Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) are two of the most common hormonal disorders in women. PCOS is a complex syndrome involving the overproduction or over-sensitivity to male-type hormones in women. PCOS interferes with ovulation, causes the ovaries to have a cystic appearance, and wreaks havoc on skin by causing male-pattern hair growth, hair loss and acne. PCOS is intimately linked with insulin resistance and obesity, but also occurs in normal-weight women.
The thyroid gland is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located at the base of the throat. It is responsible for producing hormones that regulate our metabolism. If the thyroid produces too much hormone then we become skinny, hot, anxious and our heart races. If the thyroid produces too little hormone, then we become overweight, tired, sluggish and cold. Thyroid hormones also affect ovulation and your period, so both hypothyroidism and PCOS can cause infertility.
Indeed the links between hypothyroidism and PCOS go even deeper than that. Those with low thyroid function tend to have polycystic ovaries, and those with PCOS have higher rates of low thyroid function. Furthermore, both are highly associated with insulin resistance and excess body weight, and both can cause high androgens (as well as the androgen-related symptoms of acne, male-pattern hair growth, hair loss and infertility).
It is a bit hard to tell whether the chicken or the egg comes first, but it is important. Before being diagnosed with PCOS, hypothyroidism should be excluded – i.e. your thyroid should be tested to make sure that it is not the real cause of your polycystic ovaries and androgen-related symptoms. If your thyroid problem goes undiagnosed, you won’t be able to fix your PCOS-like symptoms.
We don’t yet know why hypothyroidism occurs more commonly in women with PCOS but both environmental and genetic factors are thought to be at play. If you do have PCOS without thyroid problems, you should have your thyroid hormones monitored regularly by your doctor to ensure that you don’t develop a thyroid problem.
What to do about thyroid problems
Luckily, thyroid dysfunction often responds well to natural treatment. Nutritional deficiencies, such as zinc, selenium and iodine are often behind poor thyroid function and when these are addressed thyroid symptoms disappear. However, it is not safe just to take all of these nutrients without the guidance of a qualified naturopath or nutritionist. They can all cause toxicity in high doses and iodine can make thyroid problems much worse if given in the wrong circumstances. Thyroid biochemistry is complex and needs to be overseen by a qualified practitioner. In some cases, if thyroid damage is severe, thyroid hormone replacement therapy is the only option but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t still benefit from addressing nutritional deficiencies and other underlying problems. Your practitioner can help guide you to the right choices for you.
Editorial note: we are now offering naturopathic appointments with one of our All Things Vagina naturopaths, Josephine Cabrall, via Skype and in person.