Which COCs have low androgenicity?
I believe that every COC is an effective treatment for PCOS, regardless of the androgenicity of the progestin in the contraceptive. However, some dermatologists believe that combination contraceptives containing progestins with low androgenicity, such as drospirenone, norgestimate, and desogestrel, are more likely to improve acne than contraceptives with an androgenic progestin such as levonorgestrel. In one study in which 2,147 women with acne were treated by one dermatologic practice, the percentage of women reporting that a birth control pill helped to improve their acne was 66% for pills containing drospirenone, 53% for pills containing norgestimate, 44% for pills containing desogestrel, 30% for pills containing norethindrone, and 25% for pills containing levonorgestrel. In the same study, the percent of women reporting that a birth control pill made their acne worse was 3% for pills containing drospirenone, 6% for pills containing norgestimate, 2% for pills containing desogestrel, 8% for pills containing norethindrone, and 10% for pills containing levonorgestrel.9 Given these findings, when treating a woman with PCOS, I generally prescribe a contraceptive that does not contain levonorgestrel.
Why is a spironolactone dose of 100 mg a good choice for PCOS treatment?
Spironolactone, an antiandrogen and inhibitor of 5-alpha-reductase, is commonly prescribed for the treatment of hirsutism and acne at doses ranging from 50 mg to 200 mg daily.10,11 In my clinical experience, spironolactone at a dose of 200 mg daily commonly causes irregular and bothersome uterine bleeding while spironolactone at a dose of 100 mg daily is seldom associated with irregular bleeding. I believe that spironolactone at a dose of 100 mg daily results in superior clinical efficacy than a 50-mg daily dose, although studies report that both doses are effective in the treatment of acne and hirsutism. Spironolactone should not be prescribed to women with renal failure because it can result in severe hyperkalemia. In a study of spironolactone safety in the treatment of acne, no adverse effects on the kidney, liver, or adrenal glands were reported over 8 years of use.12
What insulin sensitizers are useful in rebalancing the metabolic abnormalities observed with PCOS?
Diet and exercise are superb approaches to rebalancing metabolic abnormalities, but for many of my patients they are insufficient and treatment with an insulin sensitizer is warranted. The most commonly utilized insulin sensitizer for the treatment of PCOS is metformin because it is very inexpensive and has a low risk of serious adverse effects such as lactic acidosis. Metformin increases peripheral glucose uptake and reduces gastrointestinal glucose absorption. Insulin sensitizers also decrease visceral fat, a major source of adipokines. One major disadvantage of metformin is that at doses in the range of 1,500 mg to 2,250 mg it often causes gastrointestinal adverse effects such as borborygmi, nausea, abdominal discomfort, and loose stools.
Thiazolidinediones, including pioglitazone, have been reported to be effective in rebalancing central metabolism in women with PCOS. Pioglitazone carries a black box warning of an increased risk of congestive heart failure and nonfatal myocardial infarction. Pioglitazone is also associated with a risk of hepatotoxicity. However, at the pioglitazone dose commonly used in the treatment of PCOS (7.5 mg daily), these serious adverse effects are rare. In practice, I initiate metformin at a dose of 750 mg daily using the extended-release formulation. I increase the metformin dose to 1,500 mg daily if the patient has no bothersome gastrointestinal symptoms on the lower dose. If the patient cannot tolerate metformin treatment because of adverse effects, I will use pioglitazone 7.5 mg daily.
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