Getting pregnant if you have polycystic ovary syndrome -- commonly known as PCOS -- can present a challenge. PCOS occurs in as many as 5 to 10 percent of women of childbearing age, according to a March 2008 "Fertility and Sterility" article03661-8/pdf). It affects the production of hormones essential for becoming pregnant. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends lifestyle changes as a first-line therapy for treating infertility associated with PCOS.
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Effect of PCOS on Fertility
If you have PCOS, you have an excess of male hormones, called androgens. While the ovaries of all women produce androgens, an overabundance of androgens disturbs the balance of other reproductive hormones, such as estrogen and luteinizing hormone. These hormones are necessary for the development and maturation of an egg each month. You cannot get pregnant if you do not produce and release a mature egg from the ovary, a process called ovulation. A lack of ovulation, called anovulation, is one of the hallmarks of PCOS. Women who do not ovulate have irregular or absent menstrual cycles.
Weight loss is the first-line therapy for treating PCOS-related infertility. Approximately 50 percent of women with PCOS struggle with being overweight or obese, notes a July 2002 review of PCOS published in the "International Journal of Obesity." Excess weight causes more fertility issues in PCOS because the extra fat tissue promotes insulin resistance, which in turn fosters excess androgen production. Obese women with PCOS have higher levels of androgens than nonobese women with PCOS. Losing as little as 5 percent of your body weight may stimulate ovulation so you have a chance of becoming pregnant, according to a report published in the March 2008 issue of "Fertility and Sterility."03661-8/pdf)
Losing weight is a positive step, but changing your diet and eating in a way that keeps your blood glucose stable also play a part in improving PCOS symptoms and regulating your menstrual cycle. A diet that emphasizes carbohydrates with a low glycemic index (GI) may benefit women with PCOS. Low-GI foods take longer to break down and digest, keeping your blood glucose levels stable longer. Simple sugars tend to rate high on the GI scale, while high-fiber foods and other complex carbohydrates rate low. A study published in the May 2010 issue of the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" found that 95 percent of women with PCOS who followed a low-glycemic diet experienced an improvement in regulating menstrual cycles, compared to 63 percent of the group who consumed a healthy conventional diet. Talk with your doctor about the possible benefits of following a low-GI diet.
Exercising regularly is another positive step that a woman with PCOS can take to increase her chances of becoming pregnant. Exercise plays a role by helping a woman lose weight and keep it off, which helps regulate her hormones and increase her chances of ovulation. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' 2009 practice guidelines recommend starting with exercise and weight loss as therapies for stimulating ovulation. Take any physical limitations or health problems such as heart disease into account before starting an exercise program. Always talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.
Reviewed by: Mary D. Daley, MD