It’s long been suspected that there is a link between polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and type 2 diabetes. Increasingly, experts believe that these conditions are related.

PCOS is a disorder that disrupts a woman’s endocrine system and increases her levels of androgens, or male hormones.

This disruption can cause irregular menstruation, excessive hair growth, acne, and obesity. It can also impact a women’s ability to have a child. It’s often diagnosed when small pockets of fluid appear in a woman’s ovaries during an ultrasound.

Learn more about polycystic ovary syndrome »

While the cause of PCOS remains unknown, it’s believed that insulin resistance, which leads to high levels of insulin, as well as low-grade inflammation and hereditary factors, may all play a role, according to Mayo Clinic. PCOS affects between 5 to 10 percent of women in the United States.

How Does PCOS Relate to Diabetes?

Some theories suggest that insulin resistance can create an adverse reaction involving the immune system and help bring about type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a condition in which the cells of the body become resistant to insulin, an inadequate amount of insulin is made, or both. An estimated 29.1 million Americans have some form of diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While type 2 diabetes is typically preventable or manageable through exercise and a proper diet, research shows that PCOS is a strong independent risk factor for developing diabetes.

In fact, women who experience PCOS in young adulthood are at an elevated risk for diabetes and potentially fatal heart problems later in life.

Five Times the Risk?

Researchers in Australia collected data from 6,000 women and found that those who had PCOS were three to five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than women who didn’t. Obesity was an important trigger. According to other research, up to 27 percent of premenopausal women with type 2 diabetes also have PCOS.

With this recognized connection, experts recommend women with PCOS get routinely screened for type 2 diabetes earlier and more frequently than women without the condition.

Does Treating One Treat the Other?

Regular exercise is crucial for keeping the body healthy, especially when it comes to fighting obesity and type 2 diabetes, and it has been shown to help with symptoms associated with PCOS.

Exercise also helps the body burn off excess blood sugar and makes the cells more sensitive to insulin, allowing the body to use insulin more effectively. This benefits people with diabetes as well as women with PCOS. 

A balanced diet that provides whole grains, lean proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and vegetables is key to helping to reduce the risk of diabetes and to managing weight. 

However, specific treatments for the two conditions may complement or offset one another. 

For instance, women with PCOS are also treated with birth control pills, which helps to regulate menstruation and clear acne. But some birth control pills can also increase blood glucose levels, a problem for people at risk for diabetes. However, a first-line medication used to treat diabetes, called metformin, is also used to help treat PCOS. 

If you have PCOS or diabetes, talk to your doctor about which treatment options will work best for your particular situation.