Weight gain is something that most women – both young and old are quite familiar with. From the minute that girls hit puberty and begin growing into women, their weight fluctuates a lot due to factors like their menstrual cycle, hormones, pregnancy, and more. While weight gain from such factors can be mitigated in some way or another, women suffering from PCOS know the trouble that this illness causes in terms of increased weight. Not only is PCOS weight gain very difficult to deal with, but it is also a struggle that they may – unfortunately – have to struggle with their whole lives.
So why does PCOS cause weight gain? In this article, we are going to shed light on this matter as we try to better understand why PCOS can cause weight gain and see if there are any available solutions or treatments to help deal with this matter.
What Is PCOS?
Also known as polycystic ovary syndrome, this is a complex hormonal disorder that affects women of a reproductive age. Research suggests that polycystic ovary syndrome is the most common endocrine abnormality among women. In the United States alone, studies have shown that approximately 5-10% of women aged between 18 to 44 years are affected by this illness – this is about 5 million women in just the US (5).
According to the University of California San Francisco Center for Reproductive Health Research Studies, while the exact cause of this hormonal abnormality remains unknown, researchers think that it could be due to a combination of several factors, including insulin resistance, obesity, and changes in hormone production (1).
Some vital points to note are that:
- While the symptoms of this illness may vary from woman to woman, the most common ones include complaints of obesity, acne, amenorrhea, excessive hair growth, and infertility. The Mayoclinic states that a PCOS diagnosis will be made if you experience at least two of these signs. Polycystic ovaries, elevated androgen levels, and Infrequent, irregular or prolonged menstrual cycle.
- Women suffering from this hormonal abnormality are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular diseases, Type II diabetes, endometrial cancer, and dyslipidemia (abnormally elevated cholesterol or fats (lipids) in the blood).
This is a situation whereby women start gaining extra weight, not because of bad eating habits or due to lack of exercise but due to suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. While not all women suffering from this illness are overweight and/or obese, a large percentage of them are.
Why Does PCOS Lead To Weight Gain?
If you are wondering ‘how does PCOS lead to weight gain‘ you are not alone. For most women being heavier than you would like to be is not very desirable. Not only can it lead to quite a blow in their self esteem, but the CDC has also linked obesity to a multitude of serious diseases and health conditions such as high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and breathing problems, mental illnesses and disorders, osteoarthritis, different types of cancer, etc. – all leading to a reduced quality of life (6).
When it comes to this illness, however, PCOS causes weight gain through two main factors namely – insulin resistance and excessive production of male hormones.
Insulin is a hormone produced in the body by the pancreas. The main use of this hormone transports glucose from the blood to the cells when it can be turned into energy for the body to use. Women suffering from PCOS often find that their bodies secretion and use of insulin have been interrupted.
Not only do their bodies fail (or find it difficult) to use insulin and glucose but their pancreas also pumps out more insulin than required into the blood. Excessive presence of insulin in the body leads to fat storage and therefore, weight gain.
According to the definition from Britanicca, an androgen is a group of hormones that primarily influence the growth and development of the male reproductive system. The effect is the growth of pubic, facial and chest hair, voice deepening, bone growth, increase of muscle fibres in the male body, sperm production, maintenance of sexual interest and behaviour and more.
While they are primarily male hormones, androgens are also produced in female bodies but at a much lower count – about 1/12 the amount found in men. While evidence of their role in women is not clear, they are suspected to support bone growth and libido. Increase levels of these hormones leads to some common polycystic ovary syndrome symptoms like increased facial hair, irregular periods, acne and more.
According to a study published online in 2009, in the last 20 years (as of 2009), studies have continuously been able to link hyperandrogenism in women to insulin resistance and PCOS (4).
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Why Is PCOS Weight Gain Around Stomach Area?
While this illness can cause you to add weight to your whole body, more often than not, the extra weight is often centered around the stomach area and many women suffering from this illness often deal with abdominal obesity. So why is this? Why can’t the extra fat go to your hips or glutes?
As we have seen above, PCOS is essentially a hormonal imbalance issue where the primarily male hormone androgen is produced in excess levels in the female body. Androgen then goes on to trigger PCOS symptoms such as exercise, hair growth and weight gain. WebMD states that because the extra weight gain in this case is triggered by a male hormone it will be stored in the abdomen.
Remember that women tend to store fat in the gluteal-femoral region – aka around the buttocks, hips, lower abdomen and thighs – while men store theirs in the visceral depot – abdominal area (3).
Yes, it is. While many women suffering from this illness tend to be on the heavier side, some can have perfectly healthy weight and some even deal with being underweight. In fact, according to Very Well Health, about one in five women with PCOS have a healthy BMI. Studies, however, are still being undertaken to better understand why some women remain lean even while suffering from a disease that usually leads to PCOS weight gain (2).
How To Deal With PCOS Sudden Weight Gain?
One of the best ways to deal with PCOS weight gain is by changing your diet. A diet that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, lean and plant-based protein and filled with low glycemic index foods is recommended. Such a diet can help to control weight gain associated with PCOS. However, for the best advice on the matter, please talk to your doctor or dietitian.
The Bottom Line
If you are experiencing PCOS weight gain please know that you are not alone. This is an issue that continues to frustrate many women to date. Despite the struggles, know that it is not the end of the world and that with proper care and maintenance, a good diet and exercise you can reduce this side effect.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- About Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) (n.d., crh.ucsf.edu)
- Debates Regarding Lean Patients with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Narrative Review (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Gender differences in fat metabolism (2001, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Insulin and hyperandrogenism in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (2009, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: A Review of Treatment Options With a Focus on Pharmacological Approaches (2013, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity (2020, cdc.gov)