Most of you will agree with me that acne can be classified as both, an inconvenience and sometimes a painful experience. A pimple here and there can happen to the best of us and we just have to figure out a way to get past it and get on with our day. However, contrary to what regular acne looks and feels like, there are certain types of acne that can be very painful.
Acne caused by Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is more than just a blemish on the skin. PCOS acne can be a debilitating experience and it’s fairly common among women of childbearing age. Nearly one in ten adult women are at risk of PCOS and only find out about their diagnosis when they visit a gynecologist for pregnancy problems.
This type of acne usually appears on the lower half of the face such as the cheeks, neck, chin and jawline and tends to flare up near a woman’s menstruating days.
Research shows that acne and PCOS have a fairly close relationship. A study conducted on 111 women showed that those who had acne were also PCOS patients, whether they knew it or not. Of the 52 women seeking treatment for acne, near 27% of them were diagnosed with PCOS. Overall, the risk of experiencing PCOS related acne was prevalent at 17.1% among all women.
Knowing these stats and the pervasive presence of PCOS, I would urge all women to go for some preliminary testing. I’ve come across many women who don’t know where to begin.
What is PCOS? Why am I getting pimples? Why are they painful and how do I get rid of them? These are just some of the questions women with PCOS ask me frequently.
I understand the confusion surrounding PCOS and acne. It can be overwhelming, but I’m here to simplify all the jargon for you. Read on to find out more on PCOS and the root cause of your acne.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a common hormonal imbalance disorder that affects around 5 to 10 percent of women of varying age groups in the US. The disorder causes enlarged ovaries with small cysts formulated on its outer edges and can be extremely painful; both physically and emotionally.
Although the disorder has been recognized, diagnosed and studied for over 7 decades, there still seems to be very little awareness on what life with PCOS can fully entail. For starters, readers should know that PCOS can wreak havoc on your endocrine system through severe insulin resistance. Yes, we’re talking about the same insulin resistance that diabetic patients often experience. This means that leaving PCOS untreated can lead to an increased risk of developing diabetes in the future. Hypertension, high cholesterol and metabolic syndromes are all by-products of insulin resistance. Read more about it here.
PCOS is known as the silent killer because of its close ties to reproductive infertility. Ovaries with cysts present on its outer walls do not produce eggs. Studies show that as many as 72% of women diagnosed with PCOS deal with infertility.
Additionally, nearly 50 percent of the PCOS patient populace isn’t diagnosed properly so millions of women don’t even know what’s causing their reproductive irregularities. The numbers are staggering and as a leading cause of infertility among women, it’s time we take PCOS seriously and invest in finding reliable treatments. Dr. Hagmeyer’s clinic has already begun efforts in this realm and is helping patients cope with the debilitating effects of PCOS.
What Causes PCOS?
There are a handful of explanations on PCOS causes circulating on the internet. However, the general consensus lays in the idea that PCOS is caused by an abnormal excretion of hormones by the pituitary gland, which affects the ovaries.
What happens is that the pituitary gland at the base of the brain will release high amounts of luteinizing hormones (LH) and follicle stimulating hormones (FSH). The ovaries will then get the signal to produce female sex hormones: estrogen and progesterone.
Your ovaries will also produce male hormones like testosterone in limited amounts but under the influence of PCOS, the amount of testosterone in the female body can soar, leaving you vulnerable to symptoms like extra hair growth and persistent acne.
How to Diagnose PCOS?
Doctors argue all the time over establishing formal criteria for PCOS diagnosis. However, in light of all contemporary medical research, I can tell you that there are a handful of unmissable signs of PCOS.
The first is the presence of polycystic ovaries that can be determined through the help of a vaginal ultrasound. But then again; there are cases where women with hormonal imbalances will have normal looking ovaries so it’s not always a reliable way to diagnose PCOS.
The surest way to know is to check for androgen excess. We’ve discussed just one type of androgen so far—testosterone—but there are other types of hormones involved in this so don’t hesitate to schedule some lab tests for evaluating androgen excess issues.
Another sign to watch out for is ovulatory dysfunction. Women with PCOS tend to have issues with proper ovulation cycles and can be categorized into two main groups: those who miss some period cycles (amenorrhea), and those who have irregular periods (oligomenorrhea).
What Are The Symptoms Of PCOS?
Women undergo several hormonal issues with PCOS. It’s natural for ovaries to release small amounts of androgen—which are basically male sex hormones. However, when diagnosed with PCOS; women are prone to releasing large amounts of androgen. Androgen excess is a key sign of PCOS and can be manifested on women’s bodies via masculine traits like faster growth of coarse facial hair. Here’s a list of some common signs of PCOS:
Other less commonly observed signs that you might have PCOS include high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, thinning of hair, and diabetes.
Acne and PCOS
Acne is a skin condition that results in cysts or lesions on the surface and usually occurs in areas that have the greatest concentration of sebaceous glands in the skin. It’s probably the most easily observable sign of PCOS along with the excessive bodily hair—but rarely does anyone mention it during a consultation session with their doctor.
Even after acne tops the list of PCOS related symptoms, it’s considered the least serious of the lot. Why?
This might be because acne has dozens of other causes such as stress, bacteria, not drinking enough water, not cleaning the face regularly, and excess oil production.
What separates PCOS related acne from regular acne is that it’s characterized by hormonal imbalance and its existence can be quite discomforting to live with.
How Is PCOS Acne Formed?
To fully understand the relationship between acne and PCOS we need to understand how acne is formed.
We know that the pituitary gland’s signal errors can trigger hormonal imbalances and high testosterone production. The excessive levels of testosterone coupled with an androgen called DHEA-S and insulin in the system can over stimulate the hair follicles inside our skin. They shake up the sebaceous glands to produce oil, i.e. sebum.
Sebum is responsible for transporting dead skin cells from the hair follicle to the surface of the skin. The process is regulated in non-PCOS individuals but those with PCOS will have this entire system sped up. In other words, too much of sebum production can cause the skin’s pores to become clogged with dead cells.
Soon enough, bacteria begins to grow in the clogged pores causing inflammation in the area. The inflammation awakens the immune system’s defense mechanism and it forces the bacteria to move to outward. In pushing the bacteria, the skin swells, becomes red and gives birth to cystic acne.
What Is The Root Cause Of PCOS Acne?
As explained above, the root cause of your PCOS acne is excess androgens. If you’re looking to contain the acne or get rid of it, you’ll first have to figure out what’s causing the overproduction of androgens in your system. Usually, it’s either poor gut health or insulin resistance.
Poor gut health: PCOS acne is mainly caused by chronic skin inflammation. As explained above, inflammation is part of the human body’s natural response to dealing with bacteria and the invasion of other foreign objects into the system. So technically speaking, inflammation is probably the root cause of your PCOS acne. But with something so intrinsic to your body’s defense, you can’t really avoid it. One way to understand the problem is to see the side-effects of inflammation.
For decades, studies have shown that inflamed skin is linked with diabetes and poor gut health. Too much of anything is bad for you; likewise in this case, too much of bacteria in your gut can increase systemic inflammation and trigger acne.
Insulin resistance: Insulin helps store glucose in your body. When your cells develop a resistance to insulin, the body begins producing more of it. Patients dealing with Type-2 diabetes have to go through this ordeal on a frequent basis. However, for PCOS patients, insulin resistance does twice the damage.
Firstly, it stimulates the ovaries to produce excess levels of testosterone. We’ve learnt that high levels of testosterone are linked with overactive sebaceous glands. Along with being at risk of PCOS, you’re also going to get acne from excess sebum production. Research indicates that individuals with chronic acne are more likely to be diagnosed with insulin resistance.
How To Treat The Root Cause Of PCOS Acne
PCOS acne won’t go away on its own. You’ll have to devise a treatment plan that targets the fundamental issue. Is it insulin resistance or inflammation through a bad gut? I suggest you take up an online health survey to figure out the issue. Better yet, schedule a consultation so you can get an individualized treatment plan. Meanwhile, there are a handful of things you can do to reduce the severity of your condition. As always, the first step to better health is to improve your overall diet.
Say No To Sugar
Limit your sugar intake to regulate your insulin levels. Low insulin resistance means there’s a lower likelihood of inflammation in the system. The end result should be less PCOS acne. Research has shown that individuals who take a low sugar diet produce less androgen—which is on the whole a great first step to dealing with PCOS.
Limit Dairy in Your Diet
Milk may be a health food but it’s known to spike insulin levels. High level of insulin in someone who’s already going through insulin resistance is counterproductive.
Take Zinc Supplements
Improving your zinc uptake is an excellent way to tackle all types of acne related problems. Perhaps its greatest benefit to PCOS patients is that it reduces androgen levels in the body. It’s also an anti-microbial so you can count on it to kill the bacteria in your gut and reduce inflammation. I consider it a win-win situation.
One way to deal with the influx of bad bacteria in your gut is to pile up on the good bacteria. A study on women dealing with PCOS showed that those participants who took up probiotics reported lower levels of insulin resistance and better-regulated blood sugar levels. An easy way to include probiotics in your diet is to eat fermented foods. However, be cautious about the type of probiotics you introduce to your gut, especially if you have SIBO.
The Take-Away Message
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome is closely linked with chronic acne but it’s not without cure. You should focus on addressing the root cause of the acne; insulin resistance and inflammation from poor gut health. Improve your diet to reduce excessive androgen production. If you’re feeling a little lost on how to devise a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet for yourself, check out the comprehensive functional nutrition consultation service that takes care of all your dietary needs.
Get in touch by completing this health form and work toward defeating the debilitating symptoms of PCOS! You can also check out the highly convenient Female Hormone Testing program that’ll help determine any infertility, ovarian disorder and menstrual cycle irregularities.