PCOS and Athletes

I remember the day I was diagnosed with PCOS, it was just days before my tenth class board examinations. I was overweight, always tired, eating even when I wasn’t hungry, and fed up with irregular periods and acne. PCOS affected the athlete in me, it made me feel tired even when I used to do nothing. Playing a sport or exercising while being diagnosed with this condition seemed like climbing Mt. Everest to me. This right here, might be the story of every woman who goes through PCOS.

Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)  is a hormonal disorder within the body that causes the ovaries to enlarge and develop small cysts across their outer edges. The symptoms of PCOS, as I mentioned earlier are unusual weight gain, fatigue, irregular menstrual cycles, acne, dark patches on the skin and unwanted hair growth among the many other unpleasant ones. PCOS can also involve ovarian hyperandrogenism i.e   the  increase in levels of Androgen(male hormone) in a female body to a significantly higher level.

A comparison between a polycystic and healthy ovary.

PCOS diagnosis has become a pretty common occurrence for women these days, one of its main causes being living a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle. Genetics too at times plays a role when it comes to its causes. In fact, it has been seen that 10% of the female population across the world goes through PCOS. Early detection and timely treatment can save one’s body from complex conditions involved with the disease, like cholesterol, infertility, heart problems, high blood pressure etc.

A list of PCOS symptoms

PCOS, being a very common problem amongst females tends to affect athletes too. 

Since PCOS is all about the imbalance of hormones in the body, the increase of male hormones in a female body plays a pivotal role in causing the major health issues associated with this syndrome. Especially for female athletes, an increase in Androgen or Testosterone levels in the body tends to increase muscle mass and leads to a higher bone mineral density.

The increase of male hormones in a female body may also lead to an increase in the secretion of Insulin which, in turn, leads to the onset of obesity. But for female athletes at least, that isn’t an immediate concern due to the high level of physical activity they engage in. Still, maintaining a healthy and agile body is definitely more difficult for such athletes than it is for others. And certainly, a significant rise in levels of male hormones  renders  the future of these female athletes in the field of competitive sports very uncertain. 

For example, we saw how Dutee Chand was put under an investigation in 2014 by the International Association of Athletic Federation(IAAF)(Now known as World Athletics) after a leaked medical report suggested that her body produced a higher level of Testosterone naturally. Therefore, this increase in male hormones was considered unfair for other competing athletes. But the IAAF could not provide any scientific evidence to the court that women with higher levels of Testosterone/Androgen have an upper hand in comparison with women who have their levels of male hormones within the biological range. There have been many objections raised on female athletes with naturally higher levels of male hormones, but in 2015 after Dutee Chand’s win in the court, the rules regarding Hyperandrogenism were changed.  Regardless, as a matter of fact, the artificial use of drugs to increase the levels of male hormones in a female body is strictly prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency and can lead to severe punishment.

Dutee Chand after winning a silver in Asian Games 2018

It has been found that most female athletes go through irregular periods since their workouts are high-intensity. This means that, majority of the athletes go through heavy flow menstrual cycles that happen only four times a year or even less than that.

Coming to irregular periods, there are two types, namely Amenorrhea (lack of three consecutive menstrual cycles or more) and Oligomenorrhea (irregular periods- fewer than six to eight periods a year). This kind of irregularity in menstrual cycles is extremely detrimental to the health of a person but since athletes go through this almost every cycle and it has been normalized, resulting in PCOS being a grossly under-diagnosed condition in female athletes. It is only when they start noticing serious symptoms, that they tend to consult a doctor. It’s generally too late by that stage. 

Diet is another major concern when it comes to any athlete. Especially when PCOS affects a female body, diet can turn out to be another major concern. The hormonal imbalance in the body causes unnatural cravings which are generally considered  a “big no-no” for athletes. Carbohydrates also play a huge role in an athlete’s diet. A PCOS diagnosis brings with it a rise in carbohydrate cravings which might lead to a disruption of this even distribution of carbohydrates in an athlete’s diet. Female athletes, in such cases often seek professional medical help that generally recommends them to have small meals throughout the day rather than three big ones and to distribute their carbohydrate intake evenly throughout the day while managing their cravings at the same time.

Not only for athletes but even for women in general, spreading awareness about PCOS is important. This can make everybody aware of the numerous problems that our ovaries face and how they can cause major health issues for our bodies. PCOS has become a common problem and one of its main catalysts is the unhealthy and largely sedentary lifestyle we tend to lead in the age of the twenty-first century. Overcoming this lifestyle, exercising, and handling our diet will always help one manage their health in general and a PCOS diagnosis, in particular, better. Therefore, athletes diagnosed with PCOS should help fellow athletes by raising awareness about it because ignorance certainly isn’t bliss, especially when it comes to one’s health.

-Rukmini Salodkar


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