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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Its Association with Hypertension

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Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and Its Association with Hypertension

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder affecting women of reproductive age worldwide. This complex condition occurs due to the overproduction of hormones by the ovaries, the female reproductive organs responsible for producing and releasing eggs (ovulation). Specifically, an excess of androgen hormones like testosterone can disrupt the balance of sex hormones. Key manifestations include irregular menstrual periods, elevated androgen levels, and the presence of many small fluid-filled sacs, or cysts, on the ovaries (polycystic ovaries). Despite its name, ovarian cysts are not always observed in those with PCOS, and symptoms may vary significantly among individuals.  

Notably, metabolic health is an important consideration. Many women with PCOS are insulin resistant, a prevalent risk factor for developing the disease. An emerging concern is the association between PCOS and elevated hypertension risk. Recognizing the connection between hormone imbalances and cardiovascular health is imperative for improving management and prevention strategies while successfully navigating the complexities of PCOS.


Understanding PCOS

PCOS is a complex endocrine disorder that impacts up to 15% of women. It is characterized by a diverse range of symptoms that may vary significantly among individuals, posing challenges for diagnosis. Common manifestations include:

  • Irregular menstrual periods (oligomenorrhea), including missed periods, having no period at all (amenorrhea), or the absence of ovulation (anovulation)
  • Infertility
  • Obesity, occurring in 40-80% of those with PCOS
  • High androgen levels, including testosterone
  • Abnormal hair growth on the face, arms, chest, or abdomen (hirsutism)
  • Acne, especially on the face, back, and chest
  • Hair thinning
  • Enlarged or polycystic ovaries

The Rotterdam Criteria are widely used as the diagnostic criteria for PCOS, requiring the presence of at least 2 of the following 3 key features:

  • Irregular or missed menstrual periods (cycles > 35 days apart or < 8 menstrual periods per year)
  • High androgen levels, determined clinically based on symptoms (i.e. acne, hair loss, hirsutism) or confirmed biochemically with a blood test (i.e. elevated total testosterone, free testosterone, or DHEA-S (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate))
  • Enlarged ovaries or polycystic ovaries, diagnosed by ultrasound

It is essential to note that not all women with PCOS have ovarian cysts, and conversely, some women without PCOS may develop ovarian cysts.

While the exact cause of PCOS remains unknown, evidence suggests that genetics, obesity, and insulin resistance play a role. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body process glucose (blood sugar) to be used for energy. Elevated insulin levels can contribute to increased androgen production, impacting ovulation and fertility. Obesity exacerbates symptoms by further elevating insulin levels, contributing to a broader metabolic impact, which may include factors like high blood pressure. This underscores the complicated and systemic nature of PCOS. Beyond its reproductive and hormonal implications, PCOS is associated with metabolic imbalances, necessitating a comprehensive healthcare approach.

Does PCOS Cause Hypertension?

PCOS is linked to a higher risk of hypertension, although the direct cause is complex and may involve several underlying mechanisms.

One primary factor is insulin resistance, a common feature of PCOS. When cells become less responsive to insulin, it disrupts blood sugar regulation. This leads to elevated insulin levels in the blood, known as hyperinsulinemia, which may contribute to hypertension through multiple pathways.

First, insulin stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, increasing heart rate and narrowing blood vessels, thereby raising blood pressure. Hyperinsulinemia also decreases the production of nitric oxide (NO), a molecule that promotes blood vessel dilation. When NO is low, blood vessels constrict, contributing to increases in blood pressure. Moreover, elevated insulin encourages the kidneys to reabsorb sodium, another factor affecting blood pressure.

Some sources suggest that aldosterone, a hormone known for its role in regulating sodium and potassium levels, may be at play. Increased aldosterone levels have been observed in PCOS, which may contribute to hypertension and inflammation. The role of aldosterone in PCOS is still being researched, however, and the potential mechanisms are not yet fully understood.

In PCOS, hyperinsulinemia also contributes to increased androgen production, particularly testosterone, which affects blood vessel function and can lead to hypertension.

Additionally, many individuals with PCOS struggle with obesity. Extra fat tissue produces substances that contribute to inflammation and impact blood vessel function, thereby raising blood pressure. Further complicating the issue, the excess androgens resulting from PCOS reduce the production of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG), a protein that regulates the activity of sex hormones. When hormones are bound to SHBG in the blood, they cannot exert their effects. When SHBG is low, more testosterone circulates freely in the blood, enabling it to have stronger effects on the body. Over time, these androgens can promote obesity by causing fat accumulation around abdominal organs, worsening PCOS symptoms. This establishes a cycle where obesity worsens PCOS, and PCOS, in turn, contributes to obesity-related problems.

The combined effects of insulin resistance, hyperinsulinemia, obesity, and androgen excess in PCOS sets the stage for the development of hypertension.

Epidemiological Evidence Linking PCOS and Hypertension 

Epidemiological studies conducted globally have suggested a link between PCOS and hypertension.  

A retrospective study conducted in Taiwan evaluated hypertension risk in over 20,000 women with PCOS compared to more than 82,000 women without the condition, aged 22-36 years. The study found a statistically significant higher risk of hypertension in the PCOS group. Moreover, when other health conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol (hyperlipidemia) were present alongside PCOS, the risk of developing hypertension increased significantly.

Similarly, a study conducted in California included more than 11,000 women diagnosed with PCOS and over 55,000 women without PCOS, encompassing diverse backgrounds, ages, and body mass index (BMI). This study suggested a link between PCOS and cardiovascular risk factors. Women with PCOS exhibited higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia, even after accounting for factors like body weight. Consistent associations were observed across ethnic groups, with African American subjects showing the highest likelihood of hypertension compared to Caucasians, Asians, and Hispanics. This study highlighted the high prevalence rates of PCOS, affecting at least 1 in 38 women aged 25–34, with an additional 1 in 20 showing PCOS-related symptoms.

A 2021 study assessed blood pressure in normal-weight Nordic women with PCOS compared to women without PCOS of the same age and weight. They found that even among normal-weight women, those with PCOS had higher blood pressure than the controls.

In another Chinese study comparing over 3,300 women with PCOS to more than 1,800 without, the prevalence of hypertension was significantly higher in the PCOS group (approximately 19% versus 12% in the non-PCOS group). Despite similar body weight, those with PCOS and hypertension showed elevated glucose levels, insulin, and lipids, as compared to non-hypertensive PCOS individuals.

Collectively, these studies underscore the public health significance of PCOS and emphasize the need for further research on long-term cardiovascular outcomes and prevention strategies. The findings indicate that PCOS has broad cardiovascular impacts, suggesting that even women of normal body weight may face an elevated risk of hypertension. This highlights the importance of early detection and intervention.

Managing Hypertension in Women with PCOS

Effectively managing hypertension in PCOS involves a comprehensive approach, encompassing lifestyle modifications, dietary changes, and pharmacological treatments. Functional medicine plays an important role in addressing the root causes, considering factors such as hormonal imbalances, inflammation, and metabolic dysfunction. Given the wide variability of symptoms and underlying challenges seen among PCOS patients, the unique needs of the individual should be addressed with personalized treatment plans.

Lifestyle Modifications

Lifestyle modifications play a crucial role in managing hypertension in women with PCOS. Weight management is particularly important, as excess weight contributes to both conditions. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight through dietary changes, regular exercise, and behavioral strategies significantly impacts blood pressure.

Regular physical activity is essential, as exercise helps to regulate blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity, and enhances cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity weekly. One study reported that vigorous aerobic exercise improves insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS, and strength training may improve androgen levels, however further research in this area is needed.

Dietary Changes

Dietary modifications are also crucial. Adopting heart-healthy diets like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet can be beneficial. Emphasizing fiber and antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, while minimizing saturated and trans fats, sodium, and refined sugars, this diet is well-known for lowering blood pressure. Evidence suggests that the DASH diet also benefits insulin sensitivity, making it a great choice for metabolic disorders like PCOS.

Calorie-restricted diets effectively promote weight loss, and insulin sensitivity, and may regulate androgen levels. However, maintaining appropriate macronutrient balance, especially protein, is important for sustaining lean muscle mass on these diets.

Beyond cardiovascular benefits, dietary interventions can improve ovarian health and fertility. Low-carbohydrate diets, for example, have been shown to decrease testosterone levels, increase SHBG and pregnancy rates, and promote regular ovulation and menstruation.

Pharmacological Treatments

When lifestyle modifications alone are insufficient, pharmacological treatments may be considered. The choice of medication depends on individual health considerations.

Spironolactone, commonly used to treat acne and hirsutism in PCOS, works by blocking the effects of androgen hormones. It can also positively impact cardiovascular health by improving lipid profiles, and blood vessel function, and combating the effects of aldosterone.

Antidiabetic drugs like metformin may be prescribed to control blood sugar, while statins help to control cholesterol levels and may positively impact testosterone and inflammation, indirectly influencing blood pressure.

Notably, oral contraceptives (birth control pills) are recommended by the Endocrine Society as first-line treatment for irregular menstrual periods and androgen imbalances in PCOS, however, their use has been associated with hypertension, blood sugar dysregulation, and elevated cholesterol.

Personalized Treatment Plans

Considering individual variations in symptoms, metabolic profiles, and lifestyle factors is crucial when recommending interventions for PCOS. Tailoring strategies to meet the specific needs and preferences of each woman enhances the likelihood of successful hypertension management.

Complications and Long-term Health Implications

Untreated hypertension in women with PCOS presents significant risks. Potential complications and long-term health implications may include cardiovascular disease, stroke, and kidney damage.

Cardiovascular Disease

Untreated hypertension significantly elevates the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in women with PCOS. Persistently high blood pressure puts strain on the heart, predisposing individuals to heart attack, stroke, and the increased need for surgical procedures to restore blood flow to the heart. It also contributes to the development of atherosclerosis– a condition where arteries become narrowed and hardened due to a buildup of plaque. These risks escalate when accompanied by common PCOS-related factors like obesity, high cholesterol, and blood sugar imbalances.


Hypertension is a major risk factor for stroke, a condition characterized by a disruption in blood flow to the brain. Elevated blood pressure can lead to the formation of blood clots or rupture of blood vessels in the brain, resulting in a stroke. Notably, women with PCOS face a substantially elevated risk of cardiovascular events, attributed to a combination of metabolic factors, inflammation, and impaired blood vessel function. Factors such as the stiffness of arteries and thickening of artery walls contribute to this heightened risk.

Kidney Damage

Untreated hypertension can also result in kidney damage. The kidneys are responsible for regulating blood pressure and filtering the blood. Prolonged high blood pressure can damage the arteries of the kidneys, causing them to narrow, weaken, or harden. The presence of blood sugar imbalances can further damage these vessels. This compromises the kidney’s ability to receive an adequate blood supply, potentially resulting in nephropathy– a condition marked by impaired kidney function. In severe cases, it may progress to end-stage renal disease.

Comprehensive care and regular monitoring are crucial in preventing these complications. A holistic approach to patient care, acknowledging the broader impact of PCOS beyond hormonal aspects, is vital. Regular monitoring ensures timely detection of any fluctuations in blood pressure, enabling prompt adjustments to the treatment plan.

The Role of Healthcare Providers in Addressing PCOS and Hypertension

Healthcare providers play a critical role in ensuring optimal patient outcomes by effectively diagnosing, educating, and managing PCOS and hypertension. It is important to acknowledge the intricate connection between these conditions, and how they may be effectively managed through interdisciplinary care involving a variety of specialists.

Diagnosis is the first step toward effective management. Considering its multifaceted hormonal and metabolic manifestations, endocrinologists, the hormone experts, are particularly well-equipped to identify and diagnose PCOS. Primary care providers play a crucial role in diagnosing and monitoring hypertension. Early diagnosis enables timely intervention and appropriate referrals to cardiologists, the heart health experts, preventing potential complications associated with both conditions.

In addition, patient education is essential to empower patients in their healthcare journey. Educating individuals with PCOS about the complexity of the condition, the long-term health risks, and its link to hypertension is important to facilitate proactive management. This enables patients to make informed decisions about their health, including dietary and lifestyle choices. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of medication compliance, regular check-ups, and monitoring, ensuring that any emerging issues are promptly identified and addressed. As a result, patients are equipped with the knowledge and tools to proactively manage their conditions, leading to more effective and personalized health outcomes.

Interdisciplinary care, combining endocrinology, cardiology, and primary care, is fundamental for addressing PCOS and hypertension. Collaboration among specialists ensures that patients receive integrated and well-coordinated care that considers the interplay between hormonal and cardiovascular factors to deliver comprehensive care.

Healthcare providers can contribute significantly to improved patient outcomes in PCOS and hypertension. Diagnosing these conditions early, educating patients, and coordinating comprehensive care are essential components of their role.

Future Directions in Research and Treatment

The connection between PCOS and hypertension underscores the need for further research to address existing gaps in our understanding and explore avenues for more effective management.

While the Rotterdam Criteria serve as a widely accepted diagnostic tool, there are variations in the criteria used, complicating definitive diagnosis and leading to knowledge gaps among physicians. A study examining PCOS knowledge among North American doctors reported that nearly 28% were unsure of the diagnostic criteria that they use. Although the majority were aware of the association with cardiovascular risk factors, a lack of consensus among doctors persists, demanding attention be given to PCOS for enhanced diagnostic accuracy and comprehensive management of comorbidities.

Another critical gap exists in understanding the four proposed PCOS phenotypes, each characterized by distinct physical and biochemical features. Insufficient research on these phenotypes warrants a focused exploration of their unique characteristics and associated cardiovascular risks. A deeper understanding of these distinctions could offer valuable insights into targeted prevention and treatment strategies.

While many studies concentrate on PCOS in women of reproductive age due to fertility concerns, the persistence of PCOS-associated risks after menopause remains unclear. Future research should specifically investigate the cardiovascular risks in post-menopausal women with PCOS, and longer-term studies are needed.

Initiatives are underway to update the International Evidence-Based PCOS Guideline, aiming to enhance health outcomes and provide guidance for future research.

Exploring the potential benefits of novel pharmacological agents and specific lifestyle interventions is also important. Delving into the role of specific dietary patterns, exercise regimens, and new medications for mitigating hypertension in women with PCOS could offer greater insights into personalized treatment strategies. For example, it was recently discovered that telmisartan, a type of medication that blocks angiotensin II receptors, thereby reducing blood pressure, also can improve insulin sensitivity and fertility in hypertensive PCOS patients.

Furthermore, considering the impact of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence in diagnosing PCOS and hypertension is essential. Integrating these technologies into patient care holds the potential to improve early detection, monitoring, and treatment plan adherence, thereby enhancing overall health outcomes.


Key Takeaways

The link between PCOS and a heightened risk of hypertension emphasizes the urgent need for greater awareness, early intervention, and comprehensive management. PCOS, a prevalent endocrine disorder affecting women of reproductive age, presents with a constellation of symptoms, including irregular menstrual periods, excess androgen levels, and polycystic ovaries. The diagnostic challenges, arising from varying criteria and knowledge gaps among physicians, highlight the complexity of the condition.

Moving forward, an integrative care approach is critical in navigating the complexities of PCOS and mitigating its associated health risks, including hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, infertility, and more severe cardiovascular events. Accurate diagnosis and patient education, facilitated by interdisciplinary care involving endocrinologists, cardiologists, and primary care providers, promote active engagement. Empowering women with PCOS to actively participate in their healthcare decisions is key to achieving optimal outcomes.

Prioritizing increased awareness, advancing research, and embracing comprehensive management can lead to improved well-being and a more holistic understanding of the intricate interplay between PCOS and hypertension.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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