PCOS and diabetes

Because they both involve insulin resistance, you might wonder if diabetes and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are linked. And the truth is, they are linked – maybe even more so than you would think.

The role of insulin resistance

Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, helps break down sugar that the body uses for energy. Insulin-resistance means that the body makes enough insulin, but cells within the body are unable to use the insulin properly. Both PCOS and diabetes are conditions that involve insulin resistance in the body.

With diabetes, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or isn’t sensitive enough to the insulin that it already has. PCOS is at least partially linked to insulin resistance, too; anywhere from 50-70% of women with PCOS have some level of insulin-resistance.

Risks of insulin resistance

When body cells are resistant to insulin, the pancreas responds by producing even more insulin in an attempt to lower blood sugar levels. Too much insulin promotes fat storage in the body, lowers levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, raises triglyceride levels, and stimulates androgen production. High insulin levels also lower egg quality and impair the embryo’s development during pregnancy. Finally, high insulin levels have been linked to depression and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

PCOS and diabetes: how they affect women

Although the link between the two conditions isn’t entirely clear yet, there is definitely a relationship between PCOS and diabetes. Here are some things to know, according to the American Diabetes Association.

  • Type 1 diabetes: women with type 1 diabetes are at a higher risk of developing PCOS.
  • Type 2 diabetes: having PCOS increases a woman’s risk of type 2 diabetes later in her life. PCOS is actually a risk factor for undiagnosed diabetes; many women who are diagnosed with PCOS already have diabetes but aren’t aware of it.
  • PCOS and prediabetes: nearly 30-40% of women with PCOS have prediabetes, a condition characterized by high blood glucose levels that aren’t quite as high as those in diabetes.
  • PCOS and gestational diabetes: PCOS raises a woman’s risk of developing gestational diabetes during a future pregnancy.

Treatment and prevention

In many cases, type 2 diabetes can be prevented through weight management, because weight is linked to insulin production – the more weight someone gains, the more insulin their body produces. Many women who are diagnosed with PCOS are obese, which is another risk factor for diabetes, and in these cases their advisor will likely encourage them to lose weight through nutrition and exercise. It’s believed that as little as a 5% decrease in body weight can greatly increase the chances of conceiving.

PCOS can’t be prevented, but it can be treated through lifestyle management and also medication. Some drugs like metformin, a medication used for type 2 diabetes, are prescribed to help improve insulin sensitivity and might protect against some of the side effects of the condition.

The link between these two conditions isn’t entirely clear yet. For the time being, any woman who’s at risk of either condition should keep a close watch on her health, and try to add more balanced nutrition and exercise to her lifestyle. PCOS isn’t always preventable, but nutrition and exercise can decrease the symptoms of the condition, and it’s possible to decrease one’s risk of type 2 diabetes through these methods, too.

  • “Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) fact sheet.” Womenshealth. Office on Women’s Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, Dec 23 2014. Web.
  • “Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.” NDSS. National Diabetes Services Scheme, 2015. Web.
  • “Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)” Diabetes. American Diabetes Association, Jul 2 2014. Web.
  • Brian Krans. “Are PCOS and Diabetes Connected?” Healthline. Healthline Media, Jun 29 2015. Web.
  • “PCOS and diabetes.” PCOS. Insulite Health, 2016. Web.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): Causes.” MayoClinic. Mayo Clinic Foundation, Sep 3 2014. Web.
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