What is PCOS?
To understand PCOS and gluten free diets, its important to understand what PCOS is. PCOS stands for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. It is a hormonal disorder that can occur in women of childbearing age. This condition can cause a variety of symptoms such as irregular menstrual cycles, acne, weight gain, mood changes, and possible infertility if left untreated.
In order to quality for a diagnosis of PCOS, one must meet at least 2 of the following 3 criteria:
- Irregular and/or anovulatory (no ovulation) menstrual cycles
- Elevated androgen hormones, like testosterone
- Cysts on ovaries (confirmed via pelvic ultrasound)
PCOS can be caused by a variety of factors such as genetics, stress, diet, and lifestyle. Some elements that tend to be present in women with PCOS are blood sugar imbalances, and/or chronic underlying inflammation.
Is gluten bad for PCOS?
Many of my clients ask if gluten is bad for PCOS. Gluten inherently does have some inflammatory components to it. While some people may be able to eat gluten and feel perfectly fine, the truth is that gluten products made in the United States are heavily sprayed with glyphosate – which in itself is a highly inflammatory and unhealthy chemical. I know many people that travel to other countries and consume gluten on a regular basis feeling totally fine, then come to America and feel terrible when they eat it. It’s unfortunate, but luckily there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives these days that we can consume instead. So the answer to this question is yes, gluten is not ideal for PCOS. Since women with PCOS already have ongoing underlying inflammation, it is best to keep inflammation as low as possible by consuming unprocessed, gluten-free, whole foods.
PCOS and Gluten Connection
As mentioned above, gluten is sprayed with chemicals like glyphosate and other pesticides.
PCOS and gluten can be connected because gluten, especially when grown in conventional rather than organic methods, can be covered in hormone disruptors.
Gluten as a Hormone Disruptor
Hormone disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with the functioning of the endocrine system, which produces our sex hormones. These chemicals could mimic hormones, which may cause our bodies to over or under-produce them. Many hormone disruptors are “xenoestrogens”, which means they mimic the role of estrogen in our bodies and can make women estrogen dominant (meaning they produce too much estrogen). We want our progesterone and estrogen to be in balance, otherwise this can lead to many symptoms of hormonal imbalances such as heavy and painful periods, acne, weight gain, and mood swings.
PCOS already causes hormonal imbalances on its own, so I don’t recommend clients consume a food that could easily contribute to these imbalances further.
Benefits of a Gluten Free Diet for PCOS
Lower Refined Carbohydrates
It is estimated that about 70% of women with PCOS have some form of insulin resistance. Since so many women with PCOS tend to have blood sugar imbalances, it is important to be mindful of carbohydrate consumption. This does NOT mean that women with PCOS need to avoid all carbohydrates; carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient and are the body’s preferred source of energy. However, gluten-containing foods such as bread, pasta, and other grains tend to be higher in refined carbohydrates. To improve insulin sensitivity, it is helpful to limit refined carbohydrates and focus on consuming gluten-free, whole foods. My favorite replacements for refined carbohydrates that do not contain gluten are starchy vegetables like potatoes, squash, or grains like quinoa or sprouted brown rice.
Gluten has been known to increase something in the body called zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that modulates permeability of the tight junctions in the intestines. The higher the level of zonulin is, the more increased permeability of these tight junctions – and therefore, the worse “leaky gut” a person experiences. Leaky gut is a condition that can occur in the gut and is responsible for a variety of symptoms such as food sensitivities, bloating, nausea, irregular bowel movements, acne, fatigue, and headaches. Leaky gut can also lead to an imbalance of gut bacteria (dysbiosis), which can contribute to even more inflammation.
Gluten and leaky gut can be connected because gluten can cause inflammation, so I highly recommend that women with PCOS limit or avoid it.
Living Gluten Free Without Feeling Restricted
The thought of cutting out a type of food can feel daunting for some. It is essential to me that my clients do not feel restricted when implementing dietary changes and a healing protocol. I do not ever want my clients to feel like they are on a “diet”, or like their life is less enjoyable if they are recommended to limit or eliminate a certain type of food. So I always provide my clients with a long list of gluten-free alternative foods and snack options that are delicious and that they can easily find at the store. Luckily, these days there are SO many great alternatives. There are gluten-free pasta options that are made from brown rice or cassava flour; there are yummy gluten-free and grain-free breads; and there are a ton of snack options like chips at the store that are even cooked in healthier oils than most mainstream brands. It is absolutely possible to live a gluten-free lifestyle while enjoying a variety of foods and not feeling restricted.
Gluten and PCOS Summary
Although consuming gluten and PCOS symptoms can be connected there are many ways of helping ease inflammation in the body including nutritional therapy.
How Nutritional Therapy Can Help with PCOS
Nutritional Therapy is a great tool for helping to balance blood sugar, decrease inflammation, eliminate unwanted symptoms, and put conditions like PCOS into remission. With the combination of dietary, lifestyle, and supplement recommendations, I have utilized nutritional therapy to put my own PCOS into remission and help many other women do the same.