Understanding Adrenal PCOS: Symptoms, Causes, and Management

Understanding Adrenal PCOS: Mental Signs of PCOSSymptoms, Causes, and Management

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a complex endocrine disorder affecting millions of women worldwide. While PCOS is commonly associated with hormonal imbalances related to the ovaries, there is a lesser-known subtype called adrenal PCOS, where adrenal glands play a significant role. This article will delve into what adrenal PCOS is, its symptoms, potential causes, and management strategies.

What is Adrenal PCOS?

What is Adrenal PCOS?

Adrenal PCOS, also known as adrenal androgen excess PCOS, is a subtype of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) characterized by excessive production of androgens (male hormones) by the adrenal glands. In classic PCOS, hormonal imbalances primarily stem from dysfunction of the ovaries, leading to irregular menstrual cycles, ovarian cysts, and elevated levels of androgens such as testosterone. However, in adrenal PCOS, the adrenal glands, which sit atop the kidneys, play a significant role in the overproduction of androgens.

The adrenal glands produce various hormones, including cortisol (a stress hormone) and androgens. In adrenal PCOS, there is a dysregulation in the production of these hormones, resulting in elevated levels of androgens. This excessive androgen production contributes to the manifestation of PCOS symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, hirsutism (excessive hair growth), acne, and fertility issues.

Symptoms of Adrenal PCOS

The symptoms of adrenal PCOS are similar to those of classic PCOS, but they may exhibit some variations due to the involvement of the adrenal glands in hormonal dysregulation. Here are the common symptoms associated with adrenal PCOS:

  • Irregular Menstrual Cycles: Women with adrenal PCOS often experience irregular periods or may even have amenorrhea (absence of menstruation). The hormonal imbalances stemming from adrenal dysfunction can disrupt the normal menstrual cycle.
  • Excessive Hair Growth (Hirsutism): Elevated levels of androgens, such as testosterone, can lead to hirsutism, characterized by excessive hair growth in areas typically associated with male-pattern hair growth. This may include the face (upper lip, chin), chest, back, and abdomen.
  • Acne: Androgen excess in adrenal PCOS can contribute to the development of acne. Women with adrenal PCOS may experience persistent or severe acne outbreaks, particularly on the face, chest, and back.
  • Male-Pattern Baldness: Some women with adrenal PCOS may experience hair thinning or male-pattern baldness due to the influence of androgens on hair follicles. This is known as androgenic alopecia and typically manifests as thinning hair on the scalp, especially at the crown or temples.
  • Weight Gain: Adrenal PCOS can contribute to weight gain, particularly around the abdomen. Insulin resistance, which is common in PCOS, may further exacerbate weight gain and make it challenging to manage body weight.
  • Insulin Resistance: Insulin resistance, a condition in which cells become less responsive to insulin, is common in both classic and adrenal PCOS. Insulin resistance can lead to elevated insulin levels, which in turn stimulate the adrenal glands to produce more androgens, exacerbating PCOS symptoms and increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • Difficulty Conceiving: Adrenal PCOS may interfere with ovulation, making it difficult for women to conceive naturally. Ovulatory dysfunction is a common feature of PCOS, and adrenal PCOS may further complicate fertility by disrupting the normal hormonal balance necessary for ovulation.

It’s important to note that not all women with adrenal PCOS will experience every symptom listed above, and the severity of symptoms can vary from person to person

Causes of Adrenal PCOS

Causes of Adrenal PCOS

The causes of adrenal PCOS, also known as adrenal androgen excess PCOS, are not fully understood, but several factors may contribute to its development. Adrenal PCOS involves dysregulation of the adrenal glands, leading to excessive production of androgens (male hormones) such as testosterone. Here are some potential factors that may contribute to the development of adrenal PCOS:

  • Genetics: Like classic PCOS, adrenal PCOS may have a genetic component. Certain genetic variants may predispose individuals to hormonal imbalances and adrenal dysfunction. Studies have identified several genes that may be associated with PCOS, although the exact mechanisms are still being investigated.
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia: Adrenal hyperplasia is a condition characterized by the enlargement of the adrenal glands, leading to increased production of hormones, including androgens. Adrenal hyperplasia can result from various factors, including genetic mutations or abnormalities in hormone regulation pathways.
  • Chronic Stress: Chronic stress can dysregulate the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the production of cortisol and other hormones by the adrenal glands. Prolonged stress can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which may disrupt hormone balance and contribute to adrenal dysfunction. This can subsequently lead to increased androgen production in adrenal PCOS.
  • Insulin Resistance: Insulin resistance, a common feature of PCOS, is characterized by reduced responsiveness of cells to insulin, leading to elevated insulin levels in the blood. Insulin resistance can stimulate the adrenal glands to produce more androgens, exacerbating PCOS symptoms. The exact relationship between insulin resistance and adrenal PCOS is complex and not fully elucidated but is thought to involve interactions between insulin signaling pathways and androgen production.
  • Inflammation: Chronic inflammation may play a role in the development of adrenal PCOS. Inflammation can disrupt normal adrenal function and hormone production, contributing to hormonal imbalances and PCOS symptoms. Factors such as obesity, unhealthy diet, and other lifestyle factors may contribute to inflammation and exacerbate adrenal PCOS.

It’s important to note that adrenal PCOS may result from a combination of these factors, and the exact cause may vary among individuals.

Diagnosis of Adrenal PCOS

Diagnosing adrenal PCOS involves a comprehensive evaluation of symptoms, medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests to assess hormonal levels and adrenal function. Here’s an overview of the diagnostic process for adrenal PCOS:

  1. Medical History and Physical Examination: The healthcare provider will start by taking a detailed medical history, including information about menstrual cycles, symptoms of hyperandrogenism (such as hirsutism, acne, and hair loss), weight changes, and other relevant factors. A thorough physical examination will also be conducted to assess for signs of PCOS, such as excess body hair, acne, and abdominal obesity.
  2. Blood Tests: Blood tests are essential for evaluating hormone levels and assessing adrenal function. The following blood tests may be ordered:
    • Androgen Levels: Measurement of androgens such as testosterone, DHEAS (dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate), androstenedione can help identify elevated levels associated with adrenal PCOS.
    • Insulin and Glucose Levels: Assessing fasting insulin levels and glucose levels can help determine insulin resistance, which is common in PCOS, including adrenal PCOS.
    • Luteinizing Hormone (LH) and Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH): LH and FSH levels may be measured to evaluate the ratio between these hormones, which is often altered in PCOS. An elevated LH-to-FSH ratio may indicate ovarian dysfunction.
    • Cortisol Levels: Measurement of cortisol levels may be performed to assess adrenal function and rule out conditions such as adrenal insufficiency or Cushing’s syndrome.
  3. Imaging Studies: In some cases, imaging studies such as pelvic ultrasound or adrenal imaging may be ordered to assess ovarian morphology and adrenal gland structure. Pelvic ultrasound can help identify ovarian cysts and assess ovarian volume, while adrenal imaging can detect abnormalities such as adrenal hyperplasia.
  4. Additional Tests: Depending on the individual’s symptoms and clinical presentation, additional tests may be warranted to rule out other conditions or assess for complications. These may include lipid profiles, thyroid function tests, and assessments of other hormone levels.
  5. Diagnostic Criteria: Diagnosis of adrenal PCOS is typically based on the presence of hyperandrogenism (elevated androgen levels) along with other criteria consistent with PCOS, such as irregular menstrual cycles and ovarian dysfunction. Diagnostic criteria such as the Rotterdam criteria or the Androgen Excess and PCOS Society criteria may be used to establish a diagnosis.
  6. Specialized Testing: In some cases, specialized testing may be indicated to further evaluate adrenal function or assess for specific conditions. This may include dynamic testing of adrenal hormones, such as the dexamethasone suppression test or the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) stimulation test.

Overall, the diagnosis of adrenal PCOS requires a comprehensive approach that integrates clinical evaluation, laboratory testing, and imaging studies to accurately assess hormonal imbalances, ovarian function, and adrenal gland function

Treatment Options

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Yes, adrenal PCOS is treatable, although the approach to treatment may differ from that of classic PCOS due to the involvement of the adrenal glands in hormonal dysregulation. Treatment for adrenal PCOS typically focuses on managing symptoms, addressing hormonal imbalances, and minimizing long-term health risks. Here are some common treatment strategies for adrenal PCOS:

  1. Lifestyle Modifications: Adopting a healthy lifestyle can have a significant impact on managing adrenal PCOS symptoms. This includes maintaining a balanced diet rich in whole foods, fiber, and nutrients, as well as engaging in regular physical activity. Exercise can help improve insulin sensitivity, promote weight management, and reduce stress levels, all of which are beneficial for adrenal PCOS.
  2. Medication: Medications may be prescribed to address specific symptoms of adrenal PCOS. These may include:
    • Oral Contraceptives: Birth control pills containing estrogen and progestin can help regulate menstrual cycles and reduce androgen levels in women with adrenal PCOS.
    • Anti-androgen Medications: Drugs such as spironolactone or flutamide may be prescribed to block the effects of androgens and reduce symptoms such as hirsutism and acne.
    • Insulin-Sensitizing Medications: Insulin-sensitizing drugs such as metformin may be prescribed to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance, which can help regulate menstrual cycles and improve fertility in women with adrenal PCOS.
  3. Nutritional Supplements: Certain supplements may help improve insulin sensitivity and hormonal balance in women with adrenal PCOS. These may include inositol, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and chromium. However, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider before starting any supplements to ensure safety and effectiveness.
  4. Stress Management: Managing stress is crucial for individuals with adrenal PCOS, as chronic stress can exacerbate symptoms and disrupt hormone balance. Stress-reducing techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, and relaxation techniques can help mitigate the effects of stress on adrenal function.
  5. Regular Monitoring: Regular monitoring of hormone levels, blood sugar levels, and lipid profiles is important for assessing the effectiveness of treatment and detecting any complications early on. This may involve periodic blood tests, imaging studies, and other assessments to track progress and adjust treatment as needed.
  6. Fertility Treatment: For women with adrenal PCOS who are trying to conceive, fertility treatments such as ovulation induction or in vitro fertilization (IVF) may be necessary if natural conception is not achievable due to ovulatory dysfunction.

Individuals with adrenal PCOS need to work closely with healthcare professionals, including endocrinologists, gynecologists, and nutritionists, to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to their specific needs and health goals. With proper management, many women with adrenal PCOS can experience significant improvement in symptoms and overall quality of life.


Adrenal PCOS presents unique challenges compared to classic PCOS due to its involvement of the adrenal glands. By understanding the symptoms, causes, and management strategies associated with adrenal PCOS, individuals can take proactive steps to manage their condition effectively and improve their quality of life. However, it’s essential to work closely with healthcare professionals to develop a personalized treatment plan tailored to individual needs and health goals. With proper management, women with adrenal PCOS can lead fulfilling lives while minimizing the impact of their condition on their overall health and well-being.

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