PCOS, short for polycystic ovary syndrome, is a hormone condition in women that can impact fertility and many other aspects of wellness.
It is often treated with hormones and medication, but there are numerous natural remedies that can support the quality of life after a PCOS diagnosis and can even help to boost fertility and bring balance to hormones.
What is PCOS?
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a hormone condition that, among other things, can lead to the development of cysts in the ovaries. However, this condition can also exist without the presence of cysts.
It is the most common hormone disorder in women of reproductive age and can lead to problems getting or staying pregnant.
Symptoms of PCOS
While there are not always immediate symptoms of PCOS, some common ones can include:
- Irregular periods, long menstrual cycles, or excessively long flow
- Excess hair on the face or body
- Acne (sometimes severe)
- Decreased breast size
- Cysts in the ovaries
- Weight gain or trouble losing weight
Sometimes PCOS symptoms can develop shortly after the start of menstruation, but in most women, signs don’t show until later in their reproductive years, in the 20s or 30s.
Causes of PCOS
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a complicated hormone disorder in that it has some simple causes but is not always easy to resolve.
In most cases, PCOS is caused by insulin resistance. Insulin helps draw glucose into the cells for energy and storage after carbohydrates and sugars are eaten.
In cases of insulin resistance, the body has enough insulin, but it does not respond to the intake of glucose like it should, leaving higher levels of sugar in the blood for extended periods of time.
This pattern results in more and more insulin being made, to try to compensate, but the resulting ongoing hormone challenges between glucose, insulin, and other hormones continue to produce hormonal chaos within the body.
Insulin resistance and other hormone disruptions don’t only affect blood sugar. They can also lead to improper levels of reproductive hormones.
When the PCOS pattern develops, the following can happen:
- Testosterone and androgens are produced at higher levels
- Estrogen levels may or may not be adequate
- Thyroid hormones can become suppressed
- Progesterone levels can be too low due to infrequent or improper ovulation follow-through
In addition to hormone problems, insulin resistance can also lead to rapid weight gain, irregular or lack of ovulation (leading to infertility), type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even an increased risk for certain kinds of cancer.
Pregnancy after polycystic ovary syndrome is also increased with a higher chance of developing gestational diabetes.
Risk factors for developing PCOS include:
- A family history of PCOS
- A personal history of insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes
- Excess weight gain or obesity
- Other hormone imbalances, like thyroid problems
Conventional vs. Natural Treatment for PCOS
When a woman is diagnosed with PCOS, conventional medical treatment often includes a variety of pharmaceutical interventions, such as:
- Birth control pills to regulate the cycle
- Clomiphene citrate to stimulate the maturation of eggs and ovulation
- Medication to control acne and excess androgens and hair growth
- Metformin to lower blood glucose levels and decrease insulin resistance
Weight loss is typically recommended since this will also help to decrease insulin resistance.
A more natural approach to PCOS involves making dietary and lifestyle changes to address contributing factors, stress management, and supplements, herbs, and essential oils to more holistically bring about the desired results for ovulation, insulin balance, and acne.
Some patients use a combination of both natural and conventional methods. Ultimately, it’s important to find a doctor who will work to find answers and treat your condition in a way that you are comfortable with and which supports your short and long-term goals.
How to Eat for PCOS
Eating for PCOS is similar to eating for type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or for other hormone balance. The principles are simple and the diet does not have to be a complex program that will add stress to your life.
In fact, decreasing stress is also an important aspect of promoting wellness and hormone balance for polycystic ovary syndrome.
1. Limit Processed Foods
Regardless of the ingredients or type, processed foods have fewer nutrients and tend to be significantly higher in carbs, sugar, and artificial ingredients or preservatives.
None of these are great for hormone balance or overall health. They can tend to make it harder to lose weight, too.
2. Increase Whole Foods
Whole foods is a vague term these days, but it means foods that are unprocessed, don’t contain added ingredients, and are free from artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and other hard-to-pronounce words.
Uncured and unprocessed meat and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, and grains or legumes to a very limited extent all constitute whole foods. Dairy products do, too, but as you’ll see below, dairy products aren’t very hormone friendly.
3. Go Dairy-Free
Many adults struggle to properly digest dairy products, leading to symptoms of lactose intolerance. But that doesn’t stop a lot of them from eating milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream anyway.
Dairy products also tend to contain higher amounts of hormones and natural sugars and can be addictive. Simply limiting dairy in the diet can be hard, so it’s a good idea to try being dairy-free for at least 30 days.
Some women find that they can more easily lose weight after stopping milk and cheese, while others find bloating, gastrointestinal discomfort, and constipation all dissipate for good.
4. Boost Protein Intake
While it’s not hard to get enough protein in your diet, especially in the U.S., many fall short of daily needs. If you’re not sure how much your body requires or how much is optimal, plug your numbers into this handy protein calculator by Examine Research Digest.
Protein is made of amino acids, which are literally the building blocks of our bodies. To balance energy levels, insulin and glucose, and even to promote weight loss, the body needs a steady and healthy supply of protein at each meal.
This is especially true for when your carbohydrate consumption is higher, as protein helps to slow the digestion and release of glucose into the bloodstream.
5. Increase Healthy Fats
Most hormone conditions have roots in chronic inflammation or produce inflammation as a result of their imbalance. Either way, eating the right healthy fats helps to keep the body’s inflammation levels normal.
Modern foods are full of unhealthy fats like vegetable oils, fake foods like margarine, and trans fats in processed and fried foods.
The type of fats that support hormone balance, weight loss, and insulin balance are those that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fats and naturally found in whole foods. These include:
- Salmon, sardines, mackerel and other wild-caught seafood
- Grass-fed beef
- Pure butter
- Avocados and avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Chia seeds
6. Eat More Fiber Every Day
Fiber helps to support balanced blood sugar and a healthy digestive system. This means eating more vegetables and fruits, especially:
- Brussels sprouts
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
You can also take a psyllium husk supplement if you need more help boosting fiber intake, but if you’re new to fiber supplements, start with a very small dose and slowly work your way up over two to four weeks.
This will help avoid sudden bloating or constipation.
7. Limit or Quit Caffeine
While not a popular sentiment, caffeine, when consumed in large amounts on a regular basis, can strongly influence blood sugar, weight, and hormones.
You don’t have to quit coffee or caffeine altogether, but start changing your approach. Drink half-caff instead of full-strength caffeine and pair your coffee with a fat (like coconut oil) or some protein (like collagen peptides).
This helps slow the way your body absorbs and uses the caffeine and minimizes the blood sugar spike.
8. Stop Eating Soy
Soy foods are confusing for hormone problems because some research says it is good and others say it is bad. Ultimately, soy can contribute to further thyroid dysfunction and systemic hormonal chaos, so don’t rely heavily on soy for protein or as a diet staple.
9. What About Gluten?
Gluten is a tricky subject and many PCOS experts will tell you to stop eating gluten if you have PCOS. Gluten certainly doesn’t provide any needed health benefits and avoiding gluten means avoiding a lot of carb sources that could mess with blood sugar.
Some research even shows that eating gluten regularly before and during pregnancy can worsen insulin resistance for both mom and baby. (source)
Trying a gluten-free diet for 30 to 60 days may lead to improved weight loss and hormone, digestive, or other symptoms, but it also may not. Speak to your healthcare provider or nutritionist to determine if this is the right approach for you.
9 Effective Supplements for PCOS
While not all supplements are effective for polycystic ovary syndrome, several have been research-proven to address issues associated with PCOS. Many healthcare providers, both traditional and holistic, rely on these to provide natural medicine for women suffering from these issues.
Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement. Quality matters, so get brand recommendations, but also remember that supplements can interact with medications and even other supplements in ways you might not be aware of.
Here are the top supplements used for PCOS.
1. Inositol (or Myo-Inositol): A nutrient that is similar to the B vitamins, inositol works against insulin resistance and can lead to improvements in ovulation regularity and timing.
2. Chromium Picolinate: A mineral, chromium is well-known for insulin regulation in the body, helping blood sugar levels come down. (source)
3. Curcumin: The active ingredient in turmeric, curcumin is anti-inflammatory and helps to naturally support healthy blood glucose levels.
4. Cinnamon: In supplement form, cinnamon can be a powerful tool to address insulin resistance, inflammation, and weight loss. It can also help to normalize the menstrual cycle in women with PCOS. (source)
5. Vitamin D: Before starting with vitamin D, get your levels checked. Having low vitamin D levels is associated with blood sugar problems and chronic disorders of all kinds, as well as hormone problems.
If your levels are lower than 50, you could benefit from a daily supplement. Ask your doctor what the dose should be since opinions vary.
6. Fish Oil: Anti-inflammatory and supportive of blood sugar and fertility, taking a daily EPA and DHA fish oil supplement can help shed weight and promote a normal menstrual cycle.
7. Ashwagandha: An adaptogenic herb, ashwagandha can help to address stress levels in the body, which can in turn have a balancing effect on blood sugar and hormones.
8. Vitex: Also known as chastetree berry, vitex is a supplement that helps the body to naturally address PMS, menstrual irregularity, and low levels of progesterone. It has to be taken for two to three cycles before it really shows much effect.
9. Probiotics: A healthy gut strongly influence blood sugar levels, weight, mood, and fertility. Taking probiotics every night before bed can address several aspects of PCOS.
Top 8 Essential Oils for PCOS
Aromatherapy has many benefits beyond smelling nice. Essential oils have been extracted from medicinal plant sources and have been used to address health conditions around the world for thousands of years.
Some have been shown to help with insulin issues and hormone problems, like PCOS.
These are the top essential oils for PCOS.
1. Sandalwood: Recommended for hormone balance and acne, it can also help to boost libido, which can be problematic in women suffering from PCOS.
2. Clary sage: Used for estrogen imbalance, clary sage can provide benefits for a balanced mood, healthy periods, and acne.
3. Geranium: Aromatherapy experts use this for mood balance and regulating hormones. It’s also been used for anxiety reduction and addressing low feelings.
4. Thyme: Used for benefits like hormone balance and addressing weight gain, thyme can also help with hot flashes and ovulation.
5. Lavender: Perhaps one of the most essential oils of all time, lavender is great for stress relief, menstrual pain, and even sleep improvement.
6. Ylang ylang: A lesser known oil, ylang ylang is great for acne, skin health, fertility, and healthy hair. It’s also a great mood booster, too.
7. Spearmint: Another great-smelling oil, spearmint can address weight-related issues and help to lower oxidative stress.
8. German chamomile: This oil is a great mood stabilizer and can help reduce hormonal aggression and mood swings. It’s also great for supporting natural fertility.
How to Use Essential Oils for PCOS
When considering essential oils to help with PCOS, consider that inhaling or topical application are both valid options. What no healthcare provider recommends, however, is ingestion. This is unsafe and unproven and could lead to worse or unknown consequences.
When using essential oils for aromatherapy, you can diffuse them so that they are in and around the air that you’re breathing. This can have a pleasant impact on your home or work environment while also helping to address your hormonal needs.
If diffusing is not an option, simply opening the bottle and breathing in the scent can be equally as effective for aromatherapy.
When using topically, you can apply oils directly to your skin, but it’s always important to use a carrier oil. Some oils are strong and can irritate the skin or lead to itching or reactions when not diluted.
Carrier oils like jojoba, almond, or coconut work well.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.