Do you have PCOS? Fortunately, there are a number of ways you can treat PCOS naturally, so you can feel your best…and guess what? None of them involve following the keto diet, cutting out carbs altogether, or even counting calories.
If you missed my first two articles in this series on PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), you can learn more about what PCOS is here, and why it’s so hard to lose weight when you have PCOS here.
Yes, there are studies that show that losing weight can improve insulin resistance and hormone balance in women with PCOS. But in my practice, I treat PCOS naturally by addressing the root causes. Balancing blood sugar and improving insulin resistance, supporting the adrenals and thyroid, reducing inflammation, and balancing sex hormones results in feeling better naturally and the weight comes off naturally, without “dieting.”
I firmly believe that your “ideal weight” is one that you can achieve—and maintain—effortlessly. And addressing the root causes FIRST gets the whole system functioning again.
So, what are my go-to recommendations for treating PCOS naturally?
Balance Blood Sugar and Improve Insulin Resistance
Diet is the first step toward treating PCOS naturally.
Here’s the somewhat painful fact: most women do do better on a lower-carb diet. Note that I said “lower carb” and not “low carb.” The truth of the matter is that most of us eat WAY too many carbs.
Do you know what one serving of carbs actually looks like? It’s a half a cup of cooked carbs such as rice or starchy vegetables (and only 1/3 cup of pasta). If you’re not sure what that looks like, start measuring it out to get a better idea.
If you’re balancing your plate so that half is fresh, non-starchy vegetables and ¼ to ½ your plate is protein, then the remaining quarter should be used for carbs (whole grains like brown rice & quinoa or starchy veggies like winter squash, sweet potatoes, and beets).
The TYPE of carbs matters more than anything. Low-glycemic carbs (like those mentioned above), are going to impact your blood sugar much less compared with high-glycemic carbs like sugar and other “white,” processed foods.
What about fruit? People are so concerned about eating too much fruit…but trust me, I never met a single person who became obese because they were eating too many bananas. Eat fruit—it’s full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, and the fiber balances the sugar out. If you’re worried, focus more on blue and black berries—they’re the lowest in sugar and the most beneficial. (Did you know that blue/purple is the color people in the U.S. eat the least of?)
Focus on getting MORE protein (especially plant protein and fatty fish like salmon), MORE healthy fat (at least 1–2 tablespoon equivalents per meal), and MORE non-starchy vegetables (aim for 8–10 servings a day).
Try not to eat carbs at every meal & snack. Two to three ½-cup servings per day is plenty. Personally, I like to get my carbs at dinnertime…they signal my brain that it’s time to relax and get ready for sleep. If I eat carbs in the morning (like oats) or at lunch (like leftover pasta), I am pretty much done-for, energy-wise, for the rest of the day. But some people do better with carbs at breakfast. So, experiment with timing and figure out what works best for you.
A note about snacks… Remember how in my last article, I talked about how the body exists in either in the fed state or the fasted state? Frequent meals or snacks keep your body in that fed state, where your blood glucose and insulin never drop to the point where you can access your stored energy (aka, fat). And elevated insulin is a major concern with PCOS. So, try to stick to regular meals that keep you full for at least 4–5 hours. If you find yourself getting hungry an hour or two after a meal, you’re not eating enough.
That being said, sometimes, there’s a long stretch of time without eating. For example, if you eat lunch at 12:00 and don’t have dinner until 7:00 or 8:00, it makes sense to grab a handful of nuts or seeds to tide you over to dinnertime. If you DO snack, focus on snacks that balance protein, fat, and fiber.
Treating PCOS naturally requires some physical activity (sorry to be the bearer of bad news!)
Exercise helps reduce insulin resistance by making the body’s cells more sensitive to insulin. Even a simple 10-minute walk after a meal can do wonders in terms of lowering your blood sugar.
Lifting weights can also help improve insulin sensitivity.
Support the Adrenals and Thyroid
Stressed-out adrenals produce more cortisone, which leads to belly fat, hormonal imbalances, and elevated insulin levels. The adrenals are responsible for making 25% of the testosterone, 50% of the androstenedione, 80% of the DHEA, and 100% of the DHEA-S that your body produces.
So, if you’ve got PCOS, chances are, you’ve got some adrenal involvement, too. Factors that can put stress on the adrenals are a busy lifestyle (who doesn’t have one of those?!), not getting enough sleep, a low-carb diet, and over-exercise.
Unfortunately, there’s no “quick fix” for adrenal issues. You can take adaptogens (such as ashwaganda, holy basil, eleuthero, reishi, etc.) to help support your adrenals, but making your adrenals happy and functioning well really comes down to fixing your lifestyle.
Aim for at least 7–9 hours of sleep a night. Incorporate meditation or breathing exercises, even for 5 minutes a day. Focus on gentle exercises like yoga, walking, and nature hikes. Lower your caffeine intake, including coffee, tea, and chocolate. You might need to take a good, hard look at your work-life balance and see where there are changes you can make and what needs to give in order to keep your stress to a manageable level.
If you do incorporate adaptogens into your routine (I love this combo product), be sure to also be doing the deep work to repair your stressful lifestyle. And be patient…this takes time.
The endocrine system functions as a system, so when one branch isn’t functioning well, chances are, the others aren’t either. The ovaries, adrenals, thyroid, hypothalamus, and pituitary are all connected. As I mentioned in my last article, the incidence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is 4 times higher in women with PCOS. Additionally, stressed adrenals can signal your thyroid to slow down, resulting in non-autoimmune hypothyroidism or subclinical hypothyroidism.
The only way to know for sure what’s going on with your thyroid is to get a full thyroid panel (TSH, free T3, free T4, reverse T3, and thyroid antibodies). Iodine, selenium, zinc, vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D are all crucial to supporting your thyroid. (And a low vitamin D has also been linked to elevated insulin.) If you’re not sure what your levels are on these key nutrients, consider having your levels tested.
If you are unable to get these levels tested by your doctor, book a free consult with me to see how I can help.
Chronic inflammation is common in women with PCOS. So to treat PCOS naturally, you must address inflammation.
You can reduce your inflammation by reducing inflammatory foods (such as sugar and processed foods) and incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods, such as foods high in Omega-3s (salmon, walnuts, flaxseeds), and 8-10 servings a day of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Consider adding a fish oil supplement, turmeric (curcumin), and ginger, if you don’t get these things regularly in your diet.
Balance Sex Hormones
With PCOS, male sex hormones (testosterone, DHEA, androstenedione) tend to be elevated. Additionally, estrogen dominance can occur (either outright high levels of estrogen, or levels that are high in comparison to progesterone).
In addition to making too many of the wrong hormones, and not enough of the right hormones, exposure to environmental hormones and hormone-mimicking substances can throw our whole system out of whack. Personal care products contain over 10,000 unique chemicals, some of which are endocrine disruptors (meaning they affect hormones), and the typical woman is exposed to hundreds of chemicals on a daily basis (1).
So, make the transition to natural, non-toxic beauty and bath products. Check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database to see how your brands stack up.
Switch to non-toxic cleaning supplies, like Mrs. Meyer’s or Seventh Generation or make your own. Don’t forget to switch to natural laundry detergents & fabric softeners, air fresheners (I love this one), and candles, too, which are all huge sources of daily chemical exposure.
Reduce your exposure to plastics (use glass storage containers like these and glass water bottles), and never ever heat your food in a plastic container. Use a good water filter. See more of my meal prep storage tips here. And check out my favorite products in my Amazon store.
Reduce your exposure to chemicals in foods by eating organically when you can, especially when it comes to the Dirty Dozen and any meat and dairy foods you consume.
It is also crucial to make sure that your gut is functioning properly. Our liver breaks down hormones for elimination via the stool. If you’re not pooping daily, those hormones can recirculate and build up. Adding 1-2 tablespoons of ground flaxseeds per day can help bind those excess hormones and help you eliminate more regularly. Adding a magnesium supplement before bedtime may be necessary to get you going regularly.
While there are many supplements that can assist in balancing hormones to treat PCOS naturally, you should never start taking them without first having your hormone levels checked. I use the DUTCH test in all my clients with PCOS.
Some of the supplements I use regularly in my practice include vitex (chaste berry), DIM, licorice, and peony, as well as other supplements as needed, but these are recommended on a case by case basis, according to the individual’s levels, needs, and symptoms. (And all of my clients receive 20% off any supplements I recommend at Fullscript.)
Remember, while I am A functional medicine dietitian, I’m not YOUR functional medicine dietitian, so always consult with a professional before incorporating any advice.
The Bottom Line
Treating PCOS naturally is not only possible… it also avoids many of the long-term side effects of conventional medical treatment. Always work with a PCOS expert in functional medicine to help you identify YOUR root causes and which strategies may be right for YOU.
Check out my book, A Balanced Approach to PCOS, for more of the best foods for PCOS!
And check out more PCOS Power foods in this article I was quoted in.
Or sign up for our free masterclass – PCOS Period Success: 3 Simple Diet Shifts You Can Make NOW to Get Your Period Back now!
Stay tuned for the next article in this series, where I’ll focus on the top supplements for managing PCOS.
IMPORTANT NOTE -> This information is provided for educational purposes and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare practitioners before undertaking any changes in your diet or adding supplements.