Maternal PCOS can raise the risk of autism in children

pcos and autism risk copy

Researchers have discovered that polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS  is linked with an almost 60 percent greater risk of giving birth to a child who will develop an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

As many as one in ten women of childbearing age have PCOS, a hormonal disorder, and it can affect girls as young as 11. It is the most common female hormone imbalance in the United States.

Although the exact link between maternal PCOS and autism isn’t clear, the findings support the notion that sex hormones early in life play a role in the development of autism in both boys and girls.

PCOS exposes the developing fetus to excess androgens, hormones that play a role in male traits. These androgens are believed to affect the development of the brain and central nervous system, increasing the risk of an ASD.

In the study, researchers looked at children ages 4 to 17 who were born in Sweden between 1984 and 2007. They found that a maternal diagnosis of PCOS increased the risk of having a child with ASD by 59 percent.

What are symptoms of PCOS?

It’s important to address PCOS before you get pregnant. How do you know if you have PCOS?

Here are some symptoms:

  • Infertility
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Ovarian cysts
  • Acne, oily skin, or dandruff
  • Obesity and excess weight, usually concentrated around the abdomen
  • Thinning hair
  • Dark, thick patches of skin on the neck, arms, breasts, or thighs
  • Skin tags
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Sleep apnea

What causes PCOS?

The interesting thing about PCOS is symptoms are similar to those of high blood sugar and diabetes. Although genetic predisposition plays a role, PCOS is a hormonal imbalance frequently caused by the same things that cause high blood sugar: a diet high in sugars and processed carbohydrates, lack of plant fiber, overeating, and lack of exercise.

Identifying PCOS

Common markers that help identify a PCOS diagnosis along with symptoms and other findings include a fasting blood sugar over 100 on a blood test, and elevated triglycerides and cholesterol (especially if triglycerides are higher than cholesterol). These are also markers of insulin resistance, or pre-diabetes.

Insulin resistance, when the body’s cells become less sensitive to insulin due to a high-carbohydrate diet, leads to excess testosterone and PCOS in women (and excess estrogen in men).

Unfortunately, as testosterone levels rise, the cells become more resistant to insulin, thus creating more testosterone in a vicious cycle.

If you think you may have PCOS and are hoping to get pregnant, ask my office for advice on functional medicine strategies to balance your hormones and support an optimal pregnancy.