This is an article that I have wanted to write for a while now. You see, there is a close link between PCOS and hypothyroidism. And the symptoms of both can overlap and look similar. You may also be doing all of the right things to manage your PCOS and not see any results because you may have an underlying thyroid issue that you need to address first.
So, let’s unpick this a little bit and work out what the link is and how you can have your thyroid checked and sorted out, if necessary.
What is the thyroid?
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in your neck. It is also one of the biggest endocrine glands in the body. So, what does it do? Well, it’s main job is to control the rate of metabolism, or how quickly (or slowly) your body uses energy. It is also involved in making proteins and it controls the body’s sensitivity to other hormones (1).
So, if your thyroid gland is overactive, you tend to be slimmer, have a higher heart rate, trouble sleeping, mood swings and anxiety (2). An underactive thyroid makes you gain weight and feel generally more sluggish. Women with PCOS are more prone to hypothyroidism so let’s have a look at that in a little more detail.
The thyroid gland is controlled by another gland in the brain – the pituitary gland (that’s important because the pituitary may be the link between PCOS and hypothyroidism, which we’ll talk about in a little bit). If you thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones, it is underactive. Let’s have a look at some of the symptoms (3):
- Weight gain
- Slow movements, thought and speech
- Pins and needles
- Dry/gritty eyes
- Hoarse voice
- Difficulty swallowing
- Hair loss especially outer third of eyebrows
- Dry skin
- Muscle and joint pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Loss of appetite
Mmmm, I can see some overlap with PCOS there, particularly with regard to weight gain and hair loss.
PCOS and Hypothyroidism
Okay, so now that we know a little more about Hypothyroidism,
let’s have a look at the link between hypothyroidism and PCOS.
One study has found that 22.5% of women with PCOS also had subclinical hypothyroidism. That’s a high percentage of us! Now, the pathway connecting PCOS and hypothyroidism isn’t clear yet but what is pretty well established is that women with PCOS may also have be at a higher risk of developing hypothyroidism (4).
Hypothyroidism, PCOS and Sex Hormone Binding Globulin
Now, there is something else that we need to consider. We know that women with POCS tend to have lower levels of SHBG. This is problematic because SHBG picks up free testosterone in the blood and helps to make it inactive. So, the less SHBG you have, the more free testosterone you have to make your PCOS symptoms worse.
Here’s the thing, it is our thyroid hormones that increase the levels of SHBG. So, if you do have a sluggish thyroid, you will have a harder time getting your PCOS under control (5).
What to do now?
Now that we know that there is this strong link, what should we do about it? Well, there are a couple of things.
It’s really important that we all have our thyroid function monitored. My doctor runs blood tests every two years or so to monitor my general health and PCOS and thyroid function is included in this.
Treatment for Thyroid Disorders
If you suspect that you may have a thyroid disorder or your blood work shows an anomaly in your thyroid hormones, there is medical treatment available. Your doctor will guide you on this.
Once again, we come back to the cornerstone of PCOS Diet Support. Your diet can impact on your thyroid health, as well as your PCOS. Here are some suggestions to support your thyroid function and improve your PCOS:
Avoid soy – Soy products contain phytoestrogens that have been shown to increase the risk of developing subclinical hypothyroidism(6). Soy can also cause delayed ovulation which is why I don’t recommend soy products as part of a good PCOS Diet.
Give up Gluten – I’ve written about gluten before and I don’t think it has a place in a PCOS friendly lifestyle. Well, according to Chris Kresser, gluten can also impact on your thyroid health. There is a protein in gluten (gliadin) that is very similar in structure to a thyroid hormone. So, if you have a gluten sensitivity, your body not only attacks the gliadin, it can also attack your thyroid in an autoimmune response.
Avoid sugar - Research has shown that hypothyroidism can make insulin resistance worse. And, eating sugar or highly refined carbs causes your body to release more insulin. Remember that all of this insulin is also causing your ovaries to release more testosterone. So, by avoiding highly processed and sugary foods, you are managing your PCOS and supporting your thyroid function (7).
Summing it up
So, to sum it all up:
- We’ve established that women with PCOS are 22.5% more likely to have some type of thyroid dysfunction. This can make our PCOS symptoms worse and much harder to manage.
- I highly recommend that you have your thyroid levels checked at least every two years.
- Following a good PCOS diet will not only help to manage your PCOS, it will also support your thyroid health.
Do you suffer from hypothyroidism? I’d love to hear what things have worked for you and whether or not you have seen an improvement in your symptoms. Please leave me a comment below!