Getting pregnant was never the problem for Jennifer Smith. Every time she and her partner tried to conceive, they were successful.
It was everything that came after that was hard — years of recurrent miscarriages without any explanation as to why. Smith, a library media specialist, says the time before she found answers was filled with “very difficult years full of a lot of anger and heartbreak.”
She would eventually be diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a condition that caused her to release a lot of poor-quality eggs every month. It was the reason why she was able to so easily get pregnant, and why those pregnancies never seemed to last.
There is no cure for PCOS, which is believed to affect at least one in ten women with symptoms ranging from infertility to irregular periods, acne, and weight issues, but there is hope. Two months after being diagnosed and beginning treatment, Smith got pregnant again. Today, she is the happy mom to a four-year-old son.
Understanding Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)
PCOS is about more than just infertility. While a lot remains unknown about its causes, reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Aimee D. Eyvazzadeh, describes the disorder as a metabolic condition that is likely genetic in nature.
While more research is required to develop a fuller understanding of why PCOS occurs, most believe the answer is likely a combination of genetics and environmental factors that lead to a hormonal imbalance between androgens (the “male hormones” like testosterone) and estrogen. Women with the syndrome have heightened levels of androgens that are typically to blame for many of the PCOS symptoms.
According to the CDC, PCOS affects somewhere between 6% and 12% of women in the U.S, and that rate appears to be on the rise. Determining a more exact number is difficult as there are few tests for identifying PCOS, and even fewer PCOS experts to treat patients. Diagnosis is further complicated by the fact that research now suggests there may be a polycystic ovarian spectrum, where women can have some of the identifying features of PCOS, including a degree of hormonal imbalance, but not meet all aspects of the clinical definition.
A recent study found it can take an average of two years and visits to multiple doctors for women to get a definitive diagnosis. “Sadly, I've seen patients in their late 30s not get a diagnosis until they see me,” Dr. Eyvazzadeh says. “They have reported their symptoms to doctors since their teenage years, but no one made the proper diagnosis.”
This was the case for Smith, who now believes she likely suffered from PCOS for years prior to her diagnosis at the age of 29.
Recognizing the Symptoms of PCOS
The symptoms of PCOS vary widely from woman-to-woman, as the experiences of the many celebrities who have opened up about their own diagnoses show: Victoria Beckham dealt with unpredictable periods and infertility; Daisy Ridley has been outspoken about her severe acne resulting from PCOS; and Lea Michele says she experienced weight fluctuations and skin problems.
To be diagnosed with PCOS, you must have at least two of these three signs: high levels of testosterone (also known as hyperandrogenism), erratic, infrequent, or absent periods, and cysts on your ovaries. Experiencing any of these can result in developing some of the symptoms of PCOS:
Irregular periods: One of the most common signs of PCOS is an erratic menstrual cycle due to disrupted hormones, which can prevent ovulation. While this is the main symptom, not all women, including Smith, experience missed periods or other easy-to-recognize symptoms.
Acne and Hirsutism: PCOS causes high levels of androgens, which can result in acne and unwanted hair growth that generally appears as coarse, dark hair in unexpected areas, like on the face or stomach.