Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is a condition that affects a woman’s hormone levels. Women with PCOS produce higher-than-normal amounts of male hormones. This hormone imbalance causes them to skip menstrual periods and makes it harder for them to get pregnant. PCOS also causes hair growth on the face and body, and baldness. And it can contribute to long-term health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Birth control pills and diabetes drugs can help fix the hormone imbalance and improve symptoms. PCOS is a problem with hormones that affects women during their childbearing years (ages 15 to 44). Between 2.2 and 26.7 percent of women in this age group have PCOS (1, 2Trusted Source). Many women have PCOS but don’t know it. In one study, up to 70 percent of women with PCOS hadn’t been diagnosed (2Trusted Source). PCOS affects a woman’s ovaries, the reproductive organs that produce estrogen and progesterone — hormones that regulate the menstrual cycle. The ovaries also produce a small amount of male hormones called androgens. The ovaries release eggs to be fertilized by a man’s sperm. The release of an egg each month is called ovulation. Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) control ovulation. FSH stimulates the ovary to produce a follicle — a sac that contains an egg — and then LH triggers the ovary to release a mature egg. PCOS is a “syndrome,” or group of symptoms that affects the ovaries and ovulation. Its three main features are: cysts in the ovaries high levels of male hormones irregular or skipped periods In PCOS, many small, fluid-filled sacs grow inside the ovaries. The word “polycystic” means “many cysts.” These sacs are actually follicles, each one containing an immature egg. The eggs never mature enough to trigger ovulation. The lack of ovulation alters levels of estrogen, progesterone, FSH, and LH. Estrogen and progesterone levels are lower than usual, while androgen levels are higher than usual. Extra male hormones disrupt the menstrual cycle, so women with PCOS get fewer periods than usual. PCOS isn’t a new condition. Italian physician Antonio Vallisneri first described its symptoms in 1721 (3Trusted Source).
So what can we do ourselves to help? Whole foods are free from artificial sugars, hormones, and preservatives. These foods are as close to their natural, unprocessed state as possible. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are whole foods that you can add to your diet. Without hormones and preservatives, your endocrine system can better regulate your blood sugar. Balance carb and protein intake Carbohydrates and protein both impact your energy and hormone levels. Eating protein stimulates your body to produce insulin. Unprocessed, high-carb foods can improve insulin sensitivity. Instead of trying a low-carb diet, focus on getting enough healthy protein. Plant-based protein sources, such as nuts, legumes, and whole grains, are best. Aim for anti-inflammatory PCOS is described by as low-level chronic inflammation. Adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet can help ease your symptoms. Consider the Mediterranean diet as an option. Olive oil, tomatoes, leafy greens, fatty fish like mackerel and tuna, and tree nuts all fight inflammation. Up your iron intake Some women with PCOS experience heavy bleeding during their period. This can result in iron deficiency or anemia. If your doctor has diagnosed you with either condition, they may recommend adding iron-rich foods such as spinach, eggs, and broccoli to your diet. You shouldn’t up your iron intake without first consulting your doctor. Too much iron can increase your risk of complications. Up your magnesium intake Almonds, cashews, spinach, and bananas are PCOS-friendly foods rich in magnesium. Add in some fiber to help with digestion A diet high in fiber can help improve your digestion. Lentils, lima beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pears, and avocados are all rich in fiber. Cut out coffee Caffeine consumption may be linked to changes in estrogen levels and hormone behavior. Try boosting your energy with a decaf alternative, such as an herbal tea. Kombucha’s probiotic properties may also be beneficial. And if you can’t go without a caffeine boost, reach for green tea instead. Green tea has been shown to improve insulin resistance. It can also help with weight management in women with PCOS. Consider soy products Before adding more soy to your diet, ask your doctor about the latest research. Soy acts like estrogen in your body. This might help balance hormones if you have PCOS. But there’s also evidence that adding soy to your diet could disrupt your endocrine system. People with a family history of estrogen-related cancers, such as some breast cancers, should avoid soy products. If your doctor approves adding soy to your diet, consider soy milk, tofu, miso, and tempeh. Supplements Supplements claim to help with hormone regulation, insulin resistance, and inflammation associated with PCOS. Speak to your doctor before taking any supplement. Some of them can actually interfere with other prescribed PCOS treatments and medications. Inositol Inositol is a B vitamin that can help improve insulin resistance. It’s also been found to help with fertility in some cases of PCOS. Chromium Chromium supplements may improve your body mass index, which can help with PCOS. They may also stabilize insulin resistance by helping your body metabolize sugar. Cinnamon Cinnamon comes from the bark of cinnamon trees. Cinnamon extract has been shown to have a positive effect on insulin resistance. Cinnamon also may regulate menstruation for women with PCOS. Turmeric The active ingredient in turmeric is called curcumin. Turmeric may be promising for decreasing insulin resistance and as an anti-inflammatory agent. Zinc Zinc is a trace element that can boost fertility and your immune system. Excessive or unwanted hair growth and alopecia may be improved with zinc supplements. You can also eat red meat, beans, tree nuts, and seafood to get more zinc in your diet. Evening primrose oil Evening primrose oil has been used to help with period pain and irregular menstruation. It may also improve cholesterol levels and oxidative stress, both of which are linked to PCOS. Combined vitamin D and calcium Vitamin D is a hormone that’s vital to your endocrine system. Vitamin D deficiency is common in women with PCOS. Vitamin D and calcium may improve irregular periods and help you ovulate. Cod liver oil Cod liver oil contains vitamins D and A, as well as high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. These acids can help improve menstrual regularity and help get rid of fat around your waist. Berberine Berberine is an herb used in Chinese medicine to help with insulin resistance. If you have PCOS, berberine may ramp up your metabolism and balance your body’s endocrine responses.
Adaptogen herbs When your body can’t regulate insulin, it can build up in your body and cause higher levels of male sex hormones called androgens. Adaptogen herbs claim to aid your body in balancing these hormones. Some adaptogen herbs also claim to ease other symptoms of PCOS, like irregular periods. Use caution and talk with your doctor before taking any herbal supplement, as their claims haven’t been evaluated. Maca root The root of the maca plant is a traditional herb used to boost fertility and libido. Maca root may help balance hormones and lower cortisol levels. It may also help treat depression, which can be a symptom of PCOS. Ashwagandha Ashwagandha is also called “Indian ginseng.” It can help balance cortisol levels, which could improve stress and symptoms of PCOS. Holy basil Holy basil, also called tulsi, addresses chemical and metabolic stress. It’s referred to as “queen of herbs.” Holy basil can help reduce your blood sugar, prevent weight gain, and lower your cortisol levels. Licorice root The root of the licorice plant contains a compound called glycyrrhizin, which has several unique properties. Licorice root has been suggested as an anti-inflammatory agent. It works to help metabolize sugar and balance hormones. Tribulus terrestris Tribulus terrestris has been shown to help stimulate ovulation and support healthy menstruation. It may also decrease the number of ovarian cysts. Chasteberry Chasteberry has been used for centuries to help with reproductive conditions. It may improve some symptoms of PMS, though its effect on fertility requires more research. Probiotics Probiotics don’t just help with your digestion and gut health. They can play an important role in treating PCOS. They can also reduce inflammation and regulate sex hormones like androgen and estrogen. Consider taking probiotic supplements and eating probiotic foods, like kimchi and kombucha. Maintain a healthy weight Maintaining a healthy weight can help decrease insulin resistance, regulate your period, and reduce your risk of conditions associated with PCOS. If you’re overweight, some studies suggest gradual weight loss through a low-calorie diet as a promising first-line treatment for PCOS. Balance your exercise Exercise is important for maintaining a healthy weight. But too much exercise can disrupt your hormones, so talk with your doctor about a healthy balance. Gentle, low-impact exercises like yoga or Pilates can be practiced for longer durations. Swimming and light aerobics are also recommended. High-intensity interval training and long-distance running may also help improve symptoms of PCOS. Talk with your doctor about the type of workout that would benefit you most. Practice good sleep hygiene Sleep affects your stress levels and helps regulate cortisol to balance your hormones. But sleep disturbances are twice as common for women with PCOS. To up your sleep hygiene: Aim for eight to ten hours of sleep per night. Establish a regular bedtime routine. Avoid stimulants and rich, fatty foods before bedtime. Reduce stress Reducing stress can regulate cortisol. Many of the strategies mentioned above, such as yoga, getting enough sleep, and cutting caffeine, can contribute to lower stress levels. Taking walks outside and creating space in your life for relaxation and self-care can also reduce how stressed you feel.
Limit or avoid endocrine disruptors Endocrine disruptors are chemicals or ingredients that interfere with or block your body’s natural hormonal reactions. Some endocrine disruptors mimic female and male sex hormones, causing confusion in your reproductive system. This can increase your risk of PCOS symptoms. They’re often found in canned foods, soaps, and makeup. Common endocrine disruptors include: dioxins phthalates pesticides BPA glycol ethers Consider acupuncture There’s enough research to make a case for acupuncture as an alternative treatment for PCOS. Acupuncture may help PCOS by: increasing blood flow to your ovaries reducing cortisol levels helping with weight loss improving your sensitivity to insulin So before you try medication, see if you can help yourself.