When it comes to healthcare and women’s health, in particular, the old idiom ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you’ becomes not just false, but problematic. Education and awareness are critical for women to make informed decisions about their healthcare, which is why we’re recognizing PCOS Awareness Month by sharing information on the often-misunderstood condition and why it matters.
PCOS, which stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, is one of the most common causes of infertility, yet resources about the disorder and its symptoms are scarce and often unreliable—leaving women to suffer in silence. We spoke with Maven Nutritionist Kendra Tolbert, a registered dietitian nutritionist, specializing in fertility and women’s health, about why PCOS is something all women should know about and how Maven helps.
What is PCOS and how does it affect fertility?
PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder in women: it affects an estimated ten percent of women in the world. While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, it is a hormonal issue involving an insulin resistance that causes ovaries to overproduce androgen—the “male hormone”. This excess androgen impairs fertility because it impacts the release of eggs. PCOS can show up as menstrual irregularity, acne, male pattern baldness, or extra facial and body hair. A lot of these physical symptoms cause women to get concerned and start questioning the underlying issues.
Why does a holistic approach, including nutrition, make a difference in managing and treating PCOS?
Nutrition has a huge role to play in driving down insulin resistance—both through food and through supplements. I focus on a nutrition method that balances the blood sugar, which means the insulin doesn’t spike so your body has time to break everything down and absorb it fully. In turn, this prevents the ovaries from overproducing androgens. As they focus on nutrition, most women with PCOS see improvements in ovulation, acne, and hair growth.
How does Maven’s coordinated approach with virtual care help with PCOS?
What I love about Maven and why I think it’s great for women with PCOS is that it’s truly a coordinated approach with a full care team. You can find every type of specialist that you need, no matter where you are. Women with PCOS can video chat with a Reproductive Endocrinologist to talk about fertility. They can message with an OB-GYN to talk about birth control options, if that is a route they’re considering. And they can talk to a Maven Nutritionist about how food can have an impact on their hormones and on their health. Plus, everyone is communicating because we all have access to the patient’s notes.
Without Maven, you have to research and put together your care team of specialists who may be all over and may never communicate with each other—meaning they may all be looking at your care and treatment differently. But with Maven, a Care Advocate is leading a team of providers to look at and treat a patient’s PCOS together. Plus, the issue of access is key—there are not PCOS specialists in every city, but there are on Maven!
We’ve read that up to 70% of women with PCOS go undiagnosed. Why?
One major reason is the name: it’s called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is complex and misleading, because a lot of people--medical providers included--think that you have to have polycystic ovaries to have PCOS, which is not the case. Plus, women tend to suffer in silence when it comes to their reproductive health. I think there’s some shame around PCOS because it affects women physically in ways that don’t align with society’s beauty standards. Acne, facial hair growth, losing your hair--those aren’t things that people want to talk about.
What are the most critical things women should know about PCOS?
The most important thing I tell women is that it’s not their fault. PCOS doesn’t happen as a result of something that you ate or didn’t eat, because that seems to be the big myth that the Internet tells you. It’s also not a result of your weight, because women of all shapes and sizes have PCOS. The other thing I want women to know is that they deserve answers and they have a right to search out a healthcare team that works with them to deal with the underlying issues and tells them more than simply to take birth control to balance their hormones.
“The most important thing I tell women is that it’s not their fault. PCOS doesn’t happen as a result of something that you ate or didn’t eat, because that seems to be the big myth that the Internet tells you.”
For PCOS Awareness Month, what can people do to better raise awareness about PCOS?
It’s simple, really: people should talk about PCOS more openly, about the symptoms, and help break the stigmas around periods and regularity. Hopefully, this conversation can lead to more conversations! For more resources on PCOS awareness and advocacy, I encourage people to visit PCOS Challenge: The National Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Association and the PCOS Awareness Association.