Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS)

June 26, 2015 Updated: March 21, 2016

PCOS is a chronic female hormonal disorder where women develop numerous fluid-filled cysts in the ovaries due to a lack of ovulation, along with a number of other symptoms, including excess levels of male hormones and often high insulin levels.  Typical symptoms of PCOS include irregular or absent menstrual periods, infertility, mood swings, carbohydrate/sweet cravings, and gaining weight easily or having difficulty losing weight.  Excess or unwanted hair growth on the body, thinning of hair on top of the head, and acne are additional symptoms that can result from increased testosterone levels.

How Is PCOS Diagnosed?

To receive a diagnosis of PCOS women typically have to meet two out of three criteria, which include few or no periods, androgen excess, and polycystic ovaries seen through ultrasound.  One of the problems in terms of menstrual disturbances is that they can be masked through the use of birth control pills.  Some women with PCOS have regular cycles and others have cycles that last longer than thirty-five days, which complicates diagnosis.  The appearance of acne may be ignored as a typical adolescent occurrence, and excess or loss of hair may simply not be understood, and a source of anxiety. The “strong, almost urgent cravings for carbohydrates and sweets,” (7), that can occur with PCOS may be misdiagnosed as a binge eating disorder. 

Diet and PCOS

Simple carbohydrates, such as candy, honey, and sugar, worsen PCOS by increasing insulin levels and cause added weight gain.  Simple carbohydrates should be replaced with whole sweet vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, squash, and parsnips.  All of these vegetables have the added advantage of helping to reduce cravings for sweets (4). 

Diets high in fiber may also lower risks of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and other diseases, which women with PCOS can be at risk for.  Brown rice can be especially helpful with PCOS since its coating, the rice bran, “has rather remarkable effects on lowering high blood sugar levels.”  (6).

Fresh fruits and vegetables, preferably organic, locally grown, and in season, should be consumed in moderation, especially fruit which can be laden with sugar, particularly tropical fruits, such as pineapples and mangoes.  Juices, which are devoid of fiber can quickly release sugar into the bloodstream, causing rises in insulin levels.  While women with PCOS may consider artificial sweeteners to lower sugar intake, the pancreas still senses the sweet taste, which increases insulin levels.  This ultimately can lower blood sugar and increase carbohydrate cravings (3).

Cruciferous vegetables contain a phyto-chemical that improves estrogen metabolism.  In PCOS there is an excess of estrogen over progesterone and this phyto-chemical helps to detoxify excess estrogen and convert it into a more beneficial form (6).  The phyto-chemical is only released when vegetables are chopped and/or cooked. Some common cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, kale, and cauliflower. 

Healthy fats should be part of the PCOS diet, especially Omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation associated with PCOS.  These can be obtained from fish, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Saturated fats may worsen insulin resistance along with trans-fats.  We need some fat, however, to help with hormone balance.

Dairy contains casein, which has been associated with arteriosclerosis, and women with PCOS are already at risk for heart disease.  Dairy also is mucus-forming, and best avoided since it can cause illness, including aggravation of digestive problems that can occur with PCOS.  For this reason, some women with PCOS may be best to avoid wheat, and take probiotics to balance the good and bad bacteria in the intestines. 

Drinking plenty of water and herbal teas, such as dandelion, chamomile, and spearmint tea is recommended.  Spearmint teas, in particular, may lower testosterone levels by helping to bind the testosterone to certain proteins (6).  Apple cider vinegar can help to reduce insulin resistance, especially when taken diluted in water and preferably before meals. 

Drinking alcohol is not recommended with PCOS.  Since it is used as an energy source, it will prevent glucose or sugar from being used up until the alcohol has been metabolized.  Alcohol also depletes good bacteria and can increase testosterone levels (5).

Exercise, Acupuncture, Herbs, and Control of Chemical Toxins and PCOS

Exercise helps to manage insulin levels, reduce testosterone, increase sex hormone binding globulin, and manage stress.  Improvements in the growth of excess hair and skin tone can also occur with decreased testosterone.  A decrease in miscarriage rates has been reported as a result of weight loss.  Acupuncture can balance hormones, and increase ovulation and fertility rates.  Herbs have been used to treat PCOS, but should be taken only under the supervision of a licensed herbalist.  Metformin is becoming increasing popular in treating PCOS, but can result in vitamin B12 deficiency over time.  Consuming foods high in B-vitamins is recommended.  Chemicals that enter the body from the environment can disrupt hormones.  Eat organic as much as possible, and minimize consuming foods and liquids stored in plastic. 

Vitamins and Minerals in Treating PCOS

  • Chromium– Romaine lettuce, onions, tomatoes, brewer’s yeast, oysters, liver, whole grains, bran cereal and potatoes. Food processing tends to remove naturally occurring chromium in foods.
  • Zinc– Calf’s liver, venison, crimini mushrooms, shitake mushrooms, and spinach.
  • Magnesium– Pumpkin seeds, spinach, and Swiss chard, but the vegetables should not be overcooked to minimize the loss of minerals.
  • Co-Enzyme 10– Fish, organ meats, and the germ of whole grains
  • B-Vitamins -Brewer’s yeast, liver, whole-grain cereals, rice, nuts, milk, eggs, meats, fish, fruits, leafy green vegetables.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates


  1. bit.ly/pMorbf Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, online August 3, 2011
  2. Ballentine, R., Radical Healing: Integrating The World’s Great Therapeutic Traditions To Create A New Transformative Medicine, Himalayan Institute, Honesdale, Pennsylvania, 2011.
  3. Colbin, A., Aspertame: The Real Story, foodandhealing.com, the website of Annemarie Colbin, 1997.
  4. Colbin, A., Food and Healing: How what you eat can determine your health, your well-being and the quality of your life. Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, 1986.
  5. Grassi, A. and Mattei, S.B. The PCOS Workbook: Your Guide To Complete Physical and Emotional Health. Lucas Publishing, Haverford, Pennsylvania, 2009.
  6. Merrick, J. Power Over PCOS: The 7 Step Solution for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, Book Pal, 2010.
  7. Pitchford, P. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Tradition and Modern Nutrition, North Atlantic Books, Berkley, California, 2002.
  8. Wright, H. The PCOS Diet Plan: A Natural Approach to Health, Random House, Inc., New York, 2010.

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