How Gluten Can Trigger PCOS Symptoms

by Tallene Posted July 27, 2023

The link between gluten and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) has long been debated. The ultimate question is: is there a connection between gluten and PCOS? 

Studies show that if you’re sensitive to gluten, it can contribute to inflammation. Inflammation leads to insulin resistance, imbalanced cortisol, and hypothyroidism, all of which are underlying issues that drive symptoms of PCOS. So, adopting a gluten-free (and dairy-free) lifestyle for 30 days is at least worth a try to see if these processed foods are driving your symptoms!

It’s not the gluten itself that’s the problem; it’s the reaction that gluten triggers in the body. If your body doesn’t process gluten well, a gluten-free diet could be the key to reversing your PCOS symptoms and beginning the healing process from within. 

Not sure what type of PCOS you have? Discover your type by taking THIS quiz.

Please note this blog post is not a substitute for official medical advice. If you are concerned about your PCOS symptoms, suspect you have an underlying health condition or wish to make dietary/lifestyle changes, please consult your doctor first.

How Gluten Can Trigger PCOS Symptoms

Inflammation

That hormonal belly? Bad skin? Irritable stomach?

These symptoms are all activated by inflammation in women with PCOS. Not to get too much into the science, but women with PCOS tend to have higher levels of oxidative stress, inflammatory cytokines, and white blood cells (called lymphocytes and monocytes). 

These guys are all triggered when there’s an inflammatory response to the food in the body…one of them might be gluten. If you suspect that you have a gluten intolerance, avoid gluten for 30 days and see how you feel! 

Insulin resistance

Insulin resistance is when our body doesn’t respond well to insulin. The pancreas recognizes that insulin is needed when we eat food, but certain foods can cause us to overproduce it. After a while, the combination of excess insulin levels and inflammation leads to insulin resistance and we see depletion in our energy, mood, weight, and all our PCOS symptoms. 

But how do we control it?

If insulin resistance is part of your PCOS picture (you can take this quick quiz to see), then cutting out gluten could help reduce inflammation, which is essentially what activates insulin resistance. 

Foods such as pasta can be substituted for gluten-free meals like chickpea pasta and or just chickpeas. Baked goods can be substituted for gluten-free alternatives, especially almond and coconut flour, which are lower carb options (check out our 4-week meal and workout plan for some recipe inspo!) and of course plenty of fruits and vegetables. Foods with added sugars can contribute to and exacerbate insulin resistance, so a diet incorporating plenty of protein, fiber, and healthy fats is key, 

To optimally address your insulin, discover your carb tolerance (something we show you how to calculate in The Cysterhood!)

Cortisol Induced Dysregulation

Cortisol, ‘the stress hormone’, was designed to keep us safe from predators and trigger our fight or flight response. But too much cortisol? And you’re in for a host of stress symptoms that are not healthy.

Symptoms such as acne, facial hair, irregular periods, digestive problems, fatigue, and anxiety… sound familiar?

Symptoms occur because high levels of cortisol can also increase testosterone and insulin resistance… guess what can increase cortisol? Inflammatory foods! 

Eating gluten-containing foods may be the culprit here. If you’re showing symptoms of celiac gluten sensitivity, try eliminating gluten for 30 days and see how your anxiety and mood change! 

Immune System

In the case of women with PCOS, there is evidence to suggest that gluten, that pesky protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, may trigger an immune response and potentially worsen the symptoms of PCOS.

You see, when you have an autoimmune disorder, like PCOS, your immune system can go into overdrive. And it might mistakenly attack your own body. It’s like the Incredible Hulk getting a little carried away and smashing everything in sight, including your own healthy tissues.

In fact, autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or rheumatoid arthritis, are more common in women with PCOS. Ah, the joys of being a complex creature, right?

Now, let’s talk about celiac disease, the gold standard of autoimmune disorders.

This condition involves an immune reaction to gluten that damages the lining of the small intestine, leading to a condition called leaky gut. Think of a leaky gut as the unfortunate equivalent of a faulty faucet, allowing undigested food particles and other substances to leak into the bloodstream. Additionally, this can further aggravate the immune system, potentially causing inflammation and making PCOS symptoms even more rebellious.

So, while celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in its own right, its connection to gluten and immune response highlights the intricate dance between gluten and the immune system in women with PCOS.

It’s like watching a dance battle between rival dance crews, with gluten stirring up trouble and the immune system trying to keep everything under control in the body’s never-ending party.

Not everyone with PCOS will be sensitive to gluten.

But if you are, gluten does affect weight loss as well as your PCOS symptoms, so it’s worth eliminating gluten (even for just 30 days!) to see if it makes a difference in how you feel. 

Going gluten-free, creating a low-PCOS-impact lifestyle, and being consistent with it have really helped manage my inflammation and that of many other cysters:

  • I no longer have painful cystic acne!
  • I don’t have “uncontrollable” cravings (due to insulin resistance) anymore!
  • After 6 months, my ultrasounds showed no ovarian cysts

It’s amazing what such a small change can do.

And, I mean, sure, sometimes I do dip my sushi in soy sauce (which has gluten) and occasionally I’ll nibble the corner of a croissant – but I know what to look out for and how much my body can tolerate.

If you need more support with going gluten-free… here are some places to start:

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