It's not uncommon for women to suffer with both Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and digestive issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
It is believed that 1 in 5 women have some degree of PCOS and 1 in 5 people have IBS. Coincidence? I think not...
Some women with PCOS display no digestive symptoms at all, but their gut health can still be disrupted and is often a driver of symptoms such as insulin resistance, weight gain, acne and menstrual cycle irregularities.
Other indicators a dysfunctional digestive tract include the obvious symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, excessive gas, pain, cramping and acid reflux, but also some not so obvious signs. These include skin problems such as acne and eczema, poor immunity, joint pain, fatigue, nutrient deficiencies, re-occuring thrush or UTI's and mental health problems (hello anxiety) !
Because the gut is literally the 'centre of our health', when things aren't working the way they should be, it can negatively affect every single system in the body...especially our hormone function.
The 'gut' is basically a long, hollow tube that runs from our mouth, down to our anus, and it is comprised of many different organs and processes that take place. When we eat food, our body chemically and physically breaks it down so that we can absorb the nutrients and the waste products are excreted by the bowels. A lot of things can go awry at any point during this process, creating a knock on effect and stress for the other body systems.
Here's why gut health is so important for overall health and PCOS in particular...
The imbalance of good and bad bacteria, known as dysbiosis, can interfere with the digestion of food, proper immune function, create inflammation and promote intestinal permeability (see below). We all have some 'bad' bacterial strains present in our gut, however it is when there are too many 'bad guys' to 'good guys',or the good guys get killed off (think antibiotics), that there becomes a problem.
It isn't just antibiotics that can destroy beneficial bacteria and allow the harmful species to thrive, but also chronic stress, chlorinated water, excessive alcohol consumption, a poor diet, medications such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, aspirin (NSAID's), the oral contraceptive pill and antacids, pesticides, and antibacterial cleaning products (e.g bleach, hand sanitizer)
'Leaky gut' has been a hot topic in the wellness world for several years now. It has been linked to everything from autoimmunity to cancer due to its massive effect on health. The epithelial lining of our intestines is just one cell thick in most places. This barrier separates the outside world (food, water etc) with the inside of our body. Due to chronic stress, antibiotics, pharmaceutical drugs such as the pill and NSAIDs, gluten, refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, dysbiosis and many other factors, the 'tight junctions' lining our gut can become damaged.
I like to use the analogy of the gut lining being like a mosquito net. Normally it is just porous enough to let the air through, however if it became damaged and full of holes and tears then the flies and bugs can enter, causing chaos. This happens at a microscopic level in the digestive tract, allowing undigested food particles and toxins to enter the bloodstream, where they shouldn't normally be. The immune system is then activated as if there was an invader present. If this happens too frequently it can create major, widespread inflammation and puts the immune system on overdrive.
Inflammation is one of the main causes of PCOS and intestinal permeability can lead to issues with blood glucose regulation, immune activation and the development of food intolerances. All of which are commonly experienced by women with PCOS. Insulin resistance occurs in 70% of women with PCOS. This can be driven by stress and inflammation (poor gut health) and it can lead to the over production of androgens (male hormones) from the ovaries or adrenal glands.
Our body produces enzymes such as lipase, proteases, HCL and amylase to break down our food into building blocks, which are then absorbed by the small intestine. Under stress, or when our body doesn't have enough resources, we can create less of these digestive enzymes, therefore compromising the digestion and absorption of nutrients. We need amino acids from protein and fatty acids derived from fat, to create hormones such as oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. If we don't get enough from our diet or have impaired digestion then this affects the production and balance of our sex hormones.
Malabsorption may also affect the absorption of vitamins, minerals and nutrients which act as co-factors in the body for thousands of different processes. We need amino acids, B vitamins, zinc, vitamin C, magnesium (and more) to detoxify 'used' hormones in the liver and to keep our hormones in balance.
Women with PCOS often have elevated levels of oestrogen and androgens (male hormones) such as testosterone, and low levels of progesterone. This pattern can be exacerbated if the detoxification system is not working well or inflammation is high due to poor gut health.
As you now know, there is a massive connection between digestive health and PCOS.
If you are currently dealing with uncontrolled and unwanted PCOS symptoms, I recommend that you investigate the health of your gut if you haven't already. (Even if you aren't experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms!)
Not sure what to do next if you are dealing with gut issues? Don't fret! I have an entire blog post, '5 Steps to Heal Leaky Gut' and improve gut health, that you can read by clicking here.
Plus, next week I will be sharing some simple and free recommendations for improving gut health, that you can start incorporating into your daily routine immediately!
PCOS Cysters! Have you had your free 30 minute consultation with me yet? If not, you can book it here. You will leave the call knowing the next steps to take in order to improve your unwanted symptoms and balance your hormones naturally.