PCOS and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): connection and management

PCOS and IBS are both common, chronic conditions that may have some overlapping symptoms. There is some evidence that suggests that there is a link between PCOS and IBS prevalence in people. So, what’s the connection and how are the two conditions managed?

What is PCOS?

PCOS is a common endocrine condition with reproductive and metabolic consequences. It affects approximately 1 in 10 people assigned female at birth in the UK.

>> Read more | PCOS 101: A beginners guide to PCOS

What is IBS?

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the gastrointestinal (digestive) system. It causes symptoms such as bloating, stomach cramps, constipation and diarrhoea. It is believed to impact around 11% of the global population.

The exact cause of IBS is unknown but it is believed to be linked to the speed that food passes through the gut, oversensitive nerves in the gut, stress and a family history of IBS.

Symptoms of PCOS and IBS

While individuals can suffer from both conditions, the symptoms can vary significantly.

PCOS symptoms

• Irregular or no periods

• Difficulty getting pregnant as a result of irregular or a lack of ovulation

• Excess hair growth (hirsutism) most commonly on the face, chest, back or buttocks

• Thinning hair or loss of hair from the head

• Oily skin or acne

IBS symptoms

• Stomach pain or cramps which are often worse after eating

• Bloating – experiencing an uncomfortable and swollen tummy

• Diarrhoea

• Constipation

Other symptoms of IBS included flatulence, passing mucus, tiredness, nausea, backache, problems urinating and bowel incontinence

PCOS vs IBS symptoms

There are a couple of symptoms of IBS and PCOS that overlap. This includes tiredness or fatigue, which can present in both conditions, as well as pain. Although pain isn’t considered a standard symptom, many people with PCOS report pain being part of their condition. More research is required in this area.

A table describing symptoms of IBS and symptoms of PCOS

What’s the connection between PCOS and IBS?

Interestingly, several studies have found that there is a correlation between PCOS and IBS prevalence. A 2020 Iranian study found that the reporting of IBS symptoms was higher in people with IBS than in the control group (20.7% vs 11%).

Similarly, an older study of 65 people with PCOS found that 42% of participants had IBS compared to 10% of control participants. More research is required in a larger population to understand the correlation between PCOS and IBS.

In terms of why IBS may be linked to PCOS, there are a couple of schools of thought: hormonal imbalances and stress.

Hormonal imbalances

PCOS is associated with hormones (luteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)). An imbalance of these hormones prevents ovulation and thus leads to irregular menstrual cycles. These hormones have also been found to decrease gastrointestinal transit, interfering with bowel function, which is characteristic of IBS-C (IBS dominant constipation).


Additionally, both conditions have been connected to stress. Studies have found individuals with PCOS may have increased levels of anxiety and stress. This may be why individuals with PCOS have a higher chance of also having IBS, as stress has been found to affect gastrointestinal function and the severity of IBS symptoms.

What to do if you think you have both PCOS and IBS

Both conditions can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life, therefore it is important to consult with a healthcare professional to receive a diagnosis.

Whilst there is no cure for either condition, both can be improved by managing symptoms. Everyone’s experience will be different, and therefore symptom management will be different for everyone, which is why it is important to consult with a healthcare professional. Lifestyle changes are often considered the first line of treatment, looking at nutrition, stress management and medication if applicable.

Taking supplements

You may choose to take supplements to help manage your health. One supplement that could benefit both PCOS and IBS is a probiotic. Probiotics are live microorganisms which may have health benefits when consumed in the right amount.

Managing stress

As mentioned previously, both IBS and PCOS may be impacted by stress. Although easier said than done, spending time minimising your stress and prioritising your mental health is essential.

Yoga is one stress management technique that may also have independent benefits for PCOS like improving glucose metabolism, hormone levels and menstrual cyclicity.

Key takeaways: PCOS and IBS

PCOS and IBS are separate conditions with different symptoms. But, they may present at the same time. Treating PCOS and IBS should be done with the support of a healthcare professional but there are some lifestyle changes you can make to improve symptoms. This may include taking supplements and managing stress.

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