Polycystic ovary syndrome is a disorder that doctors associate with an imbalance in female sex hormones. The imbalance can lead to a variety of symptoms and may affect a woman's fertility.

Every month, in women of childbearing age, tiny fluid-filled cysts known as follicles develop on the surface of the ovary. Female sex hormones, including estrogen, cause one of the follicles to produce a mature egg. The ovary then releases this egg, and it breaks out of the follicle.

In women who have polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, there is an imbalance in female sex hormones. The imbalance may prevent the development and release of mature eggs. Without a mature egg, neither ovulation or pregnancy can occur.

The hormone imbalance may also include an abnormal increase in testosterone, which is primarily a male sex hormone. Women also produce testosterone, although it is usually in small amounts.

The United States' Office on Women's Health (OWH) note that PCOS affects of women aged 15–44 years. They describe PCOS as a "common and treatable cause of infertility."

Woman inspecting face in mirror
PCOS can lead to changes in facial hair and skin condition. Genetic factors may play a role.

Experts do not know exactly what causes PCOS, but it may involve genetic factors. If a woman's mother or sister has the condition, she has a higher chance than others of developing it.

Along with a genetic link, excess insulin in the body also increases a woman's risk of developing PCOS. Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas produces, and the body uses to convert sugar in food into energy.

Women with PCOS often have insulin resistance. Insulin resistance involves the body's inability to lower blood sugar levels correctly. Blood sugar levels can become too high, which causes yet more insulin production.

Too much insulin also increases testosterone production, which leads to some of the symptoms of PCOS.

Infertility is often one of the main complications of PCOS, but it is not the only one.

People with PCOS also appear to have a than others of:

According to the OWH, of all women with PCOS develop either prediabetes or diabetes before 40 years of age.

Below are some lifestyle tips that can help increase fertility.

Weight control

For people carrying excess weight, losing weight may help balance hormonal production and increase the chances of ovulation and pregnancy.

According to the OWH, even a weight loss may help a person with excess weight and fertility problems restore their normal ovulation.

People with a low weight who have difficulty conceiving may want to see their doctor as well, as this may be another risk factor for infertility.

Managing stress

Reducing stress can help to balance hormones.

Finding healthful ways to manage stress may also boost fertility.

Long-term stress can affect hormones. For example, ongoing stress can increase cortisol in the body, which may trigger a rise in insulin production. High insulin levels can lead to an imbalance in female sex hormones and infertility.

Tips for managing stress include:

  • getting regular exercise
  • balancing work and home life
  • spending time with friends and family
  • getting enough sleep

Dietary changes

For some people with PCOS, a low glycemic diet may improve symptoms and fertility.

A low glycemic diet involves eating fewer foods that cause a spike in blood sugar levels.

Avoiding spikes means that blood sugar levels become more stable, resulting in lower insulin levels and less testosterone production.

Learn more about foods to eat and foods to avoid with PCOS.