Many of the physical side effects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (a hormonal disorder, commonly referred to as PCOS) are widely known: weight gain, irregular periods, excess body hair and – as the name suggests – cysts on the ovaries. It’s thought to impact around 1 in 5 women worldwide and could also make conceiving a child more difficult.
But what about the mental health aspects of PCOS? A new study conducted over fifteen years by the University of Oulu, Finland, on 5889 women, asked each participant (who was 31 years old at the beginning of the research) to fill in a questionnaire. The questions all focussed on their life satisfaction and health status (for example, their weight, height and the frequency of their periods), and the results found that the women with PCOS had a “poorer quality of life” than whose without the condition – with mental health issues being the most common reason.
This isn’t the first time that the links between PCOS and low mood have been examined. One previous study found that PCOS patients were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and eating disorders.
Miserably, it doesn’t seem as though the mental symptoms of PCOS tend to alleviate with age, either. “Most PCOS studies focus on women during reproductive age, but symptoms like mental health issues and excess hair growth continue into the late forties,” says Dr Terhi Piltone, who lead the new research with the University of Oulu. “Our study focuses on this population and shows that women with PCOS have lower life satisfaction and poorer health up to their late reproductive years.”
Luckily, there are also steps you can take to help ease the downsides of PCOS, including following a specific diet and trying certain types of exercise. As with many mental health conditions, addressing them with the help of a GP or talking to others can also be positive steps to take.
Sarah*, 30, was diagnosed with PCOS in her late twenties
“I suspected I had PCOS ever since I was a teenager, but when I went to my GP I was told my irregular periods were down to stress. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I had a scan for something different, that I was finally diagnosed. I love our NHS, but I have to admit that when it comes to PCOS I feel there’s absolutely zero support. After all those years, my only conversation with a medical professional about it was very brusque – with them simply telling me I had to lose weight.
I felt like a burden, incredibly upset and ever since have only researched PCOS online. I never knew there was a link between PCOS and psychological issues, but I do struggle with both and have taken medication and had CBT sessions. It would make sense to me that it’s a side effect as it’s a medical condition that isn’t taken seriously and comes with a range of side effects that impact your confidence and self-esteem. Also, having irregular periods means some months I have symptoms of PMT, but no actual period to reassure myself with.”
Lauren Smith, 32, says PCOS has added to her anxiety
“PCOS has definitely affected my mental health. I have always been quite an anxious person, and am quite hard on myself – but the pressures of having the condition have definitely added to this. There are the little things, like unwanted hair growth on my neck and chin, that are embarrassing and can make you feel low, a visible reminder that something is off, and the irregular cycles/lack of period can cause stress too, as you worry about why haven’t had your period – and dread when it finally does come, as it’s usually very heavy and painful. Of course stress can make PCOS symptoms worse, so you’re then stuck in a vicious cycle – where the pressure you put on yourself for your body to behave and ‘be normal’, can actually make it go more haywire!
The hormonal imbalances can also lead to terrible mood swings around your monthly cycle – these are 100% worse when my PCOS is not being managed properly. While I can try to reduce my symptoms with a healthy diet, exercise (but not too much), and plenty of sleep, the biggest PCOS-related impact on my mental health has definitely been infertility – I’ve had periods of feeling really down, and struggled with coming to terms with our inability to conceive naturally. Fertility treatment is stressful, and has made me a much more anxious person as a result, and cross at my body for not being able to do what others seem to manage so easily.”
Carina Mckay, 27, found following the Keto diet helpful
“I first suspected I had PCOS when I noticed the irregular patterns in my periods (or no pattern at all) when I was around 15 years old. I put it down to age and could go months on end without period at all, then when I finally did have one, I’d bleed heavily for up to 10 days. It was hell and massively affected my personal life. I didn’t feel confident going out of the house in case I had any accidents. I also suffer with a lot of excess hair growth all over my body, especially my face which I keep at bay with laser hair removal – again, this impacted on my confidence in a big way.
I was diagnosed with PCOS in 2007 after having an internal and external scan. This is when I was put on to the combined pill, to regulate my periods – it was also when I noticed that my mental health took another nosedive. I’ve always struggled to stay focused, keep positive and stick to plans with friends, as when the day comes around something in my head starts telling me to cancel. I’ve found that since having the Mirena coil fitted (which contains a small amount of hormones) and adopting the Keto diet, which restricts sugar and carbohydrates, my PCOS has improved tremendously. I’ve also lost weight which has alleviated some symptoms, while boosting my confidence and mood.”