A new study shows that women suffering from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) are more prone to suffer from mental health problems. The study, conducted by a team of researchers from UK’s Cardiff University, revealed that women suffering from PCOS have high levels of testosterone during pregnancy that may also increase the risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD and autism in children.

A common condition affecting 5% to 10% of women worldwide, PCOS elevates male hormone levels – and can cause a range of “distressing and life-limiting” symptoms, which includes reduced fertility, irregular periods, acne as well as excessive facial and body hair.

Lead researcher of the study, Dr Aled Rees says that “The effect of PCOS on mental health is under-appreciated. Our work shows that screening for mental health disorders should be considered during clinical assessments.”

The research presented at the Society for Endocrinology annual conference this week assessed the mental health history of about 17,000 women diagnosed with PCOS. After close monitoring for a period of six months regularly, the results showed that when compared with unaffected women of the same age, body mass index (BMI) and geographical location, PCOS patients were ‘more likely’ to be diagnosed with mental health disorders; including depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.

The PCOS symptom that contributes to mental problems

The researchers from Cardiff University are not the only one to discover such result. A study published in the Journal of Behavioural Health Services & Research, identifies that the PCOS complications may be most responsible for psychiatric problems.

According to the study supervised by Columbia University School of Nursing professor Nancy Reame, PhD, irregular menstrual cycles is the symptom of PCOS most strongly associated with psychiatric problems.

“We were surprised to find that menstrual abnormalities in women with PCOS was the strongest predictor for mental health issues; particularly, when there are so many other symptoms – like beard growth and infertility – that can make a woman feel unfeminine,” says professor Reame, PhD, Mary Dickey Lindsay Professor Emerita of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, at Columbia Nursing.

Irregular menstrual cycle is the PCOS symptom that is most strongly related to mental health problems.
Irregular menstrual cycle is the PCOS symptom that is most strongly related to mental health problems.

To gather result, the study assessed psychological symptoms in 126 women diagnosed with PCOS. Participants completed surveys using a standard tool for evaluating mental health – the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI). Their responses were then compared with those of adult women in the general population, as well as those undergoing outpatient psychiatric care.

The study discovered that body hair and menstrual problems most strongly predicted anxiety, while obesity was most strongly associated with hostility.

It was also observed that for all nine mental health disorders measured by the BSI, women with PCOS had higher levels of psychological distress compared to the general population. In the majority of women with those disorders, women with PCOS and female psychiatric patients were found to have statistically similar distress levels.

“When we compared participants with women in the general population, we found significantly higher scores on all of the symptoms evaluated and on corresponding psychological distress measures; particularly, for anxiety, depression, somatisation (the conversion of psychological distress to physical symptoms), and interpersonal sensitivity,” explains lead author Judy McCook, professor of nursing at East Tennessee State University.

Healthy diets may help curb the problem

To help control PCOS symptoms, the team of researchers from Cardiff University suggest suffering patients to have regular mental health check-ups and screenings to ensure early diagnosis and treatment.

Women with PCOS should also adopt diets that can keep PCOS symptoms in control. Food like green leafy vegetables that are rich in Vitamin B and natural herbs and spices could help in creating hormonal balance in the body. Whole grains also help in preventing hormonal fluctuations.

Besides diet, Nicole Granato, a certified health and wellness coach – who used to suffer from PCOS and also works with women dealing with a range of problems – suggests to exercise the uterus. For example, by doing long walks, and doing movements that stimulate the uterus, such as yoga and Pilates. “Research says a lot of what happens in our reproductive systems (with PCOS) is a stagnation of the blood in those areas. I really made sure that I was moving and nourishing and lubricating everything,” she remarks. MIMS

Read more:
In conversation: Gynaecologist Dr Tan Toh Lick sheds light on polycystic ovarian syndrome among adolescent girls
Poor diet, alcohol use linked to irregular menstrual cycle
“Women are different”—Gender disparities in medicine cannot be overlooked