Middle-aged women with PCOS are at risk of 'early brain ageing' and gut issues

Some changes to gut health can help to alleviate PCOS symptoms. (Getty Images)
Some changes to gut health can help to alleviate PCOS symptoms. (Getty Images)

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects one in 10 women in the UK – and now new research has found that it could lead to memory and thinking problems, or brain fog, later in life.

PCOS is a hormonal disorder with key symptoms including irregular menstruation, acne, excess hair growth, infertility, and poor metabolic health.

While it has previously been linked to conditions such as obesity and diabetes, a new study has found that women with PCOS in mid life could be more at risk of early brain ageing as they have lower white matter integrity.

The study, published in the journal Neurology, followed a group of 907 women for three decades who had an age range of between 18 and 30 when the study began.

Subsequent brain scans of a smaller group of the women after 25 and then 30 years showed the lower white matter integrity results.

"Our results suggest that people with this condition have lower memory and thinking skills and subtle brain changes at midlife," study author Dr Heather Huddleston from the University of California, San Francisco, said.

Woman lying on sofa looking sick in the living room. Beautiful young woman lying on bed and holding hands on her stomach. Woman having painful stomachache on bed, Menstrual period
A new study has linked PCOS to brain fog. (Getty Images)

"This could impact a person on many levels, including quality of life, career success and financial security."

While PCOS cannot be cured, its symptoms can be managed. One such strategy to manage PCOS symptoms is by balancing your gut health.

The link between PCOS and gut health

One study from 2023 found that the relationship between gut microbiota and the development of PCOS is important, and the new discovery is expected to pave the way for a new direction of treatment for the condition.

"It’s thought that the gut microbes in people with PCOS actually differ to those without the syndrome and research suggests that dysbiosis (gut bacteria imbalance) may actually be a potential factor in the development of PCOS," London Wellness Coach, Lauren Johnson Reynolds, says.

"Other studies attributed this to the influence that the gut microbiome has on the reproductive and metabolic symptoms of PCOS – mainly excess androgens (what we think of as ‘male hormones’ like testosterone), inflammation and insulin resistance. Excitingly all the studies I’ve read on this subject suggest that taking steps to improve the microbiome and lessen dysbiosis can actually reduce PCOS symptoms."

The role of gut health in alleviating PCOS symptoms

Johnson Reynolds says that good gut health can alleviate several PCOS symptoms such as hair loss, fatigue, sugar cravings, appetite control, bloating, sleep, weight loss, cycle length, ovulation rates, and period pain.

Girl holding her hair in her hand. Hair care concept. Shampoo. Haircut needed.
Hair loss is a symptom of PCOS. (Getty Images)

"Improving gut health and passing stool at least once per day supports oestrogen detoxification which can also improve symptoms of oestrogen dominance like period pain, sore breasts before period, infrequent periods which is often a main symptom of PCOS and even fibroids," she adds.

Plus, people with PCOS can expect to see results sooner rather than later when making positive changes to their gut health.

"Improvement in bloating, energy levels and even sleep quality can happen quite quickly, followed by sugar cravings and appetite control," Johnson Reynolds says.

"Symptoms caused by high androgen levels (hair loss, excess hair, acne, infrequency of ovulation/periods) can take longer to improve but patience is key as improving gut health will be having an impact on PCOS symptoms."

However, she notes that no single change will drastically improve PCOS symptoms and that it’s usually down to a combination of diet changes, blood sugar balancing, movement, stress management, gut health, and sleep optimisation.

The best food to eat for gut health and PCOS

Re-balancing your gut microbiome all starts with what you’re ingesting, which means you need to be conscious of what you are eating.

Johnson Reynolds recommends prebiotic foods such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and green bananas.

"These provide a dietary fibre that is food for the good bugs in our gut provided by probiotic supplements or probiotic foods," she explains.

"I recommend having prebiotic foods daily as well as probiotic foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and live yoghurt to boost that friendly bacteria. Probiotic foods can occasionally worsen bloating in some so go low and slow and increase your intake over time."

Johnson Reynolds says prioritising plant food consumption is important for fibre as this can help to feed our gut bacteria.

Hands of a girl putting freshly harvested vegetable in a basket
Plant foods packed with fibre can help to bolster gut health. (Getty Images)

"Our gut loves variety as different bugs are fed by different plant foods so I recommend choosing a new plant food weekly that you haven’t had before or don’t eat often to provide a real treat for your microbiome," she says.

"A great hack for variety is to choose different variations of the same food like different coloured carrots, choosing purple cauliflower instead of white or grabbing a different type of apple or onion. Also, try bags of salad that contain a combination of leaves, or quinoa with three colours. Even herbs and herbal teas count so get creative. Your gut will thank you for it."

Johnson Reynolds also recommends bitter foods such as rocket, radicchio, broccoli, artichoke, chicory, kale, lemon, ginger and saffron which can "aid digestion by stimulating the production of bile".

She adds: "I tend to add bitter food to every meal if I can."

For more information on PCOS, visit nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/

Additional reporting by SWNS.

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