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Is PCOS an Autoimmune Disease? A New Scientific Explanation

Kym Campbell

By Kym Campbell, BSc. | Updated October 27th, 2023

PCOS is not technically an autoimmune disease. But that might reflect a failure of the definitions.

PCOS and autoimmune disorders are intricately linked. A new understanding of chronic diseases describes why. It also helps us understand why many of the treatments for PCOS also address autoimmunity.

How PCOS is Associated with Autoimmunity

PCOS has three diagnostic criteria [1]:

  1. Androgen status
  2. Menstrual history
  3. Ovarian appearance

PCOS is primarily considered an endocrine (hormone) disorder.

Autoimmunity is where your immune system produces autoantibodies that attack healthy tissue.

Thyroid disease is an autoimmune illness that affects PCOS women at much higher rates [2]. Estimates suggest these rates may be three or four times higher in women with PCOS than in non-PCOS populations [3].

Recent studies have shown that other autoimmune diseases are also more common in women with PCOS. This includes rheumatoid arthritis, systemic sclerosis, and undifferentiated connective tissue disease [4].

A mechanism explaining this association is also being researched. It’s known, for example, that the typical hormone imbalances associated with PCOS can produce autoantibodies [5-8].

Taken as a whole, researchers are now suggesting that PCOS may cause autoimmune diseases [4].

A New Model of PCOS & Autoimmune Disease

A cutting-edge theory further explains the link between PCOS and autoimmune disease.

The cell danger response (CDR) describes your body’s natural response to danger. It’s what activates immunity. This occurs at a cellular level and is all about mitochondrial function. Under normal circumstances, the CDR is a healthy part of the healing cycle. It’s short-lived. It’s there to help us recover from pathogens and poisons. The CDR is also activated by physical and psychological stressors.

Problems arise when the CDR remains activated for long periods. It can increase the risk of chronic illness. Illnesses like PCOS and autoimmune diseases [9].

The prevalence of many chronic diseases has increased at alarming rates over the past 40 years. Researchers believe that this is being caused by increased exposure to pollution. Toxicants lower the threshold for CDR activation. This then leads to more chronic diseases [10].

How to Treat PCOS & Autoimmune Diseases

The cell danger response explains why PCOS and autoimmune diseases share many treatments. Inflammation is an underlying feature of CDR activation. By reducing inflammatory burdens on our cells, we can dial back the CDR.

For both PCOS and autoimmunity, this means a reduction of symptoms.

Beyond pharmaceutical interventions, there’s a lot that people can do to reduce inflammation.

Dietary change is by far the most effective place to start. For women with PCOS, this means following a PCOS diet. As one would expect, this is identical to a diet developed for hypothyroidism or other autoimmune conditions.

A PCOS diet improves gut health and blood-sugar regulation. Coupled with the avoidance of pro-inflammatory foods, this reduces systemic inflammation.

This is what we do during my free 30-Day PCOS Diet Challenge. The results speak for themselves. For many participants, dietary change is life-changing.

For a sample of suitable recipes, download my free 3-Day PCOS Meal Plan.

Many other lifestyle interventions can also improve PCOS and autoimmune symptomology. These PCOS natural treatments include:

The Bottom Line

By its definition, PCOS isn’t an autoimmune disease. But PCOS is associated with autoimmunity. PCOS may even have a causal role in the development of autoimmune diseases. More research is needed.

The cell danger response is a new theory that explains the link between PCOS and autoimmunity. The cell danger response also explains why lifestyle changes that treat PCOS are also helpful for autoimmune diseases.

Doctors can provide pharmaceutical solutions for PCOS and autoimmune conditions. But there’s a lot patients can do themselves to help manage their symptoms. For committed patients, diet and lifestyle changes are all that is needed to take back control of their symptoms.

Ready to Take Action?

  • Join my free 30-Day PCOS Diet Challenge here. This is a unique program where you'll receive weekly meal plans, shopping lists, and helpful video lessons. You'll also be part of a motivated and inspiring community of like-minded women.

  • Download my free 3-Day PCOS Diet Meal Plan here. This is perfect for getting started if you aren't ready to commit to 30 days.

  • Join my PCOS Monthly Meal Planning Service here. This service includes hundreds of PCOS recipes within a pre-populated, yet customizable meal plan. It's designed to save you time and help you apply a PCOS diet.

  • Sign up for my Beat PCOS 10-Week Program. This is a comprehensive program that covers diet, PCOS-centric emotional eating, exercise, stress management, and much more. All within a support group environment. The 10-Week Program includes the same recipes and meal plan as my monthly meal planning service.

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References

1Legro, R.S., et al., Diagnosis and treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab, 2013. 98(12): p. 4565-92.

2Garelli, S., et al., High prevalence of chronic thyroiditis in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, 2013. 169(2): p. 248-251.

3Romitti, M., et al., Association between PCOS and autoimmune thyroid disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Endocrine Connections, 2018. 7(11): p. 1158-1167.

4Sharmeen, S., et al., Polycystic ovary syndrome: epidemiologic assessment of prevalence of systemic rheumatic and autoimmune diseases. Clin Rheumatol, 2021. 40(12): p. 4837-4843.

5Mobeen, H., N. Afzal, and M. Kashif, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome May Be an Autoimmune Disorder. Scientifica, 2016.

6Arduc, A., et al., High prevalence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome: does the imbalance between estradiol and progesterone play a role? Endocr Res, 2015. 40(4): p. 204-10.

7Sharma, M., et al., ANTI-THYROID ANTIBODIES AND THE GONADOTROPHINS PROFILE (LH/FSH) IN EUTHYROID POLYCYSTIC OVARIAN SYNDROME WOMEN. Acta Endocrinol (Buchar), 2022. 18(1): p. 79-85.

8Luan, Y.Y., et al., Immune regulation in polycystic ovary syndrome. Clin Chim Acta, 2022. 531: p. 265-272.

9Naviaux, R.K., Metabolic features of the cell danger response. Mitochondrion, 2014. 16: p. 7-17.

10Naviaux, R.K., Perspective: Cell danger response Biology-The new science that connects environmental health with mitochondria and the rising tide of chronic illness. Mitochondrion, 2020. 51: p. 40-45.