We listened to women in our community & partnered with amazing doctors at LifeHub in Hong Kong for professional insights.
Read on to hear their advice and experiences!
PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) affects one in ten women worldwide. We tried to find statistics for Asia, but as we're learning this is no easy feat. Thankfully, our friends over at Life Hub wellness center in HK had our back. According to one of their practitioners, Miles Price, 5.6% of Chinese women have PCOS. Doesn't sound like too much? Let's put it this way, that's roughly 78 million Chinese women!!
And these numbers may be even higher. Often, PCOS rates globally are cited as 4% but in 2018 this was uncovered to be an outdated figure! Just one of the many signs that female health needs more research...
Plus, these numbers don't even count the women who suffer from PCOS undiagnosed. It's estimated that 70% of patients are currently without a diagnosis! As Miles explained, "PCOS cannot be determined with a simple test, which is why it can often be missed for years."
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome is often cited as a hormonal disease - although its causes are actually still unknown. In addition to hormone imbalance, environmental and genetic factors are thought to play a role in the development of PCOS.
PCOS is among the leading causes of infertility for women and it can lead to various other health risks. According to Miles, women with PCOS are much more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, infertility, obstructive sleep apnea, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and depression.
Our trusted LUÜNA woman, Arwen, was told upon diagnosis that she would need fertility drugs to conceive. A few years later, while in China, she naturally fell pregnant after two months of trying. She was understandably excited, but also shocked that it'd happened so quickly. When she mentioned this surprise at her doctor's appointment, her doctors admitted to not knowing about PCOS.
What causes PCOS?
PCOS is thought to be mainly dependent on three different hormones: androgen, insulin and progesterone. Let's break them down:
-Androgen is sometimes referred to as the "male hormone". Despite this name, it's actually completely normal for all women to have. However, women with PCOS will often note higher levels of androgen.
-Women with PCOS, are usually not as responsive to Insulin as they should be. This hormone helps the body gain energy by absorbing glucose (aka blood sugar) into our cells. If this isn't done properly, higher levels of blood glucose can be detected. Because of this, the body will make more insulin. However, if the body finds too much insulin, it will create more androgen!
-Progesterone is one of the key hormones in the second half of our menstrual cycle - helping turn the uterus into a warm and cozy home for a fetus to grow. A lack of progesterone, however, can lead to irregular or missed periods.
What are the symptoms of PCOS?
Despite its name, not all women with PCOS have cysts on their ovaries (although this is still common). The telltale sign for many women is irregular or missed periods (which are a result of not ovulating). Other common symptoms though include:
-weight gain that is difficult to manage
-fatigue or sleep problems
-unwanted hair growth
-thinning hair or hair loss (on your head)
-acne (or other skin changes such as darkened patches)
-mood changes or even depression and/or anxiety
We chatted with our friend Shelby, who was diagnosed with PCOS when she was 20. She decided to go see a doctor after picking up weight she couldn't get off, despite exercising and dieting. She also experienced irregular periods, which were very heavy and painful when they did come on. But mostly, Shelby says PCOS has had the biggest impact on her confidence.
She uses makeup to make her face slimmer and hide where her hair is thinning out, and almost exclusively shops online to avoid being judged by shopping assistants. These are the symptoms of PCOS that, at least from Shelby's experience, doctors seem to care less about.
"Most doctors only cared about treating infertility – they didn’t care how it affects my daily life"
Arwen lived through a similar experience. "For some women the effects of PCOS (for me hirsutism and hair loss) can have negative impacts on their mental health." Arwen's symptoms caused her to feel ashamed of how she looked - and while the idea of infertility saddened her, for a long time it wasn't her biggest concern.
How is PCOS diagnosed and treated?
As we mentioned, there is no "simple test" for PCOS. Our partners at Life Hub explained that diagnosis often involves many tests such as blood work (to asses characteristic hormone imbalances), pelvic exams and ultrasounds to look for abnormalities.
After diagnosis, treatment has to be designed to help each patient decrease or eliminate her symptoms. There is no cure for PCOS yet, but symptoms can be managed to help women lead healthier lives.
Miles says medications can help, but as with any condition, the best treatments are holistic and take into account diet, exercise and supplementation. Of course, any such program needs to be personalized but Miles recommends inositol, magnesium and zinc supplementation for women with PCOS.
For diet, Miles usually recommends a low carbohydrate diet due to scientific studies outlining the benefits of a low carb diet on hormone balance (testosterone, LH, FSH), insulin resistance and weight management for PCOS. But it's always best to check with your own doctor & find the best solutions for your body!
Finding the right doctor can also make a HUGE difference. Our friend Shelby recalls that before starting treatment with her current gynea & endocrinologist, working with doctors could be a struggle.
“It has been annoying trying to get help with my condition in the past. Most doctors have been reluctant to assist me as I am not trying to fall pregnant. Infertility seems to be the only part of PCOS they care about treating.”
Arwen had trouble finding understanding doctors as well, and the difficulty didn't stop once she fell pregnant. After giving birth, she struggled with her natural milk supply. A simple Google search revealed this was common among women with PCOS, but the multiple doctors Arwen reached out to for help were unaware of this effect. In the end, she had to research and buy medicine online.
Is PCOS awareness high in Asia?
We learned a lot this month - but the biggest lessons came from women like Arwen and Shelby who shared their experiences with us.
From them, we were also saddened to learn how much work there still is to do to raise awareness around PCOS in Greater China.
"I think endometriosis is getting more traction here [in China] than PCOS, once again due to accompanying fertility issues. As I mentioned, when I approached medical practitioners with my PCOS related issues they either hadn’t heard of it, or were unaware of such issues." ~ Arwen
"I have spoken to my colleagues and friends about it [PCOS], especially with my recent health issues, they’ve had a lot of questions about why I’ve been off work so much and if everything is okay. When I’ve mentioned the PCOS they didn’t really know what it is, I’ve had to translate it into Chinese and then explain it." ~ Shelby
We want to work towards changing this. How? By sharing the stories of more women in our community that live with PCOS (or have friends/mothers/sisters/girlfriends with it). So please don't hesitate to contact us!
If you experience irregular periods (whether it's related to PCOS or not!) we recommend always being ready. Keeping a couple of liners in your purse can help you avoid any emergency ;)
We've partnered on this article with LifeHub in Hong Kong.
LifeHub is an Integrative Wellness Centre offering doctor-designed products and services that address the root causes of common lifestyle conditions like stress, fatigue, low immunity and poor sleep. We integrate the latest advancements in prevention, wellness, fitness & nutrition with individualized coaching to help you achieve your own optimal health. https://www.thelifehub.com
Medical advice in this article was provided by Miles Price, Functional Medicine Practitioner & Clinical Nutritionist at LifeHub