Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) may face challenges when it comes to fertility. What’s more, new moms with PCOS may have extra hurdles to overcome when it comes to breastfeeding. Here's a breakdown of PCOS, how it can impact lactation, and what you can do to regulate your milk supply.
What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?
PCOS causes hormonal imbalance and other symptoms in about 10% of all women. This hormonal imbalance affects the ovaries and ovulation. With PCOS, your ovaries may not release an egg each month on a regular menstrual cycle.
This is an endocrine disorder that doesn’t yet have a known cause. However, medical professionals think that there may be a genetic link, since your chances of having it increase if you have a mother, sister, or aunt with PCOS. Most women are diagnosed during their 20s or 30s when they’re trying to conceive.
PCOS affects women in different ways, but the main issue most women face is having an irregular period due to delayed or irregular ovulation. This can lead to fertility issues or the inability to conceive. PCOS is one of the most common causes of infertility in women.
Common Symptoms of PCOS
PCOS is a syndrome, not a disease. Therefore, women with PCOS can have a combination of different symptoms. This also makes it more difficult for doctors to spot and diagnose PCOS.
Common symptoms, besides irregular periods, include:
- Hirsutism, or male-patterned hair growth on the face, chest, lower stomach, inner thighs, or back
- Alopecia, or hair loss
- Increased levels of testosterone
- Weight gain
- Skin tags
- Thinning hair
- Darkening of the skin under the breasts, neck creases, and groin
- Mood disorders, like depression, tension, and irritability
- Insulin resistance
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and Lactation
Researchers are finding that breastfeeding with PCOS might be challenging for some women, as it's linked to low milk supply. The cause of this is still being studied and identified, but may be linked to the following:
Insulin resistance. Women with PCOS may gain weight due to insulin resistance and metabolic issues. This means they're more susceptible to obesity, which is known to have a negative effect on lactation.
It’s also believed that insulin resistance can affect the growth of the breasts, along with milk synthesis and production. Receptor cells in the breast have to be sensitive to insulin to work properly with other lactation hormones. If they lose that sensitivity, it's harder to produce a good supply of breast milk.
Breast tissue development. Lactation with PCOS may also be difficult due to the development of the breast itself. The hormonal imbalance caused by PCOS can affect the way breast tissue develops during puberty and throughout pregnancy. Irregular or fewer periods early on in puberty can cause you to have lower levels of the hormone estrogen, which can lead to less breast tissue.
Hormonal imbalance. While low levels of estrogen can affect the development of the breasts, high levels of estrogen can also stop lactation. Most women with PCOS have too much estrogen, an imbalance called “estrogen dominance". Your estrogen levels need to be monitored after you give birth to make sure that high levels don’t interfere with lactation.
Wany women with PCOS also have higher levels of androgen hormones like testosterone. Excess testosterone may work against prolactin and oxytocin, two other hormones that are essential in producing breast milk.
How To Regulate Milk Production With PCOS
Not all women with PCOS will experience low milk supply. However, if you're having problems breastfeeding, there are a few things you can do to help your body regulate its milk production:
Diet. Losing 5% of your body weight can have a positive effect on your milk production. Eating a balanced diet that incorporates whole foods can help you get the nutrients you need and curb your sugar cravings.
With PCOS, you may be more prone to sugar cravings if you have insulin resistance. Opt for foods that have a low glycemic index (GI) that won’t cause your blood sugar to spike.
Exercise. If you’re having trouble lactating, try incorporating some exercise into your daily routine. Moving your body for 30 minutes each day can be beneficial. Exercise lowers your stress hormones, which in turn can help you produce milk.
Stress management. High levels of stress have a negative impact on your milk production. Besides exercise, try other calming activities, like gentle yoga or meditation. Being a new mom is hard, so make sure that you're getting enough rest and saving some valuable time for yourself each day.