Taking an oral contraceptive as a treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome — a common treatment for this disorder — has been shown to reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, according to a new study published in the journal Diabetes Care.
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormonal disorder in which women of reproductive age may have irregular or prolonged menstrual periods, and in which the ovaries may develop small pockets of fluid called follicles. The signs and symptoms of the disorder are typically more severe in overweight or obese women, and polycystic ovary syndrome is known to increase the future risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. There is evidence that insulin resistance plays a key role in polycystic ovary syndrome in many women, leading to higher insulin levels that promote higher levels of hormones known as androgens — commonly known as “male” sex hormones, which may lead to the irregular patterns seen in the ovaries of people with the disorder.
For the latest study, researchers at the University of Birmingham in England compared diabetes-related outcomes in 64,051 women with polycystic ovary syndrome and 125,545 participants without the disorder, who were matched to have otherwise similar characteristics. They also looked at a smaller sample of participants with polycystic ovary syndrome — 2,407 women who took combined oral contraceptive pills to treat their condition, and an equal number of participants who didn’t take an oral contraceptive — and compared diabetes-related outcomes between the two groups, as note in a press release on the study.
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Oral contraceptive linked to lower prediabtes, type 2 risk in PCOS
The researchers found that after adjusting for several factors known to affect the risk for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes — including age, social deprivation, ethnicity, smoking status, and body-mass index (BMI, a measure of body weight that takes height into account) — women with polycystic ovary syndrome were 87% more likely to develop prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. They also found that among women with the disorder, taking an oral contraceptive for treatment was linked to a 28% lower risk for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes — in addition to the presumed benefits that these pills offered for symptom relief.
“We knew from previous, smaller studies, that women with PCOS have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes,” explained study author Wiebke Arlt, director of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research, in the press release. “However, what is important about our research is that we have been able to provide new evidence from a very large population-based study to show for the very first time that we have a potential treatment option — combined oral contraceptives — to prevent this very serious health risk.”
The researchers noted that this study was limited by the fact that it was retrospective, meaning that it only looked at existing data rather than assigning certain treatments to participants. This means that it can’t be ruled out that women who received an oral contraceptive were different in some key respects from those who didn’t receive these drugs as a treatment — for example, that their symptoms may have been more severe. Future studies should be considered, they wrote, that randomly assign certain participants to receive a combined oral contraceptive as a treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome — to look at both symptom relief and diabetes-related outcomes.