonal birth control can prevent such complications in patients who do not wish to become pregnant by regulating the menstrual cycle. She adds that treating PCOS with oral contraceptives can also address symptoms like hirsutism that do not respond to diet and exercise. “Think of birth control pills as a treatment for your condition rather than just a means of restoring your period.”

For more information about services provided by the Obstetrics and Gynecology care team at Women’s Health, visit the clinic’s specialty page.

About the Partnership Between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton

The collaboration between UT Health Austin and Ascension brings together medical professionals, medical school learners, and researchers who are all part of the integrated mission of transforming healthcare delivery and redesigning the academic health environment to better serve society. This collaboration allows highly specialized providers who are at the forefront of the latest research, diagnostic, and technological developments to build an integrated system of care that is a collaborative resource for clinicians and their patients.