The Pill May Reduce Type 2 Diabetes Risk for People with PCOS

Birth control pills.
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Key Takeaways

  • New research found that birth control pills may help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes in women with PCOS.
  • Women with PCOS were two times more likely to have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes than those without the condition.
  • Researchers intend on conducting clinical trials to study this further.

For years, doctors have known that women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) have a heightened risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Now, new research has discovered a possible treatment to help reduce that risk: taking birth control pills.

For the study, which was published in the American Diabetes Association’s journal Diabetes Care in October, researchers analyzed patient records of 64,051 women in the U.K. with PCOS and 123,545 women without PCOS.

What Is Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)?

PCOS is a health condition that impacts women and girls of reproductive age. Women with PCOS may cease ovulation, which leads to irregular periods or no periods. They may also have high levels of a type of hormone called androgens, and fluid-filled sacs called cysts on one or both ovaries.

PCOS can lead to symptoms like unwanted hair growth on the face and body, dark patches on the skin, acne, weight gain, and irregular or painful periods. Women with PCOS are at a greater risk of developing other health conditions, like type 2 diabetes.

The researchers first analyzed the risk of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes in the women and found that those who had PCOS were twice as likely to have prediabetes—a precursor to diabetes—or type 2 diabetes than those without PCOS. The researchers also discovered that hirsutism, or excessive hair growth, in women with PCOS was a large risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes or prediabetes.

In a second study, the researchers analyzed data from 4,814 women with PCOS and found that the use of combined oral contraceptives like the pill lowered the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and prediabetes in women with PCOS by 26%.

“We knew from previous, smaller studies, that women with PCOS have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes,” co-senior author Wiebke Arlt, MD, director of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research, said in a 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 study’s authors now plan to conduct a clinical trial to strengthen their findings.

What This Means For You

If you have PCOS and are concerned about your diabetes risk, talk to your doctor about your options. Taking birth control pills may help reduce your risk.

Why Is There a Link?

While this particular study didn’t explore the connection, the researchers mentioned that women with PCOS often struggle with weight gain, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes.

Women with PCOS are also less responsive to insulin, the hormone that helps your body absorb glucose into your cells where it is used for energy. That can lead to elevated blood glucose levels and the body making more insulin. This causes the body to make more androgens, which can make PCOS—and diabetes—worse.

“Women with PCOS are often overweight or have a hard time losing weight,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, MD, tells Verywell. “But the cells in a person with PCOS are also often less responsive to insulin or insulin resistant. This means that although their bodies can produce insulin, they can’t use it effectively, and as a result, they have an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.”

The new study found that risk women with PCOS who weren’t overweight still faced an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and prediabetes.

How Can the Pill Help?

The pill “can help decrease the amount of androgens floating around in the body,” Christine Greves, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells Verywell. It specifically causes an increase of estrogen and sex hormone-binding globulin, which “binds to the androgens floating around,” Greves says.

“As a result, the androgen level goes down and so does the level of insulin,” Wider says.

Research on the impact of birth control pills on type 2 diabetes risk in people with PCOS is still fairly new, and more studies are needed before doctors will definitively recommend this to patients to lower their diabetes risk, Greves says.

However, she adds, the pill is often prescribed to help treat patients with PCOS.

If you have PCOS and are concerned about your type 2 diabetes risk, Wider recommends talking to your doctor about taking birth control pills and other steps you can take to lower your risk.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. About polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

  2. Kumarendran B, O’Reilly MW, Subramanian A, et al. Polycystic ovary syndrome, combined oral contraceptives, and the risk of dysglycemia: a population-based cohort study with a nested pharmacoepidemiological case-control study. Diabetes Care. Published online October 14, 2021. doi:10.2337/dc21-0437

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.