As many as five million women in the United States suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome. The condition, which can begin as early as age 11, is caused by a hormonal imbalance in which the ovaries produce too many male hormones. PCOS often causes infertility.
PCOS can cause facial hair growth, irregular periods, acne, and cysts on the ovaries. And while you may experience hair loss on your scalp, you may notice more hair elsewhere on the body, Dr. Fusco says.
Your doctor is likely to do a blood test to look for elevated levels of testosterone and DHEAS (dehydroepiandrosterone), a by-product of testosterone.
What You Can Do:
Most cases of PCOS are treated with birth control pills such as Yasmin, which contains a potent anti-androgen that blocks testosterone. If you can’t use birth control pills, your doctor may prescribe spironolactone (Aldactone), which also blocks male hormones. Losing weight can also help by decreasing the effect of the male hormones.
Did you know that hair loss in women is common? In North America, women make up 40 percent of the population that endures hair loss.1 If you have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), you’re even more likely to join this group of women: 40 to 70 percent of women with PCOS experience hair loss.2
Hormonal Imbalance Is at the Root of PCOS Hair Loss
Androgens or male hormones affect the whole process of hair growth and loss. Androgenic alopecia is the medical term for the type of hair loss that women with polycystic ovarian syndrome encounter. In androgenic alopecia, testosterone becomes converted to the more powerful androgen: DHT. DHT builds up within the hair follicle, clogging and shrinking the hair follicles so that new hair cannot grow, or if it does–it can’t survive.1
If you have polycystic ovarian syndrome, you probably realize that you have hormonal imbalances, that you have higher levels of androgens in your system. You may have also heard about insulin resistance, a common condition in women with PCOS. Insulin resistance leads to high levels of insulin (which can cause unstable and/or low blood sugar in early stages, high blood sugar after progression to later stages). This increases androgen production and weight gain. Added belly fat further worsens insulin resistance and androgen production. This vicious cycle can lead to PCOS hair loss.
How Many Women Have PCOS?
Between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age has PCOS. As many as 5 million women in the United States may be affected. It can occur in girls as young as 11 years old.
What Causes PCOS?
The cause of PCOS is unknown. But most experts think that several factors, including genetics, could play a role. Women with PCOS are more likely to have a mother or sister with PCOS.
A main underlying problem with PCOS is a hormonal imbalance. In women with PCOS, the ovaries make more androgens than normal. Androgens are male hormones that females also make. High levels of these hormones affect the development and release of eggs during ovulation.
Researchers also think insulin may be linked to PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that controls the change of sugar, starches, and other food into energy for the body to use or store. Many women with PCOS have too much insulin in their bodies because they have problems using it. Excess insulin appears to increase production of androgen. High androgen levels can lead to:
- Excessive hair growth
- Weight gain
- Problems with ovulation
What Are the symptoms Of PCOS?
The symptoms of PCOS can vary from woman to woman. Some of the symptoms of PCOS include:
- Infertility (not able to get pregnant) because of not ovulating. In fact, PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility.
- Infrequent, absent, and/or irregular menstrual periods
- Hirsutism (HER-suh-tiz-um) – increased hair growth on the face, chest, stomach, back, thumbs, or toes
- Cysts on the ovaries
- Acne, oily skin, or dandruff
- Weight gain or obesity, usually with extra weight around the waist
- Male-Pattern Baldness or Thinning Hair
- Patches of skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs that are thick and dark brown or black
- Skin tags – excess flaps of skin in the armpits or neck area
- Pelvic pain
- Anxiety or depression
- Sleep apnea – when breathing stops for short periods of time while asleep
- Nancy Dunne, ND, “Natural Solutions for PCOS and Hair Loss,” Naturopathic Medical Care, Missoula, September 13, 2010, www.drnandunne.com
- Walter Futterweit, MD, “A Patient’s Guide: Management of Hair Loss in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome,” Obgyn.net, October 11, 2011, Retrieved July 21, 2012, http://hcp.obgyn.net/infertility/content/article/1760982/1968476