Can PCOS Cause Your Cholesterol Levels to Be High?

cholesterol clogging artery
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Polycystic ovarian syndrome, otherwise known as PCOS or Stein-Leventhal syndrome, is a medical condition where several small, fluid-filled follicles develop in your ovaries because of an imbalance of sex hormones in your body. However, this medical condition can affect more than your ovaries—it can also affect your heart health.

It is estimated that up to 7 percent of women of childbearing age have PCOS.

Due to the hormonal imbalances noted in PCOS, you may experience the following health issues:

  • abdominal and/or pelvic pain or pressure
  • irregular menstrual periods
  • depression
  • obesity
  • issues involving your skin and hair, such as acne or hair loss

If you have been diagnosed with PCOS, you may also notice your cholesterol and triglyceride levels creeping upwards. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.

Studies suggest that if you have PCOS, you may be at a higher risk of developing abnormal lipid levels, too. In fact, it is estimated that up to 70 percent of women who have PCOS may also experience some degree of elevated cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels. So why do you have high lipid levels when you have PCOS and what can you do to prevent this?

What Lipid Levels Are Usually Affected in PCOS?

Unfortunately, all aspects of your lipid profile could be affected if you have PCOS, including:

  • decreased HDL cholesterol levels
  • increased LDL cholesterol levels
  • elevated VLDL cholesterol levels

Although not normally measured in a routine lipid profile in your doctor’s office, disturbances in your apolipoproteins, such as increased apolipoprotein B and decreased apolipoprotein A1 levels, can also occur.

According to the American Heart Association, you should have your lipids checked at least every four years if you do not have heart disease and are 20 years of age and above. If you have PCOS, your healthcare provider may check your lipid levels more frequently than this.

Although there have not been a lot of studies looking at women diagnosed with PCOS and the development of heart disease over time, the above lipid profile may contribute to increasing your risk of developing heart disease if it is not properly addressed.

What Causes High Cholesterol in PCOS?

No one really has a clear answer as to why women diagnosed with PCOS also experience elevated cholesterol and triglyceride levels. There are a variety of reasons why this might happen, including:

  • Weight gain - If you have PCOS, you may notice that your weight increases, too. This may increase your cholesterol and triglyceride levels. One study showed that lipids are even more elevated if you have PCOS and are obese.
  • Abnormal hormone levels - In PCOS, some of your hormone levels may also be increased, including androgens like testosterone. Estrogen and progesterone levels may also fluctuate. Cholesterol is used in the body to make these sex hormones.
  • Insulin resistance - Insulin is used to help glucose get into cells, so that they can perform a variety of functions. In some cases, your cells may not respond to insulin so readily. This will cause your glucose levels to increase, and your body may increase its production of insulin in response to this. Over time, this could also increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, another medical condition that could affect your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

In many cases, a combination of the above factors could contribute to your high lipid levels if you have PCOS.

What Can I Do to Lower My Cholesterol Levels?

If you have PCOS and have been told that your lipid levels are high, you should talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns. Although PCOS cannot be cured, getting your condition under control may help control your lipid levels, as well as the other symptoms you are experiencing from your condition. You and your healthcare provider can work together to find a treatment regimen that is right for you.

If your lipid levels are only slightly high, he or she might decide to modify your lifestyle to control your cholesterol and triglyceride levels, including:

  • losing weight, especially if you are overweight
  • getting regular exercise
  • decreasing stress that may be in your life
  • quitting smoking
  • modifying your diet to include foods that are low in refined sugar and saturated fat—and high in fiber and other nutrients

If making healthy changes in your lifestyle is not working to keep your cholesterol and triglyceride levels within a healthy range, your healthcare provider may decide to add medication to help lower your lipids. 

Sources:

Kim JJ and Choi YM. Dyslipidemia in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome. Obstet Gynecol Sci. 2013; 56: 137-142.

Krueger LV. Menstrual Disorders. In: South-Paul JE, Matheny SC, Lewis EL. eds. CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Family Medicine, 4e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

Wild RA. Dyslipidemia in PCOS. Steroids. 2012; 77: 295-299.

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