Does PCOS Cause Obesity?

Polycystic ovary syndrome affects millions of women in the United States alone. Many, though certainly not all, of these women are overweight or obese.

The development of PCOS depends on a number of factors — everything from your genes and hormones to your eating habits. But is weight the cause of PCOS — or a side effect?

PCOS: Is it because of your hormones?

Woman in bed

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Does PCOS cause changes in your hormones — or is a hormonal abnormality responsible for your PCOS? It turns out this may go both ways.

Women with PCOS produce higher-than-average amounts of male hormones. This increased hormone production can make it harder to get pregnant and often interferes with an otherwise regular menstrual cycle.

However, increased hormone levels may be caused by a number of other factors — one of them being the over-production of a different hormone.

Insulin, for example, is another hormone that contributes to PCOS. When cells stop responding properly to insulin (a condition called insulin resistance), the body produces more — which triggers the increased production of the hormones mentioned above produced by the ovaries.

Insulin resistance is more common in people living with obesity. Increased insulin production has been shown to increase appetite, which can lead to weight gain.

What’s the link between PCOS and obesity?

Many women classified as obese are diagnosed with POCS. But PCOS is not a condition exclusive to those who live with obesity — it’s just more common.

Despite the appearance of connections between PCOS and obesity, there is no evidence that one directly causes the other. Some complications, such as insulin resistance, are common in people living with obesity, but also occur in women with PCOS who are not overweight or obese.

However, PCOS does increase some women’s chances of gaining weight, which puts them at risk for many associated health risks. This could be related to a person’s genes, environment, or issues such as insulin resistance, which, among other things, can cause excessive weight gain.

It’s impossible to blame a woman’s weight on a single factor — and irresponsible to imply that their weight is the reason they have, for example, PCOS.

But experts do know that diet and exercise are effective treatment options when attempting to relieve women of their worst PCOS symptoms — and those lifestyle changes also tend to lead to weight loss over time.

According to Mayo Clinic, common PCOS symptoms are typically more severe in people living with obesity. Obesity can also worsen common PCOS complications, summarized below — and losing weight can make those symptoms more bearable, or eliminate some of them completely in certain cases.

Common PCOS complications

Pregnancy

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Untreated PCOS can have serious health consequences — especially for women who are trying to start and/or grow families. Some of these complications might include:

  • Miscarriage or premature birth
  • Infertility
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Sleep apnea.

Many PCOS symptoms can be treated with a combination of medication, diet, and exercise. Losing weight does not cure PCOS, but can relieve severe symptoms, increase a woman’s chances of enduring a healthy pregnancy, and improve her mental health.

When it comes to health issues, there’s rarely a clear answer to our “why” questions. There often isn’t one definite “cause” of any disease or condition. But we do know the many elements that can relieve symptoms of these health issues. If treatments are proven to work, focus less on what you could have done differently before and more on what you can change right now.