Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) affects almost one in every 10 women of reproductive age. Considered a gynecological condition, PCOS actually has as much, if not more, of an impact on metabolism and blood sugar as it does on a woman’s reproductive system.

Most women diagnosed with PCOS experience acne, male-pattern hair growth and trouble losing weight. They may also have irregular periods or cysts on their ovaries. These irregular periods and lack of ovulation can lead to possible infertility. Women diagnosed with this condition often feel as if they have limited options when it comes to managing their symptoms.

Symptoms include insulin resistance, or the inability to properly respond to the body’s insulin signals. This is not only a common symptom of PCOS but may be a major driver of the condition itself. This can lead to elevated blood sugar levels mimicking the same symptoms we see with type 2 diabetes: fatigue, weight gain and food cravings.

Elevated blood sugar in women with PCOS actually impacts the way ovaries produce hormones; this can lead to the lack of ovulation. It can even cause the ovaries to begin producing excessive amounts of testosterone, which triggers other common symptoms associated with PCOS like acne and unwanted male-pattern hair growth, such as on the chin.

Treating PCOS effectively needs to focus on blood sugar balance and hormonal regulation. Most important, though, is investigating the possible underlying cause, which is often related to gut health and stress.

Being mindful of dietary choices can help women with PCOS reduce insulin resistance and, in turn, relieve symptoms. Make it a point to eat meals that are balanced with quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates from vegetables. This nutritional balance prevents blood sugar spikes and makes it easier for the body to use nutrients without high levels of insulin.

Quality proteins such as lean chicken, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, beans, lentils or organic soy should be included in every meal. Green leafy vegetables or cruciferous vegetables support hormone regulation with their fiber and antioxidant content. Carrots, sweet potatoes and starchy vegetables should be included, but not in excessive amounts that can trigger a large insulin response. Reducing packaged and processed food also helps to prevent excess inflammation and a high insulin response. When meals are balanced, hormone production and healthy insulin levels are supported.

Women with PCOS should evaluate any sensitivities they may have to foods they eat frequently, which may be causing inflammation in the body. Inflammation is generally higher in women with PCOS already, so certain foods may add fuel to the fire. Increased inflammation may lead to more insulin resistance, trouble losing weight and worsening acne. Dairy is a common food sensitivity and, in general, is not well tolerated by women with PCOS. Dairy acts on specific receptors that may influence testosterone levels in women with PCOS. This increased testosterone leads to the acne and male-pattern hair growth that become worrisome to women who experience it, often without a proper diagnosis of why this is happening.

Dairy consumption can also contribute to overproduction of luteinizing hormone (LH). LH normally elevates short-term midway through a woman’s menstrual cycle to initiate ovulation. In women with PCOS, LH can be chronically high throughout the entire cycle, preventing ovulation and, therefore, leading to problems with conception. For women who want to understand how diet impacts their hormones, reducing or eliminating dairy products is a good place to start.

In addition to understanding our body’s food sensitivities and eliminating the culprits, adding foods that reduce inflammation and support hormone levels is an excellent way to reduce PCOS symptoms. Organic berries such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, cherries or raspberries are low in sugar and high in fiber, which makes them an excellent choice for women with PCOS. Studies have shown that berries have the power to help reduce inflammation and decrease insulin resistance.

Teas such as nettle leaf, spearmint and green tea are other helpful choices for women with PCOS. These teas work in two ways: they reduce inflammation and reduce testosterone levels. Adding these dietary choices to complement a dairy-free, protein, fat and carbohydrate-balanced nutrition plan will support proper hormone function in women with PCOS while addressing other contributing factors like insulin resistance.

Women with PCOS face a wide range of symptoms. Finding foods that support balanced hormones is one way to help manage and reduce symptoms that are most persistent when trying to maintain fertility, manage weight and minimize acne to help us feel our very best.

Dr. Katelyn Lieb is a naturopathic physician who specializes in women’s health, hormones and thyroid conditions at Fernwood Holistic Health in Westbrook, CT. Connect at 860-661-5824 or Info@FernwoodHolisticHealth.com, or follow on Instagram Instagram.com/drkatelynlieb.

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