The Link Between PCOS and Autoimmune Disorders

Emerging research is showing a link between PCOS and autoimmune disorders. This article explores the reasons to the link and what you can do about it.

What are Autoimmune Disorders?

An autoimmune disorder occurs when the body’s immune system attacks and destroys your own body thinking its an invader.

Like PCOS, autoimmune disorders are often overlooked. This could be because some autoimmune disorders are very rare (some doctors may not know much about it and perhaps have never seen some of the conditions in their practice).

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders. Symptoms can vary depending on the disorder and the part of the body affected. Some autoimmune disorders affect certain types of tissue throughout the body—for example, blood vessels, cartilage, or skin. Other autoimmune disorders affect a particular organ. Autoimmune disorders cause inflammation and tissue damage resulting in pain, deformed joints, weakness, jaundice, itching, difficulty breathing, accumulation of fluid or edema.

It is possible to have multiple autoimmune conditions at the same time. Approximately 25% of people who have one autoimmune disease have a tendency to develop another.

Potential Causes of Autoimmune Disorders

The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is still unclear but there are potential theories that environmental triggers, such as endocrine disrupting chemicals, cigarette smoke, smog, pesticides and pollutants are to blame. Other theories believe viruses, and bacteria, sexually transmitted diseases and microbes that live in our bodies, as potential triggers. Of course, genetics also plays a big role as a spectrum of different autoimmune conditions can cluster in families.

The Link Between PCOS and Autoimmune Disorders

Emerging research is showing a link with PCOS and autoimmune disorders.

Autoimmune thyroid disease, also called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, has been reported in 18-40% of PCOS women, making it three times more common in women with PCOS. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a type of autoimmune disorder that results from a dysregulation of the immune system that produces an immune attack with chronic inflammation of the thyroid gland.

Hashimoto’s is detected by thyroid antibody blood testing (TSH alone is not sufficient). Because of the increased link between HA and PCOS, it is recommended that all patients with PCOS be screened for thyroid function and thyroid-specific autoantibodies even without evidence of overt thyroid dysfunction.

READ PCOS And Your Thyroid: How Nutrition Plays A Role

pcos and thyroid autoimmune disorders

The prevalence of PCOS in women with the autoimmune disorder psoriasis is much greater compared with age and weight-matched control women (47.05% vs. 11.76%).

The presence   of   an autoimmune   reaction   against   ovarian tissues   in   female   patients   with   PCOS has been found. This discovery has lead researchers to suggest the possibility of an autoimmune mechanism in the development of  PCOS.

Why the Possible Link between PCOS and Autoimmune Disorders

The research into autoimmune diseases and PCOS is extremely limited. The research that is available points to three possible theories as to why autoimmune diseases like Hashimoto’s, are common in PCOS.

Inflammation and Insulin Resistance

One theory suggests that inflammatory and immune markers may have a role in the development of insulin resistance and elevated insulin levels in PCOS. Women with PCOS have been shown to have higher levels of inflammatory markers and insulin, regardless of weight when compared to people without PCOS.

Sex hormone imbalances

A second theory implies and imbalance between estradiol and progesterone as playing a significant role in potential autoimmune activity in PCOS.

Women with PCOS have been shown to have low levels of progesterone. Progesterone is stimulated after ovulation. Since the majority of people with PCOS struggle to ovulate, they don’t end up producing progesterone.

Low level of progesterone levels in PCOS causes an overstimulation of immune system that produces more estrogen which leads to various autoantibodies. It is speculated that the imbalance of normal to high estrogens and low progesterone levels, the so called “unopposed estrogens” are thought to be responsible for the apparent increase in prevalence of autoimmune disorders, even during menopause.

Low Vitamin D levels

Low vitamin D levels have been associated with several autoimmune diseases and recently with autoimmune thyroid disease. Vitamin D is a vitamin but also a hormone. Levels of 25(OH) vitamin D were found to be significantly lower in women with PCOS and autoimmune thyroid disease when compared with women with PCOS without the autoimmune disorder. These findings suggest that low levels of vitamin D were significantly associated with autoimmune thyroid disease in women with PCOS.

Certainly, people with PCOS may have many other autoimmune conditions of which have not been studied yet. This is why it is so important that PCOS receive more money to fund good quality research trials involving large amounts of people with PCOS and for long-term duration.

Treatment Options for Autoimmune Disorders

While there are various medications to improve or prevent the worsening of autoimmune conditions, lifestyle can also help. If you have PCOS and an autoimmune disorder, chances are your body may be producing more inflammation. Reducing this inflammation is key to improving your symptoms.

Include Anti-Inflammatory Foods

To reduce inflammation if you have PCOS, it may be helpful to include anti-inflammatory foods and drink green tea daily. Doing so will also help improve your gut health.

PCOS WORKBOOK

Manage Stress

Stress is part of our everyday lives and will never be eliminated. Reducing stress and learning ways to better manage it, is also particularly important as stress is a big contributing factor to autoimmune disorders and flare ups.  Need help? Check out The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide to Complete Physical and Emotional Health which has an entire chapter on Stress and another on Mindfulness.

Nutrition Supplements

Supplements shown to help reduce inflammation include vitamin D, n-acetylcysteine (NAC), fish oil, curcumin, coQ10, probiotics, and alpha lipoic acid.

Don’t waste money on the wrong supplements for PCOS. Shop the PCOS Nutrition Supplement Store for premium quality supplements based on science.

pcos nutrition supplements

Do you have PCOS and an Autoimmune disorder? Please share your experiences below in the comments.

References

PMID: 30352422  PMID: 23158933  PMID: 27274883  PMID: 26433740

pcos dietitian angela grassiAngela Grassi, MS, RDN, LDN, is the founder of The PCOS Nutrition Center, for which she has been providing evidence-based nutrition information and coaching to people with PCOS for over 20 years. Angela is the author of several books on PCOS, including PCOS: The Dietitian’s Guide, The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide to Complete Physical and Emotional Health, and The PCOS Nutrition Center Cookbook. Angela is the past recipient of The Outstanding Nutrition Entrepreneur Award, The Award in Excellence in Practice in Women’s Health, and The Award for Excellence in Graduate Research, from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Having PCOS herself, Angela has been dedicated to advocacy, education, and research of the syndrome.

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