Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on October 26, 2020
Though birth control is primarily used to prevent unwanted pregnancy, it can also be used to treat a number of health conditions. While some women take birth control to prevent acne or excessive menstrual bleeding, it can also help manage the symptoms of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).
If you’re hoping to learn more about how birth control can help you combat the effects of polycystic ovary syndrome, check out some of the information listed below.
What is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
Polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS, is a condition that occurs when a woman’s reproductive hormones become unbalanced. The ovaries of women affected by PCOS often don’t release a properly developed egg during ovulation as they should. Consequently, PCOS is one of the leading causes of missed or irregular periods as well as infertility. As many as 5 million American women of childbearing age suffer from PCOS, and the condition often lasts for life.
What causes Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
Doctors haven’t determined a single exact cause of PCOS, but there are a number of risk factors women should be aware of, such as:
- Insulin resistance: as many as 70% of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, meaning that their cells don’t properly process the hormone. Insulin resistance is commonly linked to being overweight and can cause the body to overproduce insulin, affecting hormonal balances in the ovaries along the way and laying the groundwork for potential PCOS.
- Inflammation: women who suffer from low-grade inflammation might find this to be an indicator of the hormonal imbalances that lead to PCOS. Inflammation can also be linked to being overweight or having high levels of androgen, two other potential risk factors for PCOS.
- Heredity: if other women in your family have developed PCOS, it’s more likely that you will as well.
What are the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
There are a number of different symptoms associated PCOS, including:
- Irregular periods
- Excessive body or facial hair
- Hair loss or thinning
- Weight gain
- Skin darkening
- Skin tags
PCOS can often be accompanied by more serious symptoms as well. The most obvious of these is infertility, but PCOS has also been associated with depression, sleep apnea, and an increased risk of endometrial cancer. Moreover, over half of women with PCOS develop type 2 diabetes by the time they turn 40.
How does birth control help with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
Hormonal birth control regulates and stabilizes your body’s levels of estrogen and progestin, or progestin alone. By balancing out these hormones, birth control can lower the body’s androgen levels, clear up acne, reduce unwanted hair growth, and regulate periods. For women with PCOS who have not been getting periods or have been getting heavy, irregular periods, the period regulation aspect of hormonal birth control is especially helpful.
If you’re hoping to get a handle on some of your PCOS symptoms and aren’t currently trying to get pregnant, you might want to consider adopting one of the following birth control methods:
- Birth control pills; either the combination pill or the minipill
- Birth control patches
- Birth control shot
- Birth control ring
- A hormonal intrauterine device (IUD)
Often people with PCOS will need more than birth control to fully treat their condition. While birth control can help treat some of the symptoms, you should talk to your medical provider about what treatment options make the most sense for you.
What are other ways to treat the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome?
While effective for many women, birth control isn’t the only option for mitigating the symptoms of PCOS. Some others include:
- Exercise: regular, moderate exercise can help your body regulate itself, dampening the severity of PCOS-related hormone imbalances.
- Insulin-sensitizing medications: because of the close relationship between insulin sensitivity and PCOS, medications that help your body process insulin can help suppress PCOS.
- Anti-androgens: high androgen levels are often a component of PCOS, making medications that suppress androgen a valuable tool for controlling PCOS symptoms.
- Acne treatments: as with unwanted hair growth, an increase in acne is a common side effect of PCOS. Medications or topical substances that can alleviate acne are commonly prescribed to women with PCOS.
For some women, the right birth control can be just what they need to get PCOS symptoms under control. If you’re interested in learning more about how birth control can help, answer a few questions to see what options may be available for you.