Find a Doctor
Managing PCOS through Diet

Managing PCOS through Diet


One of the leading causes of female infertility in the United States, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) – also known as Stein-Leventhal Syndrome and polycystic ovary disease (PCOD) – affects between 6 and 10 percent of the female population, according to the Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome Association. In addition to causing infertility, PCOS can lead to the development of other diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Unfortunately, there is no cure for PCOS; however, women with PCOS can often control it through medication. Researchers have also found that diet and exercise can help to manage the symptoms of PCOS.

What Is PCOS?

A complex medical problem the exact cause of which is unknown, PCOS is often referred to as an endocrine disorder. This means that it is related to a hormone imbalance. Among other roles, hormones are responsible for the proper functioning of the female sex organs. The ovaries contain numerous follicles, each of which contains an immature egg. Each month, one of these eggs develops and is released. The development of the egg and its release are carefully coordinated by a number of hormones. When hormone balance is disrupted, the follicles mature but never release their eggs. This leads to infertility and sometimes enlarged, painful ovaries.

Other symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Acne
  • Alopecia
  • Elevated insulin levels or diabetes
  • Excess facial and body hair
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased levels of male hormones (androgens)
  • Infrequent or absent periods
  • Irregular bleeding (spotting)
  • Weight gain (primarily concentrated in the midsection)

What is the PCOS Diet?

Actually, there are numerous diet plans designed to help control PCOS. However, Nancy Dunn, N.D., maintains that every woman with PCOS is different; therefore, while one woman will benefit from one type of diet, others may not. Nevertheless, Dr. Dunn believes that diet can significantly influence the progress of PCOS and its symptoms. She wrote The Natural Diet Solution for PCOS and Infertility: How to Manage Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Naturally in order to provide a set of guidelines to women with PCOS who are confused about what to eat – and what not to eat – after her daughter was diagnosed with the condition.

On Dr. Dunn's hit list are refined, processed foods. Often found in brightly colored packages with beguiling names, these so-called foods are lacking in nutrition and filled with chemicals. Foods containing refined sugar, corn syrup, and other simple carbohydrates can cause blood sugar fluctuations, which can lead to hormonal imbalances. Insulin resistance, for example, has been connected to the increased production of androgens, which can prevent ovulation. Some PCOS diets allow complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, and lentils, while others recommend that these foods be avoided entirely.

Many PCOS diets do share certain major points, however. In general, women with PCOS are advised to:

Reduce their intake of refined carbohydrates. By removing those foods with a high glycemic index (GI) from their diet, women may help regulate their blood sugar levels. Dr. Dunn, who advocates initially removing all grains from one's diet, suggests substituting bread with lettuce leaves, pickled grape leaves, or sheets of Nori seaweed. On the other hand, Drs. Jennie Brand-Miller and Nadir R. Farid and Registered Dietician Kate Marsh, authors of The New Glucose Revolution Guide to Living Well with PCOS, allow the consumption of grains such as oats and other whole grains, long grain rice, and wild rice. Increasing one's consumption of vegetables, however, seems to be embraced by the majority of PCOS diet plans.

Eat foods that are low in saturated fat. A diet high in saturated fat has been connected to insulin resistance and obesity. Unsaturated oils, including flaxseed oil, olive oil, and nut oils such as macadamia and walnut, are offered as healthier options by the authors of The New Glucose Revolution Guide to Living Well with PCOS. Lean meats, a good source of protein and other nutrients, can be also incorporated into a healthy PCOS diet.

Drink more water. If the mantra "drink more water" has constantly been repeated over the last few years, it's for a good reason. Dehydration, says Dr. Dunn, can upset the delicate hormone balance. Water facilitates the elimination of excess hormones from the body.

While it is important to know your options – and that diet and exercise can be powerful allies against PCOS – if you have one or more PCOS symptoms, please consult your primary care physician.

Want More Information?

Contact a Doctor Near You.