Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) is a condition affecting 1 in 10 women, and in some estimates, 1 in 8 women. And if you are one of these women, conception can feel like an uphill battle. The first hurdle is to get an official PCOS diagnosis. Technically, you must meet two of the three following criteria for an official diagnosis from your OB:
- Irregular periods or no periods
- Higher levels of androgens present in the blood
- Polycystic ovaries with more than 20 follicles
PCOS and Its Effect on Fertility
So what does PCOS have to do with your fertility potential? Lots actually. PCOS is responsible for up to 90% of ovulatory disorders and 75% of anovulatory infertility. In other words, if you are a woman diagnosed with PCOS, you may struggle getting pregnant since you may not be able to ovulate.
The science behind the lack of ovulation due to PCOS is complex. It stems from insulin resistance causing a disruption in normal signaling between the pituitaries (which typically produce testosterone and estrogen) and the ovaries. The ovaries produce follicles—typically lots of them—but the eggs are never released.
But there are ways to boost fertility if you have PCOS.
Many women with PCOS who want to boost fertility to start a family seek the help of a fertility specialist or reproductive endocrinologist to stimulate ovulation. But there may be a way to balance your hormones and boost your fertility through what you eat: the PCOS diet plan.
The PCOS Diet and Its Fertility-Boosting Power
To gain insight into how the PCOS diet plan may help boost your fertility, we asked certified nutritionist and founder of JH Wellness, Janine Higbie, MS, CNS, to share what she knows about the relationship between food, fertility, and PCOS.
Q: You have extensive experience working with PCOS patients in a bustling OB-GYN clinic who are struggling with conception. What’s the first thing you want your PCOS clients to know?
A: You are not alone. You may feel that way because PCOS is woefully underdiagnosed. Too often, women struggle in the dark without the support they need during the critical childbearing years.
“But remember, a PCOS diagnosis is not an infertility sentence. There are many healthcare professionals like myself who are ready, willing, and able to help!”
Q: How do you help PCOS patients restore and boost fertility?
A: PCOS manifests in a wide range of symptoms and severity. Many of the symptoms can be masked by oral contraceptive pills (OCP). When women come off the pill as part of family planning, they often realize that they struggle with irregular cycles, amenorrhea (lack of period), and anovulation for the first time.
At this point, restoring a regular cycle is paramount, and I do that through nutrition. I do that by putting them on the PCOS diet.
“I guide women in a fertility-boosting diet that can improve egg quality and increase chances of conception, a healthy pregnancy, and a baby.”
Q: How do you collaborate with your patients’ OB/GYN and Reproductive Endocrinologist to ensure you’re all aligned in prescribing the PCOS diet?
A: It’s really up to the individual and her physician, but I think communication is critical. I’m always willing to update the physician directly or go through the patient.
Proper nutrition is beneficial to egg quality, increased rate of pregnancy, and reduced risk of miscarriage in women undergoing fertility treatments.
Fertility Boosting Foods for PCOS
Q: Let’s talk foods for PCOS. What are the principles a hopeful mom with PCOS should consider when it comes to nutrition?
A: Due to the connection between PCOS and insulin resistance, a blood sugar-balancing diet is essential. The PCOS diet plan limits carbohydrates, particularly highly processed foods with flours and sugars. The PCOS diet also focuses on eating lean proteins, healthy fats, fiber, and nutrient-rich carbohydrates.
I should know these diet principles are not limited solely to the PCOS diet. They are great diet guidelines for everyone!
Q: What are the dos and don’ts for women with PCOS?
A: Any woman trying to conceive should focus on:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Reducing stress
- Participating in regular exercise
- Maintaining proper hydration levels
While these are important for all women, they are especially critical for women with PCOS because of hormonal imbalances.
Do eat these fertility-boosting foods for PCOS:
- A palm-sized portion of lean organic protein at each meal. Ideal sources include low-mercury fish, eggs, or legumes.
- A minimum of two fist-sized servings of veggies at each meal. “Eat the rainbow” by eating veggies of all colors, emphasizing leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables.
- A Healthy fat each meal. Ideal sources include avocado, olives, olive oil, nut, seeds, and fatty fish.
- Low glycemic carbs like starchy vegetables and whole grains
Don’t eat these foods if you are on the PCOS diet:
- Processed white flour and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sugars
- Processed meats and red meat, poultry, or ham in excess
- Fried foods and trans-fats
- Alcohol, or at the very least limit it to 1-2 glasses per week.
- Caffeine (with the caveat that green tea can be beneficial for PCOS.)
The good news is the PCOS diet contains the critical micronutrients for a developing baby in utero, nutritious breast milk, and mom’s postpartum mental health and physical healing. That’s why I like to let my PCOS patients know they are getting a headstart in the nutrition department!
The PCOS Diet is Not as Difficult as You Might Think
Q: If this all feels overwhelming, what’s ONE thing a hopeful mom with PCOS can do right now to improve her fertility?
A: One of the most important things a woman with PCOS can do to help boost fertility is to remove inflammatory, ultra-processed foods and sugary drinks from their diet and focus on healthy fats and protein at every meal. Just doing these things can make an immediate improvement in PCOS hormonal dysregulation.
Once these things become routine, you can introduce another one or two changes to work up to maintaining the PCOS diet. Consistency is our best clinical tool, so my job is to provide realistic and actionable advice.
Q: What’s your go-to PCOS diet recipe you love to suggest to your PCOS patients?
A: My pesto salmon and veggies dish is a total crowd-pleaser, even among the non-PCOS group! Plus, it couldn’t be easier. Find the recipe here.
If you are a woman with PCOS and are trying to conceive, download our Expectful app for more information on PCOS, the PCOS diet, and relaxing meditations to help reduce stress. (To increase your chances of conception!)
If you have PCOS and are struggling with your fertility, you are not alone. So much can feel out of control, but taking steps to refine your nutritional intake can be one way you practice power over your condition, and ultimately move the needle in the direction of conception.