We all experience bloating from time to time, whether it’s the result of a big lunch, the onset of PMS or a bout of anxiety. But if you find yourself feeling frequently bloated, it might be worth paying attention, as it could be a sign of polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS. A recent study by women’s health app Flo showed that bloating was the disorder’s most common symptom, experienced by around 77% of sufferers.
PCOS is a common endocrine disorder that is thought to affect up to 20% of women worldwide. Women with PCOS produce excessive amounts of male hormones and may not ovulate. The condition can lead to fertility problems if untreated.
Why does PCOS sometimes cause bloating?
“Studies have shown that developing PCOS impacts the biological composition of our guts, making it more difficult for the body to digest food and altering bowel function,” says Anna Klepchukov, Flo’s chief medical officer.
“Hormonal changes due to PCOS reduce gut flora and bile acids that help digestion and change the process of metabolism, or how our bodies convert foods and drinks into energy. Due to these changes in the body, bloating can result.”
Anna adds that the psychological impacts of PCOS can also affect the relationship between the brain and gut, and may be another cause of bloating.
Bloating due to PCOS can be made worse by foods with a carbohydrate called raffinose, causing more gas production, says Anna. “Examples include asparagus, beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. Changing your diet can help reduce belly pain and discomfort. Experts also recommend women with PCOS to do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least four times per week to improve problems with metabolism due to the disease.”
What are some of the other symptoms of PCOS?
“Not all women who have PCOS experience the same symptoms, and symptoms may also vary based on geography and ethnicity,” explains Anna. However, the Flo study found that facial hirsutism (excess hair around the mouth and chin), hyperpigmentation (when patches of skin are darker than the skin around it) and irregular menstrual cycles are widespread signs of PCOS.
Acne is another common sign of PCOS, found to affect roughly 15 to 25% of patients in a previous study.
“Women with PCOS may also show polycystic ovaries on an ultrasound scan,” Anna adds. “These are enlarged ovaries with many harmless fluid-filled sacs surrounding the eggs which prevent the release of the egg during ovulation.”
What should you do if you think you might have PCOS?
“If you have irregular periods, bloating, excess facial hair, trouble getting pregnant or experience any of the other symptoms, see your doctor for a checkup,” advises Anna.
“To diagnose PCOS, they will ask you about your family medical history and do a physical exam. Blood tests can also be done to determine if your ovaries are working as they should or producing extra amounts of androgens, the male hormones responsible for excess facial hair or baldness. You may be sent for an ultrasound to determine the size and appearance of your ovaries.”
While there’s no cure for PCOS, it can be treated effectively. “Medicines are available to treat symptoms like excessive hair growth or baldness, irregular periods and fertility problems,” says Anna. “Surgery is also available to treat fertility issues if the medicine is not effective.”
The good news is that with treatment, most women who have PCOS are able to get pregnant. “If you want to get pregnant and you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS, be sure to consult your doctor – women with PCOS are at risk for pregnancy complications like miscarriage in addition to infertility,” says Anna.
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