Taking the Unconventional Approach: Herbs and Supplements for PCOS
If you have PCOS, we don't need to tell you the stress, pain, and inconvenience it lays on your life. Symptoms like acne, unwanted hair growth, weight gain, hair loss, irregular or skipped periods, and possibly even fertility problems are challenging — both physically and emotionally. The bigger burden is that there really seems to be no end to how this condition impacts quality of life, self-esteem, and mental health. Unfortunately, most women who seek help from their doctor get nothing more than a brochure and prescription for birth control — no further questions asked, no further guidance given.
We want to tell you there’s a lot more we can do for PCOS. As with any condition, we must consider root problems and what diet and lifestyle changes we can help treat the underlying causes of PCOS.
Beyond Birth Control
Go to a conventional doctor for PCOS, and you’ll be met with conventional options. Sometimes we need to think outside the box when things are not working. The pill seems to b the first-line treatment for treating high testosterone levels and menstrual cycle irregularities in PCOS but most women are actually put on the Pill much sooner than they receive an actual diagnosis of PCOS, so they often don’t know they have it until they come off the Pill hoping to get pregnant which makes it that much more frustrating. It’s also common for women to be put on Metformin for blood sugar regulation, or Spironolactone for symptomatic control of hair loss.
We're NOT against these medications. They can be very effective at putting symptoms at bay and keeping our confidence in check and promoting mental health but here's the deal... they carry risks and they’re not addressing the underlying causes that are driving PCOS. We have to remember, just because we aren't seeing symptoms anymore doesn't mean our body isn't experiencing the stress of PCOS. The pill, for example, can actually make insulin resistance worse, putting you at higher risk of long term health consequences and creating more problems when you do finally come off of it, and it can cause or exacerbate depression, which is already a common symptom of PCOS. It’s also important to note that even though these pharmaceuticals are widely accepted as treatments for PCOS, the evidence that supports their use is both limited and inconclusive. Our knowledge of PCOS in general is still very limited, and most pharmaceuticals are used without much questioning or critical thinking. Of course, we hear WAY more backlash for “unproven” natural approaches to PCOS — but there should also be critical thinking used when it comes to pharmaceuticals.
With that in mind, we want to introduce alternative strategies, including herbs and supplements for PCOS, that can offer you more options.
10 Herbs and Supplements for PCOS
The following have been shown to reduce insulin resistance, reduce testosterone levels (which causes many common PCOS symptoms), improve ovulation, and decrease unwanted hair growth.
Inositol (Myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol)
Inositol is a must for most women with PCOS. It’s actually one of the most well-studied supplements for this condition with some of the best data behind it. D-chiro-inositol has been shown to reduce insulin resistance, testosterone, and AMH levels and improve ovulation. Myo-inositol, when combined with folate, has been shown to improve fertility, egg quality, and pregnancy rates in women with PCOS. It may also be helpful for presenting gestational diabetes; A study in Gynecology Endocrinology showed the prevalence of GDM among pregnant women with PCOS who took myo-inositol group was 17.4% versus 54% in the control group.
Vitamin D is linked to blood sugar control and vitamin D deficiency is clearly tied to PCOS and symptom severity. Supplementing with vitamin D can help improve ovarian reserves, AMH levels, ovarian follicle health, and fertility, even if one isn’t vitamin D deficient. Many of us are low in vitamin D.
Short for N-acetyl-cysteine, NAC is a naturally occurring chemical in our bodies that increases glutathione, one of the most important detoxifiers that’s produced in our bodies. Studies have shown that supplementation can be effective for PCOS. It’s been shown to improve insulin resistance and reduce testosterone levels as well as hirsutism in women with PCOS, while also improving menstrual regularity. In one study, it was found to be comparable to metformin in lowering insulin and androgens and improving menstrual regularity. So if all things are equal, why not try NAC over metformin, or at least as a first step?
Berberine, an extract from goldenseal and related herbs, is commonly used to improve blood sugar balance and cholesterol. It’s also one I keep in my toolkit for PCOS because of its effectiveness for insulin resistance and hormone balance. In a first of its kind study, 102 women with PCOS taking 400 mg three times daily were evaluated over a 4 month timeframe. Results included significant improvements in menstrual cycle regularity, ovulation, and insulin resistance.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
There are about a dozen reasons why omega-3 fatty acids can be helpful in PCOS, starting with their anti-inflammatory and insulin-regulating properties and ending with their ability to lower leptin levels and aid weight loss. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids, taken for 2 to 6 months, can reduce testosterone levels and unwanted hair growth and improve insulin sensitivity, menstrual regularity, and weight loss.
Two very promising studies have confirmed that drinking 2 cups of spearmint tea daily for even just 30 days has anti-androgenic properties and may be useful for lowering testosterone levels and reducing hirsutism with PCOS. While these studies are small and preliminary, we recommend giving it a try — it’s entirely safe and spearmint tea is delicious and always available here in the store!
Zinc is often thought of as an immune system supplement, but it can also reduce the negative effects of high testosterone. In fact, one study even showed that supplementing with 50 mg a day of zinc decreased unwanted hair growth in women with PCOS. The same study showed that zinc supplementation can reduce hair loss, thinning hair, and elevated inflammation levels that are often present with PCOS. Zinc aso plays a role in blood sugar balance and mental health, so although you might think of it as a supplement for the common cold, it’s usefulness in PCOS shouldn’t be underestimated!
In recent years, we’ve learned that there are many interesting links between our sleep hormone melatonin and our ovarian health. For example, it’s been shown that a reduction in melatonin levels of follicular fluid exists in PCOS patients and that melatonin receptors in the ovaries are involved in adjusting sex hormone secretion at different phases of ovarian follicular maturation. We’re still learning more about these links but studies have shown that in women with PCOS, 2 mg of melatonin daily for 6 months decreased testosterone levels and reduced menstrual irregularities. We can also explore things like tart cherry that help the natural production of melatonin.
Licorice root can be consumed daily as a tea and may be effective for PCOS, including for reducing testosterone levels. One small study found that daily licorice intake improved serum testosterone levels in just two cycles and then when licorice was discontinued, testosterone levels elevated to their previous levels.
Saw palmetto is an herb that’s historically been used for urinary and reproductive health. It’s commonly used in extract form that’s composed of fatty acids and the medicinal part of the plant. It’s shown to be anti-androgenic, meaning that it may be helpful in reducing testosterone levels that lead to hirsutism and acne. Unfortunately, there’s not as much evidence specifically behind its use with PCOS but it’s also considered very safe, so in many cases it’s worth a try.
Using Herbs and Supplements for PCOS as Part of Your Journey
As you approach treating PCOS naturally, remember that it’s likely something you’ve had for years, so it’s going to take some time for the body to start recovering. Ideally, give it 6-12 months before you start to notice a true difference but you may see small results around months. Some symptoms like hair loss and fertility challenges may take closer to 12 months. Natural remedies are not always quick, but often the outcome is far more rewarding for you and your body. Remember that this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing approach, you can combine these strategies with conventional therapies to create a PCOS protocol that really feels right to you. Every body is different and we're here to help you find a balance that works best for you.