This post was updated on November 6th, 2019
What the Latest Science Says about PCOS Treatment
Not that long ago, I was at breaking point with my PCOS.
After multiple failed attempts at IVF my lifelong dreams of motherhood were fraying at the seams. I had put up with excess stomach fat, acne, thinning hair, anxiety, depression, insomnia and more as a result of my PCOS, but infertility was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
I was desperate, I was depressed, but I also had nothing to lose.
Beating PCOS became my number one priority. I learned as much as I could from primary scientific sources and after transforming my diet and lifestyle using evidence based PCOS treatments, I’m now completely free from this disorder. After having also enjoyed a healthy, natural pregnancy, I’ve learned something truly remarkable.
While there’s no PCOS cure in the traditional sense, by using the right diet and lifestyle interventions, this disorder can be managed to the point where you’re completely free of symptoms.
Since 2016 I’ve seen literally tens of thousands of women begin a similar transformation with the help of my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. These women have shown me that the successful treatment of PCOS isn’t a privilege meant for just a lucky few. It’s actually available to anyone who’s willing to put in the work.
Amongst the PCOS medical community and the scientists that support them, it’s unanimously agreed that diet and lifestyle changes are the most effective treatments for PCOS. It’s just that most of this information sits in dusty old journals rather than making its way to the women that need it.
My mission is to change this paradigm with humble blogs like this one. Based on compelling scientific evidence and overwhelming real-life success stories, the following seven steps can eliminate your symptoms by tackling PCOS at its roots.
1. The Best Treatment for PCOS Focuses on The Root Problem, Not Band-Aid Solutions
The first time I spilled a drink on my new, secondhand couch I was furious. With a bit of quick thinking though, I gave the offended cushion a rub with a damp cloth and then flipped that puppy over.
As it turns out, you can get away with a lot of spills on your furniture, but when it comes to your personal health, you really want to treat your body better than a cheap couch you bought on Craigslist.
Unfortunately, quick fixes to cover the symptoms are normally the only thing offered for the treatment of PCOS. Pharmaceutical options generally only target one particular aspect of the disease and fail to consider the body as a whole. This over-simplified approach to PCOS treatment doesn’t reflect the most up-to-date scientific views, it almost always has unintended consequences, and rarely does little more than mask the problem.
Birth control for example, is the most commonly prescribed “band-aid” solution that many doctors use to regulate your period. But what they don’t tell you is that taking it long term puts you at risk of developing drug-induced thyroid problems. As I describe in this article on PCOS weight loss, women with PCOS are far more likely to have thyroid disorders, and this has serious health consequences especially on your bodyweight (Yasar et al. 20161; Ulrich et al. 20182).
To me it seems plausible that extended use of birth control may be part of the problem. When you consider that the estrogen used in these drugs messes with the balance of several thyroid hormones (Grüning et al. 20073; Westhoff et al. 20134) while also causing depletions of important nutrients like magnesium, selenium, and zinc (Palmery et al. 20135) you’ve gotta wonder don’t you?
Metformin, another commonly prescribed polycystic ovarian syndrome treatment, also has some pretty major shortcomings with “no clear evidence to support broad metformin use in PCOS” (Sam et al. 20176). The most up to date scientific reviews show that this drug is largely ineffective at controlling weight (Morley et al. 20177) and is less effective than diet and exercise for preventing type 2 diabetes (Knowler et al. 20028).
It’s been well known for a long time now that metformin does not greatly improve live birth rates for women with PCOS related infertility (Tang et al. 20099). Yet, despite the available research explaining these facts, physicians are still prescribing metformin to women who are trying to conceive (Legro et al. 201310). Since metformin is known to deplete vitamin B12 (Aroda et al. 201611), its use during pregnancy leads to increased pregnancy risks (Rogne et al. 201712; O’Leary et al. 201013). The widespread prescription of this drug also highlights the general lack of awareness that supplementing with myo-inositol produces better pregnancy results without affecting B12 levels (Regidor et al. 201814; Raffone et al. 201015).
This is all to say nothing of the side effects. In a survey of 1300 women within my PCOS Support Facebook Group, 78% reported an adverse reaction to this drug. They basically just started paying for a medication that made them feel worse and delivered little meaningful long-term gain – not really the answer you’re hoping for when seeking a treatment for PCOS.
Like the majority of women with PCOS, birth control was the first thing I was offered as a teen when my periods wouldn’t come regularly. I was then given Retin-A for my acne, and not long after that I was put on antidepressants for insomnia and depression. Fast forward to my 30’s when I was struggling to fall pregnant, the answers came in the form of metformin, clomid, ovulation induction hormones, and IVF. Answers, that resulted in two painful miscarriages, lots of bruised and collapsed veins, but no baby.
With a bit better luck than what I had, conventional PCOS treatment drugs can be useful for fertility, but none of them solve the bigger problem. What I wish I’d known sooner is that I would’ve been far better off treating the underlying cause of my PCOS rather than just the symptoms. If you really want to know how to treat PCOS or find the closest thing to a PCOS cure, then here’s what you really need to know.
When it comes to PCOS there are two primary mechanisms driving all of your unwanted symptoms: high androgen levels and chronic low-grade inflammation. So unless the PCOS treatment you’re using is having a sustainable impact on these two key mechanisms, all you’re doing is a superficial fix of your presenting symptoms. With even a basic understanding of these complex mechanisms, it’s easy to see how diet and lifestyle changes are actually where I should’ve been focusing my attention from the start, instead of playing drug whack-a-mole with each of my symptoms.
While it’s easy to view natural PCOS treatments as a less effective, warm-up act to medical PCOS therapies, the most current science reveals that diet and lifestyle are the hottest headliner you’ll ever see. It’s like the time one of my close friends saw Ed Sheeran at this tiny local music festival where he played to an audience of 30 people or so just before his career blew-up.
According to the latest scientific assessments, diet-induced inflammation causes our ovaries to overproduce androgens (like testosterone), and this is a primary driver of all of our symptoms (Gonzalez 201216; Gonzalez et al. 201217). PCOS infertility, unfair weight gain, unwanted hair, balding or thinning hair, oily skin, and adult acne – all of these can be traced back to diet-induced inflammation and excess androgens.
What this tells us is that optimizing your diet is the single most effective way to treat the primary cause of PCOS.
Insulin resistance and elevated cortisol levels are secondary effects caused by chronic inflammation and the worse these problems get, the more your PCOS gets out of control (Gonzalez 201216; Lindholm et al. 201118). This is why many women with PCOS struggle with their weight, and why roughly 30% of normal weight women with this disorder also have a problem with stomach fat (Carmina et al. 200720).
What this tells us is that diet and lifestyle interventions that promote better regulation of insulin and cortisol are ALSO going to deliver an effective natural treatment for PCOS. If you really want to know how to treat PCOS, understanding these facts gets you about as close as you’ll ever get to finding a PCOS cure.
Karima Young is a great example of what can be achieved when we focus on the root problem rather than band-aid solutions. Karima had spent over a year trying to conceive with the help of clomid when she first signed up for my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge.
By the end of the 30 days she had noticed a dramatic improvement in her digestive health and symptoms and was keen to see how far she could take things. She stuck with the diet changes and a few months later she was able to fall pregnant naturally all on her own.
Jamie Bietzell achieved an even more dramatic transformation when conventional fertility treatments like metformin didn’t work. Jamie joined my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge in November 2017 and drew on her desire to be a mom to apply what she learned. By January of 2018 she was getting a regular cycle and by April she had lost 50 pounds. During this time, she dropped from a size 22 jean back to a size 18, her A1C levels fell out of diabetic range, and her blood pressure measurements were no longer hypertensive. She went completely off all drugs and supplements and on Christmas day, Jamie got the greatest present she ever could’ve imagined. After four years of heartbreak and tears, she gave birth to a beautiful son.
Jamie has kindly allowed me to share this celebratory post and you can read her full story here.
2. Support Your Microbiome & Heal Your Gut
The gut microbiome has to be one of most exciting fields in medical research at the moment with many of the latest discoveries holding particular relevance for women interested in the treatment of PCOS.
While I know this can come as a surprise the first time you hear it, healing your gut is the best place to start. This is critical for overcoming the diet-induced inflammation at the heart of your symptoms and is a fundamental principle of good PCOS management.
Studies are showing that gut bacteria can influence our fat storage mechanisms (Backhed 201121; Backhed et al. 200422) as well as the related metabolic risks such as heart disease, liver disease, and diabetes (Ramakrishna 201323). For those of you that are fairly new to your diagnosis, health concerns of this kind are a major problem for women with PCOS (Behboudi-Gandevani et al. 201824; Wu et al. 201825). The microbiome is also now known to not only affect the way we absorb nutrients (Jumpertz et al. 201126), but they even have a say in how much we eat (Fetissov et al. 200827; Corfe et al. 201428).
Which begs the question – is it really you that wants that second piece of cake, or is it your gut bacteria?
Recent studies have shown a causal effect of gut populations on insulin resistance and obesity (Saad et al. 201629) and they appear to mediate our mental health too, particularly when it comes to stress and depression (Flowers et al. 201532). Since all of these problems are well known to occur more frequently in women with PCOS, if we want to learn how to treat PCOS naturally then it’s vital that we recognize the interplay between our microbiome and our health.
But wait there’s more!
In just the last few years, researchers have shown that women with PCOS have a lower diversity of healthy gut bacteria than our non-PCOS friends and that these differences correlate with how the disease is expressed (Torres et al. 201833; Liu et al. 201734). We can’t say for sure whether this is a cause or an effect but what’s clear from the latest research is that our microbiome is different and that this difference matters.
See where I’m going with this?
While scientists and clinicians are just beginning to imagine the massive potential of a gut driven, PCOS natural treatment protocol, we already know of several dietary changes that can have a positive impact. The first and most important of these is removing as much sugar from your diet as you can.
Before I continue, let me just say here that as a former sugarholic I never thought that I of all people would become “that person”. You know the one? The self-righteous type that gives trick-or-treaters a bag of mixed nuts? Back before I knew any better, I loved sweets so much that I once had a dream I was eating this gigantic s’more. When I woke up in the morning, there were graham cracker crumbs everywhere and my pillow was gone!
Ok, maybe that last bit’s made-up, but I really truly was sufficiently addicted to sugar that I couldn’t be trusted to hold the bag of marshmallows. What I know now though is that sugar is super-bad for your PCOS, and that a lot of the harm it does is via changes to your microbiome.
Dietary fructose, which makes up approximately 50% of all common sugars, has been shown to adversely affect our microbiome in multiple negative ways (Magnusson et al. 201537; Vos 201438; Neuschwander-Tetri 201339). Too much glucose on the other hand, which makes up the rest of the sugar molecule, can cause a sudden spike of insulin.
Given its constituent components (glucose and fructose), sugar is unrivaled as enemy number one on my foods to avoid list. What this means is that if you can successfully free yourself from this addictive substance you’re basically killing multiple PCOS blackbirds with one proverbial stone.
As a recovered sugarholic who literally took years to break a lifelong habit, I know as well as anyone how daunting and unlikely this sounds. This is why I made quitting sugar a major cornerstone of my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. To help make this process easier, not only do I provide recipes and meal plans that alleviate cravings, but we also spend time exploring some of the emotional and psychological barriers to success. Comprehensive polycystic ovary syndrome treatment isn’t just about physiological health improvements. While fixing our symptoms may be the end goal, in order to get there successfully, we also need to respect and work with our relationship to both food and ourselves.
For a sample of some of the most popular recipes we use during the Challenge, you can also download a copy of my free 3 Day PCOS Meal Plan by clicking here.
Hey, if I can do it despite being on a Lucky-Charms-only diet for most of my life, then I’m 100% confident that you can do it too.
Another big way that a PCOS friendly diet can help improve gut health is that it normally includes a lot of prebiotic foods. Prebiotics are foods that feed your healthy gut bacteria and they’re found in abundance in certain vegetables like garlic, onions, and cabbage, as well as many legumes, fruit, nuts and seeds (Monash University 201640).
For anyone wanting to do the most they can to maximize the diversity of their gut microbiome, another smart natural PCOS treatment is to eat plenty of probiotic foods like those included in this PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet, or better yet, consider a potent probiotic supplement.
Probiotic supplements can be especially useful if you’ve been under a lot of stress or you’re not getting enough sleep (these both have adverse effects on your gut bacteria). There are also a number of promising high-quality studies showing positive results when using probiotic supplements to treat insulin resistance (Kim et al. 201841). While the research is still in its early days, high dose strains of certain Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus seem to be particularly beneficial.
Moving beyond our microbiome, another big step that can help heal your gut is avoiding foods that are known to be inflammatory. Sugar, vegetable oils, dairy, and gluten are the most common culprits in this regard. While sugar and vegetable oils are generally bad for everyone, the thing that makes gluten and dairy particularly pernicious is that it’s super common to have a subclinical intolerance to them and not be aware of it. Avoiding these foods has to be one of the most overlooked natural remedies for PCOS and they also happen to be the cheapest to apply.
While it’s probably best I don’t go down this rabbit hole now, my foods to avoid with PCOS article provides a lot more info and this foods to avoid checklist can help you put these ideas into practice.
Almost without exception, the most successful women that learn how to get rid of PCOS without using drugs have given their gut a chance to heal. Karina is a great example of this.
She signed up for my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge when her weight was at an all-time high of 187 pounds. She had bad acne as well, but worst of all for her was the knowledge that her moodiness was having a negative impact on her family. She was a serious sugarholic and knew instinctively that her cravings were a big part of the problem.
Starting with the Challenge and continuing on in the following months, Karina took the transformative steps I’ve describe here. She lost 12 pounds in the first month, and before the year was out she was down more than 60 pounds. Her acne had cleared up too, but most importantly for her happiness, her mood was so much better and she no longer craved sugar.
3. Eat A PCOS Friendly Diet
If you recall from earlier, recent scientific reviews have shown that diet-induced inflammation is a primary cause of our PCOS symptoms, while poor regulation of insulin makes everything worse for more than half of us (Gonzalez 201216; Gonzalez et al. 201217). While the level of devastation can vary widely between individuals, it doesn’t matter if you have thin PCOS and are struggling with fertility or your main issues are weight gain, acne, or unwanted hair, these same mechanisms are behind your problem.
Understanding these mechanisms tells us exactly how to treat PCOS by implementing an effective long-term dietary solution.
If you can support your microbiome and heal your gut using the dietary steps I outlined in the section above, then you’re already halfway home. But there are still many additional nutritional changes that are just as important.
Describing all these steps is another rabbit hole of a topic, so to keep things moving I’ll refer you to my PCOS diet article where you can learn everything you need to know about how to treat PCOS naturally with dietary interventions. The gist of it is to avoid all the foods that drive the underlying cause of your symptoms, while also optimizing your nutrient status by eating a range of foods with the right micro and macronutrient balance. This mostly means swapping out processed foods for whole foods, eating plenty of fat, protein, and non-starchy vegetables, while also being smart about your carbohydrate intake.
It’s old-fashioned, common sense eating, with a PCOS specific twist.
To make things really easy for you, I’ve also created a handy PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet that includes all the foods that make up a PCOS friendly diet. This downloadable PDF includes over 180 foods and drinks, as well as practical nutritional tips.
Nellsy Martinez is a great example of what can be achieved if you make the switch to a PCOS friendly diet that incorporates these simple ideas.
After struggling with infertility for years because she never got a period, Nellsy completely changed her diet while participating in my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. Shortly after completing the live Challenge she had a period for the first time in years. She started losing weight, had more energy, and “felt alive again”. Eight months later after continuing her new PCOS friendly diet, Nellsy got the best news anyone could hope for and now has a beautiful daughter named Vivianna.
Nellsy gave me permission to include this touching post she shared in my PCOS Support Facebook Group soon after her daughter was born.
While eating a PCOS friendly diet is definitely the best thing you can do if you’re trying to get pregnant, the exact same approach can be just as effective for weight loss.
Not to be confused with “normal” diets that require you to restrict how many calories you eat, with a PCOS friendly diet like the one I describe here, the only thing you need to do is to choose foods that truly nourish you. By getting back to a more whole foods based diet that includes plenty of fat and protein, you can trust in your innate appetite control mechanisms to tell you just how much food is the right amount for you.
Eating in this way lets you feel full and satisfied while still achieving amazing weight loss results. There’s absolutely no need to ever go hungry. This helps you avoid the deprivation mindset that causes restriction diets to fail over the long run (Mann et al. 200842), and makes it a lot easier to sustain a healthy body weight forever.
Kendall, another member of my PCOS Support Facebook Group, applied what she learned during my free Challenge and went from weighing 260 pounds at her heaviest to less than 160 a few years later. At no time did she restrict her calories or ever feel overly hungry. What I love about Kendall’s story is that the time it took her to achieve these results is testimony to the sustainability of this lifestyle as well as her ongoing commitment to better health.
When Kendall posted her fabulous results in our group she said that now she knows what she’s doing nutritionally, her bodyweight takes care of itself.
As women like Kendall can tell you, there’s a lot to learn when it comes to implementing a PCOS friendly diet. It can be difficult to find good information and many people just don’t know where to start. This is exactly why I created my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. If you’re ready for a change but you need some support, then this live event may be just what you’re looking for.
The goal of this free, introductory program is to make it both fun and easy to put a PCOS friendly diet into practice without being overwhelmed in the process. As well as the weekly meal plans, recipes, and shopping lists, the Challenge includes video lessons, and daily mindset activities, all within a vibrant and supportive community environment.
I run the Challenge four times a year as a live event, but if you’re feeling especially inspired and want to get started right now then I recommend downloading this free 3 Day PCOS Meal Plan. This 15-page ebook includes many of my most popular PCOS recipes with an accompanying shopping list to make life easier for you.
And for a one-page checklist you can stick on your fridge, make sure to also download this PCOS Diet Cheat Sheet.
4. Make Exercise Part Of Your PCOS Treatment Plan
While healing your gut and eating a PCOS friendly diet are the two most important PCOS treatments, both the scientific literature and good old-fashioned common sense tell us that there’s no doubt that exercise can help too.
It’s well understood that when we strengthen our muscles we increase their ability to absorb and burn glucose for energy. This is why the fitter and stronger you get, the longer and harder you can work out when you want to. This is particularly meaningful from a PCOS perspective, because the better we absorb and convert glucose, the easier it becomes to regulate our insulin levels.
One of insulin’s many jobs is to transport glucose from our bloodstream into all the cells where it’s needed. Issues arise though when our PCOS inflammation causes our cells to be less sensitive to the work it’s doing. The more resistant to insulin we are, the higher our insulin levels need to be to transport the glucose in our blood, and the higher our insulin levels go the more our PCOS symptoms are triggered.
Elevated insulin promotes the excessive production of androgens like testosterone which then leads to acne and hirsutism and the loss of proper ovarian function. As you may recall from earlier, insulin resistance is also the main mechanism by which your PCOS inflammation causes rapid weight gain and the accumulation of excess body fat, particularly around the midsection.
This explains why counting calories doesn’t work for weight loss. How much you’re eating is not the problem, it’s the dysfunction in your insulin regulation.
By exercising more, we can tackle this problem head on.
Hanna was a previous 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge participant where the benefits of exercise were particularly noticeable. Despite being very slim and active, Hanna struggled with excess stomach fat, poor mental health, and an absent period. Like me, things came to head for her when she was ready to start a family.
When Hanna made the commitment to a PCOS friendly diet and lifestyle she also started a progressive resistance training program I’d had a sports scientist develop specifically for women with PCOS as part of my Beat PCOS 10 Week Program. She stuck to the program and noticed a dramatic improvement in all of her symptoms. Most telling of all was that within months she’d fallen pregnant naturally and now her workouts include chasing after her little one.
Success stories like these are super motivating for me, but the ability of exercise to improve the insulin sensitivity and body composition of women with PCOS is also well documented in the scientific community (Almenning et al. 201543; Cheema et al. 201444). A lot of this can be explained by the finding that aerobic exercise reduces inflammation (Covington et al. 201645).
But while physiology studies are both informative and motivating (to me anyways), it’s the psychological effects of exercise that really gets me into my yoga pants.
A meta-analysis of 37 randomized controlled trials which included over 40,000 people in total showed that without a doubt, exercise can reduce anxiety and have an even greater effect on depressive symptoms (Wegner et al. 201446). A more recent review of studies supported this finding by showing that moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise can have a large effect for people with depression and that the mental health benefits of exercise are likely to have been underestimated by earlier scientific trials (Schuch et al. 201647).
The take home here is that if like many of us with PCOS, you sometimes struggle with your mental health, then creating some space for a little more exercise is one of the smartest things you can do. Speaking from experience here, exercise is by far the best antidepressant ever invented.
When it comes to what type of exercise is the best treatment for PCOS, I don’t really think it matters that much. There are good scientific reasons to believe that strength training is an excellent choice (Kogure et al. 201648), but aerobic activity seems to work well too (Covington et al. 201645).
The only exercise I generally recommend women avoid is frequent and long cardio sessions. Working out this way can promote hormonal dysregulation illustrated by the many endurance athletes who don’t get their period (Diemel et al 201249).
Sorry to all those runners out there. I know this is not what you wanted to hear…
If you’re often short on time and want to get a real rush, then you can’t do better than high intensity interval training which I personally find works wonders, as do the exercise researchers (Almenning et al. 201543). In one study, it was found that doing 21 minutes of interval training 3 times a week produced similar results to 60 minutes of cycling 5 times per week (Cocks et al. 201350).
I don’t know about you, but as much as I love exercising, I’d rather do one hour vs. five any week of the year…
My personal belief about the best exercise for PCOS is that it’s the kind you’re most likely to do long term. I think a lot of us (myself included) have fallen for the trap of treating physical activity with the diet mentality. We get to a certain low point with our health, and then resolve to turn things around dramatically by setting ambitious goals that require a huge amount of discipline and rescheduling. We do great for the first two weeks, we skip a day the third because we’re not feeling so well, something else comes up the next week, and shortly thereafter it’s just not happening.
This is entirely normal, and gym owners actually depend on this behavior or they wouldn’t be able to sell as many memberships as they do. Poor attendance is key to their whole business model!
So if we know that treating exercise like a diet is doomed to fail just like it’s culinary counterpart, we need to take a different approach. What your complete PCOS treatment plan needs is exercise that’s fun, affordable, and makes you feel good. Sure, there will be times that you need to gently cajole yourself to get off the couch after a long day at work, but if it’s an activity that actually makes you happy then you’ll be far more likely to do it.
I think this is something that each of us need to find for ourselves which is why I’ll limit any further advice here to suggesting you spend some time trying new activities and schedules that might work for you. Start off small with low expectations, and build your way up as the new habit forms.
5. Don’t Underestimate Sleep As A Natural Treatment For PCOS
After having my baby, I was given a crash course in just how important sleep is for PCOS management. As I gratefully gritted my teeth through an exceptionally challenging first 12 months of parenthood l learned that some of the set-backs I was experiencing were directly related to my lack of sleep.
While we know that poor quality sleep can affect insulin resistance in women with PCOS (Tasali et al. 200851), studies have also shown that even otherwise healthy people see a reduction in insulin sensitivity with recurrent nights of insufficient sleep (Van Cauter 201152; Nedeltcheva et al. 200953). This is understood to be caused by increased inflammation which is also going to make all your other PCOS symptoms worse too (Irwin et al. 201654).
I saw this first hand when after months of seriously interrupted sleep, my dear husband’s six-pack slowly disappeared into a bulging keg of multiple love handles.
Despite eating exactly the same healthy diet we’ve had for years, my poor hubby started gaining fat around his mid-section as if PCOS was contagious. He was definitely showing signs of PMS too but I guess that’s not so much of a surprise under trying circumstances.
In any case, the problem subsided shortly after our son’s first birthday when he finally started sleeping better.
Sleep is an especially important part of a holistic treatment for PCOS, as one of the biggest barriers to implementing a PCOS friendly lifestyle is having the emotional collateral to get stuff done. I think we all know intuitively that when we’re tired and worn out, everything feels too hard. Motivation for meal prep’ or exercise has left the building and we just want to make it through the day as best we can.
Sometimes this requires a lot of chocolate. Especially dark chocolate that you keep hidden from your husband at the back of the vegetable crisper. Get a good night’s sleep however, and the whole world looks so much brighter and doable right?
But sleep does a lot more than just improve your outlook and strengthen your motivation.
Getting more sleep has been shown to alter our eating behavior (Blumfield et al. 201855), while reductions in sleep time have been shown to make some of us prefer sweet food more (Smith et al. 201656). Preliminary research even suggests that sugar consumption can be reduced significantly just by getting an extra 45 minutes of sleep at night (Al Khatib et al. 201857).
So, take this from someone who used to stay up all night watching sappy rom-coms – getting more sleep might not be as indulgent as a Sleepless in Seattle / You’ve Got Mail double-feature, but it sure goes a lot further toward treating your PCOS.
Another big area where sleep can help us is by making us more inclined to exercise. Let’s face it, getting the motivation to work out consistently is just plain hard, so the last thing you need is to be tired too. Even short-term sleep restriction has been shown to make you less physically active (Schmid et al. 200958).
Now I realize that by sharing all of this I’m again at risk of crossing the “easier said than done” barrier.
Given that nearly a third of Americans get six hours of sleep or less per night (Krueger et al. 200959), and that women with PCOS are much more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances (Moran et al. 201560) I know we’re facing a societal pandemic. Getting more sleep can be hard for many people and depending on where you’re at, 7 – 8.5 hours a night might sound like a blurry-eyed dream.
If you can get it though, this is where you want to be heading. Especially if you suffer from poor mental health or you’re trying to lose weight.
There are some obvious things that can help you get more sleep like going to bed earlier instead of watching TV. It’s now well understood that the blue light produced by electronic devices can affect your circadian rhythm. Then there are proactive measures like guided relaxation exercises, sleep meditations, or boring yourself to sleep with not-too-interesting audio books (works a charm). You can try using essential oils like lavender or rose and if those don’t work then you’ve got a serious case of insomnia and it might be worth considering melatonin supplements as a short-term measure.
Saving the best treatment for last though, the most effective way to improve your sleep naturally is to eat a PCOS friendly diet.
Am I starting to sound like a broken record yet?
I’m not going to pretend that I understand the mechanisms here, but from both personal experience and the overwhelming responses I hear from women within my community, when we eat better we sleep better. During a recent survey of women from my free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, nearly 70% of respondents reported their sleep was either “some-what better” or “much better than before” after they began to adopt a PCOS friendly diet.
I’m sure that eliminating sugar and refined carbohydrates has a lot to do with it, but since so much of our neurochemistry is mediated by our gut health, my guess is that going gluten and dairy free makes a big difference too.
At the end of the day though, the best way to prove that eating well can improve your sleep is to see it for yourself. If you’re struggling with sleep at night, then that’s all the more reason why a PCOS friendly diet is well worth trying.
6. Healing PCOS Requires That You Get Better At Managing Stress
If chronic stress and anxiety is preventing you from enjoying the good things in life, then you’re definitely not alone. Susceptibility to stress is a classic PCOS symptom.
Studies have shown that when subjected to a stressful social situation, women with PCOS suffered greater psychological distress than a non-PCOS control group (Benson et al. 200961). Their heart rates were more reactive and blood tests showed a significant shift in the hormones regulating their adrenal glands (think cortisol – the stress hormone).
If you’re familiar with that giddy, edgy, or fearful feeling, then it’s likely your PCOS is part of the problem.
Beyond just how unpleasant it feels though, there are many good reasons why it’s worth taking stress management seriously within your PCOS natural treatment plan. Part of having a hyper-vigilant stress response means our immune system overreacts to stressful events. This drives inflammation which in turn affects our insulin sensitivity regardless of whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with insulin resistance.
As we now know, these underlying PCOS mechanisms lead to increased body fat storage, particularly around our waist, and they elevate our risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The stress hormone cortisol is produced in spades when we’re subjected to difficult emotional situations. As well as promoting many of the physical symptoms of our PCOS diagnosis, in part due to its effects on the microbiome, chronic exposure to elevated cortisol can cause depression (Sher 200462). This goes a long way in explaining the high rates of this crippling mental health issue observed in women with PCOS (Barry et al. 201163; Jedel et al. 201064).
Most importantly though for women that are trying to get pregnant with PCOS, building better stress management skills may help improve fertility.
I know all too well just how infuriating it is to be told that you “just need to relax” when you’re trying to conceive. I used to get this ALL the time so I appreciate that this well-intended advice is the last thing you need to hear when you’re trying to get pregnant or you’ve just suffered a miscarriage.
But the facts of the matter are that there is now growing evidence supporting stress management as a sensible part of a comprehensive fertility treatment. While “everyone” may have known this for centuries, it took until 2014 before the world’s first high-quality study showed the clear link between stress and infertility.
After controlling for things like female age, race, income, and the use of alcohol, caffeine and cigarettes, US researchers found more than a two-fold increased risk of infertility in women that had the highest bio-markers of stress (alpha-amylase) compared to those who were the most chilled-out (Lynch et al. 201465).
The take home here, is that if you’ve been meaning to take steps to reduce the stress in your life, now is the best time to do it.
When I think about how best to implement this PCOS treatment step, I put my stress management strategies into two big “baskets” (to keep them nice and tidy). I put all the direct approaches into the first basket. These are the science driven techniques that are proven to help build emotional resilience and better self-awareness.
The most powerful of these include things like mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-compassion practices which seek to combine these two disciplines into a stress management super-therapy. Physical activity is also amazing for stress reduction (of course), and so too are guided relaxation exercises.
In the indirect stress management basket, I put all the other good ideas that I collectively refer to as self-care activities. This can be as simple as letting go of my need to always try and please others, or giving myself “permission” to take a 5-minute break in the middle of a hectic day. While these may sound like fairly poxy PCOS treatments, in both my personal experience and that as a health coach, you can’t beat PCOS without a strong commitment to self-care.
Making peace with the stress in her life was one of the transformative steps that helped a previous 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge participant, April Hamm, lose 60 pounds.
This inspirational woman had nursed a daughter through cancer, and now takes care of a son with diabetes. Needless to say her health and her own needs always took a back seat to those of her “kiddos”. After realizing that she needed to take care of herself too, April started proactively managing her stress levels while also getting serious about the food she was eating. Within months, not only did she lose weight easier than ever before, but she now has a lot more energy to be an even better mom to her two kids (if such a thing was possible).
7. Adopt A PCOS Natural Treatment Lifestyle
So far in this blog, I’ve explained that according to the latest scientific evidence, your best PCOS treatment options require you to focus on the root cause of your problem and not band-aid solutions. They require a change in your day to day habits and that’s why I like to call it a lifestyle.
While a PCOS friendly lifestyle can take a long time to get used to, the upside of course is that it actually makes you better. Not just in the short term, but forever. And that’s about as close to a PCOS cure that anyone could hope for.
While the treatments I’ve presented above all happen to be “natural”, these drug-free solutions should not be looked upon as lesser than or “alternative” in any way. In my view, the science behind them provides a solid evidence base from which wise decisions can be made.
Tackling the root problem of a PCOS diagnosis means supporting your microbiome and healing your gut. It means eating a PCOS friendly diet and making exercise a regular habit. Getting more sleep is incredibly effective especially if you’re trying to lose weight, and it’s now known that developing more effective stress management skills is not only good for your mental health, but it can boost your fertility too.
My hope is that by better understanding these powerful interventions you’ll be empowered to take your health into your own hands.
I know that almost everyone reading this has been fighting PCOS in one way or another since their early teens. But regardless of how old you were when you were first diagnosed, chances are you never received the help and support you really needed.
Drugs? Yes. Advice to lose weight and do more exercise. Most probably.
But did anyone actually explain in detail how to create a positive lifestyle that can keep all your symptoms in check? I’m guessing not…
Living with PCOS can be depressing, overwhelming, and heart-breaking. I get it, truly I do. But given things only get worse the longer we leave them, what choice do we have other than to face this adversity? Rather than becoming a victim of this disorder, embracing a PCOS friendly lifestyle is your best way forward.
Your genes may have dealt you some pretty crappy cards, but you’re the one who gets to play your hand. So there’s just one more case study I’d like to leave you with, to show you the profound effects of diet and lifestyle as a natural treatment for PCOS.
When I met Bianca K. back in 2016, she was on the brink of bariatric surgery. She badly wanted to start her family but was advised that her odds of success were not looking good if she couldn’t lose weight first. Dieting hadn’t worked, metformin hadn’t worked, and she felt like surgery was the only option…
As luck would have it, after taking part in my 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge, Bianca cancelled her appointment, and never looked back. Using the dietary principles that I talk about here, along with the other lifestyle changes I cover in this post Bianca went on to overcome a life-long battle with her weight. After losing 30 pounds, she had a healthy, happy, natural pregnancy and gave birth to her gorgeous son at the end of 2018.
If you’re ready to make your first move, then I’d love for you to join my next free 30 Day PCOS Diet Challenge. Because changing your diet is the Ace of Spades in this game. With the help of PCOS friendly meal plans, nutritional lessons, and the emotional support of thousands of other like-minded women, this free program consistently delivers winning results.
While you’re waiting for the next Challenge to start, make sure to also download a copy of this 3 Day Meal Plan. This free ebook includes some of the most popular macronutrient balanced recipes from the Challenge which you can start making today.
If like Bianca was, you’re ready to take control of your wellbeing, you simply need to commit to the project. Not just once, but likely many times over as long-term progress always looks like a jagged line defined by setbacks and do-overs as you move on up. That’s the real-life process for beating PCOS.
I know you can do it.
Kym Campbell is a Health Coach and PCOS expert with a strong passion for using evidence-based lifestyle interventions to manage this disorder. Kym combines rigorous scientific analysis with the advice from leading clinicians to disseminate the most helpful PCOS patient-centric information you can find online. You can read more about Kym and her team here.
This blog post has been critically reviewed to ensure accurate interpretation and presentation of the scientific literature by Dr. Jessica A McCoy, Ph.D. Dr McCoy has a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology, and a doctorate in reproductive biology and environmental health. She currently serves as a University professor at the College of Charleston, South Carolina.
This blog post has also been medically reviewed and approved by Dr. Sarah Lee, M.D. Dr. Lee is a board-certified Physician practicing with Intermountain Healthcare in Utah. She obtained a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Texas at Austin before earning her Doctor of Medicine from UT Health San Antonio.
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