Understanding the Link Between Hair Growth and PCOS
Excessive hair growth – or ‘hirsutism’ is one of the many side effects PCOS is known to cause. It affects between 70-80% of the PCOS community, targeting the face, upper lip, chin, neck, back, abdomen and chest.i And the honest, hairy truth is that this can be a debilitating – even traumatic, implication of the condition.
While other PCOS symptoms, such as fertility issues and period problems, can provoke just as much heartache, it can be a harder to mask something so visible as excessive hair – let’s be honest. Unfortunately, hair growth can cause negative emotions, especially around body image and confidence. Though this can be distressing, we want to reassure you it can be managed. From dietary changes, supplementation, and even medication, there are numerous ways available to combat it. Oh, and there’s hair removal of course – we’ll touch on that too.
Why does PCOS cause excessive hair growth?
You’ve all heard of testosterone, right? Well, it’s an ‘androgen’ – a hormone that stimulates typically masculine characteristics and is, unsurprisingly, found in high concentrations amongst men.ii Although women produce small quantities of these hormones, women with PCOS have much greater levels. As you can imagine, this skews the traditional balance of female hormones in the body. The androgens seep into hair follicles on the chest and face, and turn the typically fine hair dark and thick.iii
But it’s not just androgens to blame here. Insulin plays its part too, with research pointing to insulin triggering excessive hair growth independently. A controlled study of 749 women with PCOS illustrated it was insulin, not androgen levels, that was the main contributing factor to the group’s hirsutism.v
How can I treat my excessive hair growth?
Whilst treating excessive hair can seem like an endless battle, there are a myriad ways to alleviate growth – treating the issue from the inside out. Let explore some of them.
Go low GI
You should feel pretty clued up on link between PCOS and insulin now. If you’re still uncertain, the take home message is this: high insulin levels increase the amount of testosterone you have whirring around your body. More insulin means more testosterone. And more testosterone means more unwanted hair (do you see where we’re going with this?). To put it simply, you have to control your insulin levels in order to manage your excessive hair growth.
To do this, we suggest eating foods that have a low glycaemic index (GI). We’ve mentioned this term before but let’s recap what is means briefly: GI denotes the rate at which a carbohydrate affects your blood sugar levels. And eating foods with a low GI will cause a gradual increase in your insulin levels, resulting in less testosterone being produced by your ovaries.vi Think whole grain bread, brown rice, quinoa, oats and legumes – essentially anything unrefined and unprocessed.
In recent years, research has proposed that the growth of hair follicles may be increased by IGF-1 – the troublesome hormone often found in most dairy products. By this logic, the more dairy you consume, the more likely you are to develop or exacerbate hirsutism.vii Interestingly, this hormone has also been associated with acne and sebum production (another symptom of PCOS), which is an additional reason to ditch the dairy.viii Thankfully, we live in age with an ever-growing market of dairy alternatives, so this shouldn’t be too hard.
Say ‘yes’ to spearmint
News just in: spearmint tea doesn’t just taste delicious – it has far more exciting health properties. Schools of thought now believe that drinking it could improve the androgen levels of PCOS sufferers. In a recent study, subjects with PCOS were given two cups of the tea every day to assess the effect on hirsutism.ix Although the trial only lasted 30 days (admittedly, not long enough to see any noticeable changes on hair growth), the researchers concluded the tea has anti-androgen properties. This finding suggests drinking this herbal hero over a longer period of time could have a positive impact on hirsutism.
Myo-inositol is one of those ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ supplements that every PCOS woman could benefit from taking. Not only is it excellent for mood, energy, and even fertility, but research also suggests it can improve hirsutism. A recent trial reported that excessive hair growth dramatically decreased after 6 months of myo-inositol treatment, which sounds very promising.x
If you’re truly at your wits end about hair growth, then medical intervention is always an option. But before embarking on a treatment plan, it’s worth noting that these drugs usually take 6 months to make a significant difference. Alongside this, if you haven’t addressed the underlying problem of insulin resistance, then your hair growth is likely to return once the course of the medication has finished.
What about hair removal?
If you’re looking for a quick fix there are many ways to topically remove hair – you can shave it, pluck it, wax it and even laser it. Of course, each treatment has its advantages and disadvantages. And it’s always worth remembering that although you’re ‘physically’ removing the hair, it can always grow back thanks to those pesky androgens.
Generally speaking, this is a speedy and painless way to remove your hair. But be warned: your hair may grow back darker and thicker. Worst still, to achieve a smooth finish, you will need to shave frequently. Think twice per week (at least!)
We need to make one thing clear here: bleaching doesn’t technically ‘remove’ your hair – it lightens hair, making it seem less noticeable. Be mindful this hair removal method may cause some irritation too.
Plucking, threading and waxing – ouch!
Although these forms of hair removal are traditionally more painful, they offer a longer-lasting solution to shaving and bleaching. To put this into context for you, an upper-lip wax could last up to 6 weeks. So if you can handle a little discomfort every so often, it could be worth it.
Laser hair removal
Modern-day technologically has given birth to something pretty innovative stuff in the aesthetic world and laser hair removal features in is one of them. A tiny beam of light is directed at the hair follicle, which is absorbed by the melanin in the hair, causing it to die. A number of treatments is usually required, but results are very promising – not to mention long lasting.
To sum up…
Although there’s plenty of research proposing hirsutism can trigger a whirlwind of emotional and psychological distress, there are also many ways to manage it, as we’ve illustrated. By making simple changes to your diet, supplement programme and even opting for medication where it’s needed, you can ease the symptoms of hair growth. There’s even a wide range of hair removal options to choose from too.
Did you find this article useful? Browse the rest of our hub to learn even more ways to reclaim the reigns over your PCOS.
Spritzer, P.M., et al. (2016). Hirsutism in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Pathophysiology and Management. Curr Pharm Des. 22(36): 5603-5613.
You and Your Hormones. (2018). Testosterone. [ONLINE]. Available online: http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/testosterone.aspx
Archer, J.S., Chang, R.J. (2004). Hirsutism and acne in polycystic ovary syndrome. Best Pract Res Clin Obstet Gynaecol. 18(5): 737-54.
Daka, B., et al. (2013). Inverse association between serum insulin and sex hormone-binding globulin in a population survey in Sweden. Endocr Connect. 2 (1): 18-22.
Landay, M., et al. (2009). Degree of hyperinsulinemia, independent of androgen levels, is an important determinant of the severity of hirutism in PCOS. Fertil Steril. 92(2): 643-7
Radulian, G. (2009). Metabolic effects of low glycaemic index diets. Nutr J. 8: 5
Rajaeieh, G., et al. (2014). The Relationship between Intake of Dairy Products and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome in Women Who Referred to Isfahan University of Medical Science Clinics in 2013. Int J Prev Med. 5(6): 687–694.
Meinik, B. (2012). Dietary intervention in acne. Dermatoendocrinol. 4(1): 20–3.
Grant, P. (2010). Spearmint herbal tea has significant anti-androgen effects in polycystic ovarian syndrome. A randomized controlled trial. Phytother Res. (2): 186-8.
Minozzi, M. (2008). Treatment of hirsutism with myo-inositol: a prospective clinical study. Reproductive BioMedicine Online. 17 (4): 579-582.
Diamanti-Kandarakis, E. (1998). The effect of a pure antiandrogen receptor blocker, flutamide, on the lipid profile in the polycystic ovary syndrome. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 83(8): 2699-705
Wu, J. (2008). Effects of metformin and ethinyl estradiol-cyproterone acetate on clinical, endocrine and metabolic factors in women with polycystic ovary syndrome. Gynecol Endocrinol. 24(7): 392-8.
Rosenfield, R.L. (2016). The Pathogenesis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): The Hypothesis of PCOS as Functional Ovarian Hyperandrogenism Revisited. Endocr Rev. 37(5): 467–520.