VIRGINIA BEACH -- Some women who've put on a lot of weight in a short amount of time or have uncontrollable cravings for carbs may have a serious medical condition and not even know it.
38-year-old Darcy Thompson, who'd always been thin, put on 15 pounds in four months -- all concentrated in her belly.
"Nothing in my lifestyle had really changed other than coming off the birth control," she said.
Stopping birth control to start a family started a vicious string of other symptoms like hot flashes and losing her hair.
"It was coming out in clumps. That was just mortifying to me. You're just kind of like what's next?," she added.
20-yr-old Brittany Higgins had a similar experience. Her symptoms began when her period started at age nine. By 12, she'd gained about 40 pounds.
"The craving would never go away. It didn't matter if I had a bowl of ice or a candy bar. It would produce so much extra sugar in my body, it would make me sick," she recalled.
She didn't know what the problem was until, at age 15, she developed a cyst so large that it had to be removed. Doctors tested her for Polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS. The result came back positive.
PCOS is a hormone imbalance found in reproductive age women. Often, women with PCOS produce too much insulin to digest sugars. That higher insulin causes the hypothalamus gland to suppress estrogen in the ovaries and raise testosterone, the male hormone that creates the bulky shape, hair growth and hair loss in male patterns, stops ovulation and can produce cysts.
"Those same hormones can cause difficulties with they way they can manufacture or metabolize sugars and starches so these women can tend to be overweight. They can have problems with diabetes," explains Dr. Robin Poe-Ziegler, a reproductive endocrinologist at New Hope Center in Virginia Beach.
She says doctors too often treat the symptoms with a birth control pill, which masks the real problem.
"It's not cost effective to be doing ultrasounds on everyone and finding out if the ovaries are polycystic isn't cost effective...it's not cost effective," she added.
Dietitian Monika Woolsey used to work with eating-disordered patients, but she's has changed her focus to PCOS women. She found the symptoms between binge-purge disorder were very close to PCOS.
"I was finding that there were a lot of interactions between hormones and mood and appetite and the biggest thing that I saw (is that) they were being studied separately by different researchers that weren't working on the same problem I was and they were missing the point," she stated.
Woolsey started the inCYST Institute for Hormone Health and is training physicians to spot PCOS early in hopes of preventing it from causing infertility later.
"I tell physicians that if your patients tell you 'I can't lose weight' because of diet and exercise are not working, you really need to listen to that. Don't project it back onto them that they're doing something wrong," she stressed.
Thompson found out she had PCOS when she and her husband went to leave sperm at the New Hope Center because he was getting ready to deploy. The doctor found almost 40 cysts on her ovaries.
The birth control pill had masked the problem.
The Thompsons started the invitro fertilization process this month.
Higgins is managing her symptoms by getting on the popular diabetes medication Metformin, which regulates her insulin and progesterone to suppress the testosterone.
It's making a difference.
"I did notice that the acne had started to clear up, my hair was starting to grow back in, my weight was back under control and I started to have a menstrual cycle. You have to be willing to work with the medicine," she noted.
These women are grateful knowing there's a reason behind their symptoms. They hope more women will stop wondering and start researching the genetic condition that changed their lives.