Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common hormonal disorder in women. In the West, it affects roughly 5 to 10% of the entire female population. But for such a widespread condition, research on the topic is still relatively scarce. For example, it’s only in the past decade that scientists have realized the role that insulin played in this disorder. Today, there’s still a lot we don’t know about PCOS. But it does seem that researchers are getting closer to figuring out its causes—and with that, better treatment options.
In this article, we explore the signs, causes and symptoms of PCOS and ways to treat it. We’ll also discuss how CBD can help along the way by promoting a healthy weight and helping with associated mental health issues.
What is PCOS?
PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. It’s a reproductive and hormonal disorder that affects many aspects of the body, including the metabolism. Women with PCOS produce less of the hormone progesterone and too much of male hormones like testosterone.
As a result, they frequently suffer from irregular or absent menstrual cycles, infertility, obesity, acne and hirsutism (when women grow facial hair).
The name PCOS comes from the fact that women with this condition tend to have cyst-like follicles growing on their ovaries. These are not usually dangerous, but they are a sign of hormonal imbalance.
One of the issues with diagnosing PCOS is that it looks a bit different for everyone. For example, most women with PCOS are obese, but some have a healthy BMI. The vast majority of women with PCOS have irregular periods, but some have a more regular cycle. Androgen levels tend to be much higher in women with PCOS, but its effects (hirsutism, alopecia, acne) can show up in different ways. Finally, not every woman with PCOS has visible “cysts” or follicles on her ovaries.
To meet the Rotterdam Criteria for PCOS, a woman must have symptoms from at least two of these three groups:
- Irregular or absent ovulation (characterized as having fewer than eight periods each year).
- Hyperandrogenism (excess of male hormones). This can be measured through blood tests, and often shows up with physical symptoms like acne or facial hair.
- Polycystic ovaries, which can be measured using tests like pelvic exams or ultrasounds.
What causes PCOS?
PCOS appears to be mainly a genetic condition. It can be passed down by either the mother or the father.
People who have PCOS usually have family members who also suffer from PCOS (sometimes without knowing it) or from some form of insulin resistance.
Today, most scientists agree that PCOS has a lot to do with metabolic issues regarding blood sugar. Over 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, which means their cells struggle to use insulin to process glucose. As a result, the body has to produce more insulin in order to keep blood sugar levels normal. The excess production of insulin can cause the body to create more male hormones, which could be why women with PCOS suffer from elevated androgen levels.
In turn, excess androgen levels affect the whole body. They can create ovarian cysts, they cause symptoms like acne and hirsutism, and they can even be the root cause of infertility.
It’s likely that insulin resistance is inherited and that women with PCOS are naturally more insulin resistant. However, insulin resistance is also influenced by lifestyle factors. Women with a predisposition for PCOS who eat a diet high in sugar and carbohydrates are at greater risk of developing the condition.
What is the main cause of PCOS?
Doctors used to believe obesity was the main cause of PCOS. Today, we understand obesity is likely just another symptom of PCOS. Instead, the main cause seems to be genetics.
Genetics predispose women with PCOS to have insulin resistance. This makes them more likely to experience hormonal imbalances and all the other symptoms of this condition.
Can PCOS go away?
There is currently no cure for PCOS. As it appears to be caused mainly by genetics, it’s unlikely we will ever find a cure for it.
All the medical treatment options we have, including medicines that balance out hormonal levels or blood sugar levels, only work as long as you keep taking them. As soon as you stop, your PCOS symptoms will return.
There are also natural ways to treat PCOS, including lifestyle and diet changes. These can make PCOS symptoms go away, but they don’t truly cure the disease. As soon as you revert back to your usual lifestyle, symptoms will return as well.
This is not to say you can never be free from PCOS. Many women find that by making lifestyle changes and/or taking certain medications, they can get rid of all their PCOS symptoms.
Natural and medical treatments for PCOS
What can you do if you’ve been diagnosed with PCOS? There are two main approaches: lifestyle changes and medication.
Traditionally, women who showed up with PCOS symptoms (irregular periods, acne, hirsutism) were prescribed the oral contraceptive pill. The pill contains artificial hormones, which trick your body into thinking that you are pregnant. As a result, your body starts to produce fewer male hormones. This naturally decreases symptoms of hyperandrogenism like acne or hair loss. This can be a good solution, but it doesn’t work in the long term. As soon as you stop taking the pill (for example, if you want to get pregnant or are experiencing negative side effects), your PCOS symptoms will come back, sometimes worse.
Women who can’t or don’t want to take the birth control pill are often put on Metformin. Metformin is a drug that lowers blood sugar, causing your body to produce less insulin. As a result, your body also produces fewer male hormones, which causes an overall improvement in PCOS symptoms.
There are also more natural approaches to treating PCOS. Since insulin resistance is such a big part of it, PCOS symptoms can be managed by improving your insulin sensitivity. You can reduce your insulin resistance by eating a low-carb diet, exercising more, managing your stress and losing weight. With this approach, it may take longer to see results in your PCOS symptoms. However, improving your lifestyle has no harmful side effects and can even protect you from other conditions and diseases.
Drastic approaches like fasting and eliminating almost all carbohydrates from your diet have also been shown to reduce or reverse insulin resistance. However, we are still lacking data on how these methods could affect women with PCOS.
Finally, some natural herbs and supplements could help women with PCOS. For example, women with PCOS tend to lack vitamin D, and supplementing with it can help with their symptoms. Herbs like maca root and ashwagandha are known to balance out hormone levels, which means they could help with ovulation and hyperandrogenism. Another possible option is CBD, which can help women with PCOS to regulate their insulin levels, lower their stress levels and lose weight.
What is CBD?
CBD is a molecule extracted from the cannabis plant. It’s classified as a cannabinoid, which are a class of compounds known for their health properties. For example, cannabinoids like CBD can:
- Reduce pain and inflammation
- Lower depression and anxiety
- Lower blood pressure
- Regulate sebum production
- Kill unwanted bacteria
Cannabinoids can be found naturally in the body (endocannabinoids) or in certain plants (phytocannabinoids). In the case of CBD, it is extracted from non-psychoactive hemp (a type of cannabis that is slightly different from marijuana).
Cannabinoids have the ability to bind with receptors of the endocannabinoid system, which is what gives them so many health properties. The endocannabinoid system is a biological system that runs through the whole body, controlling body functions like pain management, blood pressure, mood and appetite.
When we ingest phytocannabinoids, our body treats them like endocannabinoids. They are able to send messages to different parts of the endocannabinoid system. As a result, they can help with a vast number of symptoms and help people who suffer from conditions including:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic anxiety
- Crohn’s disease or IBD
Be aware that non-prescription CBD products are not currently approved by the FDA. We recommend consulting with a medical professional to see if prescription CBD could help your condition.
Can CBD help with PCOS?
CBD is not a cure for PCOS. However, it could help women with PCOS to manage their symptoms. For example, it could help them to lose weight and improve their mental health. Here’s how.
CBD and weight loss
Weight gain is one of the most common complaints of women with PCOS. When you have that condition, it’s very easy to gain weight and very hard to lose it. This is a serious problem, because being overweight can worsen your PCOS symptoms and your hormonal imbalance.
In the case of women with PCOS, obesity is often caused by insulin resistance rather than a particularly poor diet. That means they can improve their weight by eating fewer carbohydrates and getting the bulk of their nutrition from fats and protein. Exercise is also very useful as it not only burns fat, but also improves insulin sensitivity.
CBD is no substitute for these lifestyle changes. However, it could help women with PCOS lose weight faster by helping them burn more fat. A 2016 study showed that CBD could help with weight loss by turning white fat cells into brown fat cells (cells that have the ability to burn fat tissue). For more information on how CBD can help with weight loss, you can check out our guide here.
CBD and mental health
Women with PCOS are more likely to suffer from poor self-perception, anxiety and depression. There may be a few different reasons for this.
For one, symptoms like severe adult acne, obesity and facial hair can be hard to live with. These cause many women to see a drop in self-esteem that can eventually lead to depression and social anxiety.
Women who suffer from infertility may also be upset and frustrated about that fact, especially if they are trying to conceive.
Hormone levels also play a very important role in mental health. So the hormonal imbalances that women with PCOS experience could also be responsible for their mental health problems.
Excess stress has also been associated with insulin resistance. So by helping manage your stress and anxiety, CBD could decrease insulin resistance, improving your hormonal levels.
Is CBD safe for women with PCOS?
CBD is generally considered a very safe substance, with few side effects. It can occasionally create issues like lethargy or diarrhea, but this is relatively rare.
The main thing to be aware of when taking CBD for PCOS is that it can interact with other drugs. If you have PCOS alongside diabetes or pre-diabetes, you may be prescribed some form of insulin medication. This can interact with CBD and have dangerous consequences. If you’re taking any form of medicine, consult with a doctor before you start taking CBD. They will let you know whether it’s safe to take the two together.
PCOS is a complex condition that causes a wide range of painful symptoms. Today, we understand that it is mainly caused by genetic insulin resistance. This means the best way to treat it is to improve insulin sensitivity—be it through diet, exercise, stress reduction or medication. Along the way, CBD can also be useful by helping you lose weight, reduce stress and improve your overall mental health. It’s far from being a PCOS cure, but it is definitely a valuable supplement for any woman who suffers from this frustrating condition.
PCOS facts and figures
2015 review of studies on polycystic ovary syndrome
2010 review of studies on the connection between obesity and PCOS
CBD for weight loss
2016 study on the effects of CBD on fat cells
2016 study on the impact of CBD on metabolism
2012 study on the potential of CBD as treatment for metabolic syndrome
CBD for mental health
2018 review of the effects of CBD on physical and mental health conditions
2019 study on CBD for anxiety and sleep
2019 study on the effects of CBD for stress reduction
2019 study on the effects of continuous CBD use for teenagers with SAD
2018 study on the effects of CBD against depression on mice
2014 study on the antidepressant effects of CBD
Safety of CBD
2017 study on the safety and side effects of CBD
2019 review of potential interactions between cannabinoids and synthetic drugs