Insulin and PCOS: What Women Need to Know About the Link

What does this reproductive problem have to do with diabetes?

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Polycystic ovary syndrome, better known as PCOS, may be best known as a reproductive problem that can result in missed periods and elevated levels of androgen, a “male” hormone. For most people who have PCOS, one of the biggest concerns is infertility, due to the inconsistent ovulation.

However, people with PCOS also need to be concerned about another health risk linked to the condition: insulin abnormalities.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Typically, after you finish eating, your blood sugar rises, and the pancreas pumps out insulin that helps convert blood sugar into energy for your body to use.

Some people develop something known as insulin resistance. This means the pancreas is producing extra insulin to try to control those blood sugar levels. If glucose levels continue to rise despite all this extra insulin, type 2 diabetes occurs.

For reasons that aren’t totally clear yet, women with PCOS have a higher risk of insulin resistance than women without PCOS, and women with PCOS who are overweight have an even higher risk.

Experts do know that high insulin levels can increase androgen production in the ovaries, and those high androgen levels are behind many of the typical PCOS symptoms, such as acne or facial hair. That said, only about half of women with PCOS have insulin resistance, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Either way, managing insulin levels may be a crucial component to PCOS treatment. This can help not only reduce PCOS symptoms, but also lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you have PCOS, talk to your doctor about your diabetes risk factors—and how to manage them.