Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects between 5 and 6 million women and it’s not well understood by medical professionals. We know that PCOS causes hormone imbalances that domino into a host of other problems and challenging symptoms. One of these effects of hormone imbalance is autoimmunity, which has a lot of professionals wondering if PCOS is actually an autoimmune disease. (If you ask me, I think it is.)
Today, I’m going to explore that topic by helping you understand my research and viewpoints on whether or not PCOS is an autoimmune disease. Then, in the end, I’ll give you some practical ways to naturally reverse your PCOS and get back to feeling like yourself. Here are my thoughts on autoimmune disease and PCOS:
Is PCOS An Autoimmune Disease?
There is a lot of debate in the medical community about whether PCOS is an autoimmune disease. There’s not a universal consensus, but many doctors and researchers see a clear link between PCOS and autoimmune disease. They believe that since Cysters have low progesterone levels which leads to the formation of autoantibodies (AKA, proteins that attack your own body) PCOS should be considered an autoimmune disease. I definitely agree with this conclusion and consider PCOS an autoimmune disease.
I’ll add that autoimmune diseases tend to cluster. Studies show that women with PCOS have an increased risk of autoimmune diseases, like Hashimoto’s and lupus.
Does PCOS Weaken The Immune System?
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can absolutely lower your immune system. Remember, these autoantibodies brought on by hormone imbalance aren’t fighting to help you, they’re fighting against you. They can’t tell the difference between the healthy cells and the invasive ones. So, when your antibodies are busy killing healthy cells, the pathogens and toxins seep through. When this happens, you may have frequent illness, poor recovery from sickness, and general fatigue.
Link Between PCOS And Autoimmune Disease
Vitamin D Deficiency
Vitamin D is essential to our immune health, but research has found that women with autoimmune disease or PCOS often have low levels of vitamin D. Whether or not this deficiency is a cause or effect of either of these disorders isn’t super clear, but it does show a connection between PCOS and autoimmune disease.
As mentioned, the main link between PCOS and autoimmune disease is the presence of those autoantibodies. This is a signifying feature of autoimmune disease and a common symptom of PCOS. Because of this, many experts think PCOS is likely a type of autoimmune disease, rather than just a disease of the endocrine system.
Whenever our immune system is in action, we have inflammation. It’s our cells’ defensive response to damage. In a healthy body, inflammation every once in a while for short periods while fighting sickness isn’t a big deal. However, when it persists for a long time, it can cause lots of problems in the body. We see chronic inflammation in PCOS and autoimmune disease.
One of those damaging results of chronic inflammation is insulin resistance. To put it simply, insulin resistance is when your cells can’t absorb glucose (sugar) properly, so it builds up in the bloodstream potentially causing high blood sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other long-term complications. (This is why PCOS is sometimes called “the diabetes of the ovaries.”)
Sex Hormone Imbalance
Here’s a crazy stat: 80% of people with autoimmune diseases are female. Pretty wild, right? It’s believed that women experience autoimmune disease more often because differences in sex hormones are at the center of immune dysfunction. The balance of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone is key to a healthy body, including your immune system.
For example, estrogen produces a chemical that engages the immune response against pathogens. When imbalanced, the estrogen can actually overstimulate the immune system and cause an autoimmune response. A similar action can happen with progesterone.
High androgen levels (testosterone), on the other hand, are immunosuppressants. It actually reduces the response of immune cells. When balanced, this seems to be a positive thing! (The reason many men don’t experience autoimmune problems.) However, too much testosterone could be overly suppressive, preventing your immune system from protecting you against pathogens and toxins.
So, what does all this have to do with PCOS? Well, PCOS currently is classified as an endocrinopathy, which essentially means “hormone disease.” It’s characterized mostly by the imbalance of sex hormones. These imbalances cause irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, mood swings, excess hair growth, and acne.
Many women with autoimmune disease likely experience similar problems, since an imbalance of sex hormones seems to be either a cause or result of autoimmune disease and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Autoimmune Disease Associated with PCOS
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Graves’ Disease
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
What Happens When PCOS Is Not Treated?
When PCOS is left untreated, it can lead to several long-term complications. Untreated PCOS can result in type 2 diabetes, heart disease, endometrial cancer, sleep apnea, gum disease, gingivitis, depression and anxiety, and issues with pregnancy/fertility. Plus, living with the chronic symptoms of PCOS can be difficult! Luckily, though PCOS can be reversed, and you can live symptom free.
Diary- and Gluten-Free Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Inflammation and insulin resistance can both be managed using the right foods! (Even vitamin D deficiency and hormonal imbalances can be helped using diet.) That’s right, not only can a diet help you with losing weight, but it can also help you reverse symptoms. For PCOS, I suggest you consider a dairy- and gluten-free anti-inflammatory diet for at least 30 days to see how you feel.
Both dairy and gluten can cause inflammation, so cutting those out has shown to be beneficial for lots of women! Then, it’s a matter of finding your carb tolerance to increase your insulin sensitivity. You can learn more about my PCOS diet on the blog and if you want delicious meal plans, download The Cysterhood App.
Supplements are another great way to support your body and reverse your PCOS! A vitamin D3 supplement, for example, could help you support your immune health and reduce symptoms. We included 2000mg of Vitamin D in the PCOS Multivitamin found in our supplement bundle, Ovafit. It is designed to fill nutrient gaps that are common in PCOS women. Check them out HERE!
Sleep is so important for anyone’s health, but especially for someone with PCOS. The problem is, a lot of Cysters report PCOS-related insomnia and sleep issues. Not getting enough sleep can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, fatigue, and even inflammation, insulin resistance, and immune health! Try to prioritize improving your sleep hygiene. You can learn how in this episode of my podcast, A Cyster and Her Mister.
Yoga and Self-Care
Stress is directly related to insulin resistance, inflammation, and immune function too. Stress can put your body in a constant fight or flight response that reduces insulin’s effectiveness, increases inflammation, and overstimulates your immune system. So, stress can be a contributing factor to a lot of our PCOS symptoms!
Managing stress, therefore, has to be part of our treatment plan. Yoga, spending time in nature, engaging in your hobbies, using essential oils, and practicing mindfulness are all great ways of practicing self-care and reducing your stress. You can find more PCOS self-care tips here, but everyone is unique! Find what calms you and incorporate it into your schedule.
I am always an advocate for natural remedies when it comes to PCOS because you don’t have to trade your symptoms for side effects. However, there is sometimes a time and a place for medication like birth control, especially if your symptoms are unbearable! Always remember that these are not “cures” for PCOS, however if you do choose to take medication like birth control or metformin, you can make the diet and lifestyle changes that help reverse your PCOS at the same time.
So, is PCOS an autoimmune disease? I think so, but there’s no medical consensus on that yet. While we wait for that likely conclusion, we should focus on healing our bodies and reducing our symptoms! You can learn more about how to naturally heal your PCOS on the blog and podcast. And, don’t forget to download The Cysterhood App where you can find more women like you taking charge and reversing their PCOS! Can’t wait for you to join us on the journey.