Insulin resistance and PCOS: chicken or egg?

J Endocrinol Invest. 2021 Feb;44(2):233-244. doi: 10.1007/s40618-020-01351-0. Epub 2020 Jul 9.


PCOS is a common and heterogeneous endocrine disorder in women of reproductive age, frequently associated with metabolic abnormalities. It was estimated that about 75% of these subjects have an impairment of insulin action, as measured by gold standard methods. While the relationship between insulin resistance and PCOS is consistently shown by a number of studies, the mechanisms underlying its primary origin still remains an unsolved issue. Insulin resistance and the associated hyperinsulinemia can induce both the endocrine and reproductive traits of PCOS. However, androgen excess, in turn, can impair insulin action, directly and/or through several changes occurring in different tissues. Body fat excess, which is another common feature in these women, can contribute to worsening the whole picture. Nevertheless, insulin resistance may also be found in many normal-weight individuals. Endocrine and metabolic abnormalities can develop in different moments, and probably there is fetal programming of these alterations. However, a number of vicious circles, with bidirectional relationships between androgen excess and insulin resistance, and with the contribution of several other factors, make it extremely difficult to understand where this process really originates. This review summarizes available evidence on this topic, in order to better understand the complex relationships linking hyperandrogenism and impaired insulin action in women with PCOS.

Keywords: Hyperandrogenism; Insulin resistance; PCOS.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hyperandrogenism / epidemiology
  • Hyperandrogenism / pathology*
  • Insulin Resistance*
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome / physiopathology*