Living with PCOS: Things to Avoid

Danger sign
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “First, do no harm”. It’s a phrase used in medicine, and it refers to the physicians duty to consider first how any interventions or treatments may cause unnecessary harm when treating a patient.

When it comes to living with PCOS, I think that before we start trying to add new and helpful things into our diet or routine or supplement regimen, we first need to take a look at anything that needs to go. As helpful as improving our nutrition or anything else may be, if we are still clinging to things that are counter-productive, we may find that the results of our efforts are slower or less than we might hope for.

The list in this post may seem random at first glance, but these are all pieces of the puzzle, and unfortunately, balancing hormones is a fairly complex puzzle as anyone who has tried will attest to. The exciting thing, though, is that the pieces do start to come together and make incremental differences that will build upon each other and ultimately bring about real change and improvement!

To start us off, here are the first five of ten items I want to address, in no particular order:

1) Soy

In a very brief nutshell, here is the main issue with soy as it relates to PCOS:

  • Soy phytoestrogens disrupt endocrine function and have the potential
    to cause infertility and to promote breast cancer in adult women.

To read a fairly short and simple but helpful article on the effects of soy, including on hormones, see Soy: Is it Healthy or Harmful. As well, this Soy Alert! index at the Weston Price site (where the above statement was taken from) is a goldmine of articles addressing all of the various concerns with soy. I can’t say it strongly enough, but soy is NOT the health food that it is promoted to be! In my personal experience, I have previously been told to try using soy for my hormone issues, and it is evident within days that it is doing nothing but throwing me even further off balance, as I grow more irritable, tired, and begin to break out. Soy is a definite no-no, in my books!

2) Refined sugars and grains

I have only addressed it briefly so far, but a large part of the underlying problem in most women with PCOS is the way their body handles blood sugar and their insulin balance. Clearly eating more sugar only exacerbates this problem (particularly refined, white sugar, rather than whole food sweeteners such as fruits or even honey, which are lower on the Glycemic Index than white sugar). Eating foods high on the Glycemic Index (which are usually refined and/or sugary), causes your blood sugar to spike quickly, and then drop, influencing not only your hormones, but also your weight, mood, energy and more.

As for refined grains (source),

We know that eating too much sugar can lead to blood sugar imbalances.
Since white flour breaks down into sugar, it too can lead to blood
sugar problems.
I often work with people suffering from blood sugar problems who try to defend
their diet by claiming that they don’t eat any sugar. Yet they have
a bagel for breakfast, pasta for lunch, pizza for dinner, and snack on pretzels
all day long–not realizing that even though those foods don’t
taste sweet, they quickly turn into sugar! As far as your blood sugar is
concerned, your body doesn’t know the difference between a teaspoon
of sugar and a slice of white bread!

Of interest: Replacing White Flour with Whole Grains in Four Simple Steps, Adjusting your Taste Buds Part 1, and Part 2, and Traditional Diets (an excellent overview of Weston Price’s findings and dietary suggestions)

3) Environmental Estrogens

These are chemicals (usually toxic) which act similarly to estrogen in our bodies. Technically, these environmental estrogens are called “xenoestrogens”, and they are a major problem because they mimic and disrupt hormones, and can actually trick the body into thinking that it has too many or not enough hormones, and can seriously mess with our delicate hormonal balance. Many of us have bodies that are on a bit of an estrogen overload, or have “estrogen dominance” as it is often referred to. Here is a great article which explains this concept.

A few specific places to avoid these xenoestrogens: pesticides, herbicides, conventional meat (given growth hormones), plastics (BPA, PCV, dioxin, etc.), fabric softener and dryer sheets, soy, beauty products (pthalates and petroleum-derived chemicals like parabens)

Some of the information out there is a bit sketchy, but these are some of the better lists that I was able to find of environmental estrogens and how to avoid them: Environmental Estrogens and Xenoestrogens Interfere with your Normal Hormones, and Health and Xenoestrogens (note- I don’t know much about either site, so be discerning- I’m recommending these sites/articles solely for their lists and info on what to avoid, nothing else). As well, here’s a good article from EWG on Nine Ways to Avoid Household Toxins. I know this is a lot of information and links, but take what you can from it and don’t stress out about the rest! You can always come back to look at it again later.

4) The Pill

The pill
Upon diagnosis of PCOS, most doctors will quickly pull out their prescription pad and suggest using the birth control pill to “regulate or establish regular menstrual cycles”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Though the Pill gives the appearance of a regular cycle, in actuality it is suppressing the natural hormones that cause a woman’s cycle to occur, and the bleeding that comes about at the end of the month is a false, withdrawal bleed, not the result of a completed menstrual cycle. This completely undermines our efforts against PCOS, as it suppresses and upsets the hormonal balance that we are trying so hard to re-establish. What we want to do, as I will discuss more in future posts, are things that will support a normal hormonal balance and thus a naturally occurring menstrual cycle, rather than one controlled by drugs!

In addition, the Pill has these (among many, many other) effects, that also fight against those of us with PCOS:

In Solved: The Riddle of Illness, Dr. Stephen Langer writes
“the Pill. . . can cause severe bodily damage in hypothyroidism.” Oral contraceptives may aggravate insulin resistance and longterm
risk of diabetes and heart disease… Many women taking the Pill have reported weight gain–a sign
of estrogen dominance and/or insulin resistance–as well as depression
and even psychosis.

Excellent information on this topic in the article Rethinking Reproductive Health, and Just Say “No” to Birth Control Pills (and no, I’m not trying to give my opinion on what method of birth control to use, if anything, but am only trying to highlight some of the dangers of using the Pill specifically).

5) Caffeine

Forgetting for the moment all of the other reasons you know that coffee (and other caffeinated beverages) are bad for you, let’s focus on a few that may have a direct impact on PCOS:

  • Coffee and other stimulants increase insulin levels, a definite negative for those struggling to control insulin and blood sugar levels
  • In general, caffeine intake has been linked to lowered fertility rates (this is somewhat debated- there are stats on both sides of the debate)
  • Caffeine contributes to acidity in the body (rather than neutral or slightly on the alkaline side as they should be). This acidity can impact hormonal balance.
  • At the very least, caffeine minimizes absorption of important minerals and other nutrients, and can even cause our body to excrete (get rid of) excess nutrients through our urine. When trying to build a healthy body with a healthy hormonal balance, we want to keep every nutrient we take in!

Next week, I’ll cover the next 5 things to avoid, and then I’ll move on to some of the things that we want to add in to our diets, as well as lifestyle changes and supplements that can help!

For what it’s worth, to those who may be looking at this list and feeling discouraged, I don’t do it all perfectly. Out of these five and the next five, the two that I really struggle with the most are sugar and caffeine. I’ve mentioned before that I grew up eating a lot of junk, and with a real addiction to sugar and coffee. Old habits die hard. Though I have gone through long seasons (since working on my health) where I have been completely caffeine and/or sugar free, I have not managed to do either one continuously. At home, I find it easy to avoid sugar, but when out with friends, I struggle with saying no and feeling left out. When it comes to coffee, I find I can give it up pretty easily, but then when I move into seasons of extra stress and tiredness, I pick it back up as a comfort food and a way to cope with fatigue.

I am currently working to seriously cut both refined sugar and caffeine completely out of my diet once again, as I know full well the effects they have on my body. I hope it’s helpful to know that I’m not some sort of wonderwoman who finds this all to be a piece of cake. It’s natural to struggle to give some of these things up, but I want to encourage you (and myself) to keep pressing on and doing the best we can to steward our bodies and our health, for His glory!

What are your thoughts on these first five items? Which is most difficult for you? What strategies do you use for avoiding any of these items?

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links.

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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  1. When I was young, at the time I started having periods, they were completely irregular. The doc said not to worry about it til I was 16. When it continued, I had my first pap at 17, put on birth control and was on it until I was 28. In my mid 20’s, I was married and we were looking at having kids. That was when I was diagnosed with PCOS. When I learned more about PCOS, I decided to quit taking the pills and go for natural alternatives. I have since started taking vitex and alternate DIM and saw palmetto every other month to regulate my hormones. I’ve also cut all candies, cakes, etc from my diet as well as pop (still have one on occasion) and most processed foods (although I haven’t gone so far as to completely cut all sugar and caffiene). I’ve noticed a huge difference in my facial hair and my periods have come back, although still irregular, at least they happen!

    I highly recommend that women look at reducing and cutting refined sugar, gluten, and dairy products as well as vitex, DIM, saw palmetto (although traditionally for men, those of us with spiked testosterone will notice a big difference!) as well as drinking spearmint tea (spearmint! Not peppermint! Spearmint tea lowers testosterone as well). Treating PCOS with diet is so incredibly important. It also regulates the rest of the pesky things that go along with it – weight gain, facial hair, acne, etc. I still can’t get the annoying acne to go away, though!

  2. I agree with everything but caffeine. I mean, I’m not saying it’s not true, but I think it’s a bit like caffeine in pregnancy… a tiny bit doesn’t harm.

    At least for me, I’m not a caffeine addict at this time (I have been in the past) but I have sleeping issues (which I’m not sure how they relate to my PCOS) and somedays I will literally not be able to do anything but stare at the wall and say “What am I supposed to be doing?” without a cup of tea. I do not, however, need two or three cups of coffee. A cup or two of tea is sufficient, and I hope I’m right in thinking that this probably doesn’t harm my PCOS.

    And considering it helps me have more control over my sleep/wake cycle (though I’ve never really been in control) I think that probably helps in hormone management too. Still, I’m abnormal with my sleep issues, I think. But I would also think for anyone, the amount of caffeine in a single cup of tea would be non-harmful. So maybe multiple cups of coffee drinkers should consider switching to tea instead of going cold turkey, as it would be less painful.

  3. I am 29 years old and have always thought that I had PCOS. My periods have never been regular, I get acne on my chin, have excessive facial hair growth, and gain weight in my mid section. I, too, found that as I gained more weight, my periods grew further and further apart. About 2 months ago, I decided to eat more healthily. At this point I had not had a period in 8 months. After about a month of cutting out refined sugars, my period came-with a vengeance. I was bleeding heavily (changing an ultra tampon every hour) for four days before I went to the emergency room because I was shaking, had no energy, and was fainting. By the time I got to the ER, my hemoglobin levels had dropped to 6.5 (normal is 12) and I had to have blood transfusions and a D & C to stop the bleeding.

    I’ve been eating a plant based diet and have been on birth control since I left the hospital and can see a huge difference in my symptoms. I am still slightly anemic, but am definitely much more healthy now. It took three weeks for my energy levels to get back to somewhat normal. It is my goal to get off birth control if at all possible, so I am making a concentrated effort to change my dietary habits. I guess I just wanted my story to be a cautionary tale for others-PCOS can be very very dangerous and if you haven’t had a period for a long time, I would highly suggest seeing a doctor so you don’t end up in the ICU like I did.

  4. I have PCOS and suffer from pre-diabetes and hair growth. My periods have gotten farther apart and I refuse to take birth control. Doctors are so quick to put a Band-Aid on something instead of addressing the underlying issue, smh. I have been on a plant-based (vegan) diet for almost 3 weeks now and have lost almost 5lbs and have noticed a dramatic decrease in the amount and thickness of hairs that grow. I feel that through the research that I have done and my own experience that it is important for us with PCOS to cut out dairy. completely. Give it a try for two weeks and see for yourself it has improved anything.

  5. Kristina says:

    Im 29 years old and was diagnosed with PCOS at the age of 15, 15 to 19 were the worst years of my life I gained alot of weight using birth control to control my periods my problem was having them for 6 to 8 months at a time. I know I wanted to kill myself. I stopped taking the birth control pills at age 20 and have not taken any more medication for this disorder, at 21 I was 300 pounds and miserable. I immediately started a heathy lifestyle and over the last 8 years have gotten myself down to 224 pounds and anyone with this disorder knows that its near impossible to lose weight but it is the thing you need to do. I follow a clean eating diet at the moment and it is incredible my periods are not normal still but at least they go away now my energy levels have picked up and i work out 4-5 days a week. If your doing cardio only in your workouts you should probably know that this has a negative affect on your hormone levels and you should switch up 2 cardio days with weight training as weight training normalizes your hormone levels. Im hoping that my advice helps at least 1 of you and just for you to know from personal experience you dont need to be unhappy a negative mind affects your body negatively so stay as positive as you can and choose happiness and a healthy life

  6. Shalina says:

    I was not getting my regular periods. Doctor put me on pills.. 2 years ago I got sick because I used to feel nausea.. I couldn’t not digest food. I used to vomit almost everyday. I was then diagnosed with pcos. Doctor told me to continue on birth control…. That was the worst decision I feel… I changed my place and had to change my doctor. The new doc told me not take pills and suggested me to loose weight exercise and all.. But she suggested me some othe harmonal medicine to get periods…(primolut) I don’t want to be on medicines. I had my last period on 14th march 2013 that was because of medicine… Now I want get pregnent…what should I do.??? Should I wait for my periods…? I really want to conceive…

  7. I have was diagnosed with PCOS at the age of 9. I went on clomid and metformin at the age of 23 to get pregnant. It took several years. I then went back to taking Yaz, which works great at controlling the symptoms. I began to get severe migrains a few years ago and now high blood pressure, so my Gyno took me off the Yaz due to a risk of stroke. I am now loosing my hair and the symptoms are taking over my body and I am so upset I can barely function. I would almost rather risk a stroke than live like this with my hair falling out, bad acne and excessive hair in all the wrong places. Any suggestions? I read that spironalactone and hair shampoo might help?

  8. Cristine says:

    Hi Steph,

    I was recently diagnosed with PCOS a few weeks ago. My family has a long history of diabetes and other insulin related disorders. As far as I know, I am the only one with PCOS in my family. I was a very athletic child growing up, and when I hit puberty I started to gain some weight. I have never had a regular period and the heavier I got the farther apart my periods were. Currently I am at 230 lbs and I am attending kickboxing several times a week. My obgyn suggested that I go on the pill to prevent ovarian cancer, or I can take hormone therapy. I don’t like any of these options. I’m scared, confused, and I don’t know where to start. I need advice. The more the better. I look forward to your future posts.


    Cristine M.
    New Jersey.

  9. My name is Paige, I’m almost 16 and in about September of last year I was diagnosed with PCOS.
    I have to take the pill everyday for the rest of my life – until I decide to have children.
    I hate having to worry about what I eat and about how my life will turn out.

  10. I was first diagnosed with PCOS when I was 14. Unfortuntely, I developed early and got my first period when I was only nine years old so it would only make sense that problems would ensue. As I got older, my periods were never very regular. Sometimes I could go three months without a period, but I assured myself that it wasn’t a big deal. I finally decided to go to the doctor when I went 10 months without a period. It was the scariest experience for me. When I finally got my period I had to go to the hospital because I was sure that my insides were rupturing; I’d never felt such intense pain in my life.
    I was immediately put on the pill, and it definitely gave me a regular menstrual cycle, but I still developed a hair problem (worst thing ever) and I get uncontrollable breakouts. I’m still confused about my condition and I’m worried that I won’t be able to have children in the future… But I’m trying to improve my health and hopefully alleviate my complications.
    Thank you all so much for sharing here. Even if it doesn’t immediately fix anything, it’s wonderful to know that I’m not alone.

    • Cristine says:

      Hi Amber,
      I too have PCOS and I feel so out of control with my body. My friends always teased me for being a “hairy” Italian, and for a while I thought it was due to using a razor to remove the little “stash” I had going on. Needless to say I have an endless supply of tweezers in my home and car to keep from looking like a man. I’m thinking about laser hair removal or that prescription cream Vaniqua. I too suffer from acne. It’s not horrendous, but it’s that stubborn acne that never goes away. It’s nice to hear someone else has gone almost a whole year without a period. My last one was labor day in 2012. I’m overweight, my diet sucks, I exercise 3-4x a week but I feel like I will never lose any weight. I was told that the pill and hormone therapy are my only options if I want to “fix” this.

      Hope to hear from you


  11. thanks e’one….

  12. Marienita Nell says:

    PS: I totall agree with Stephanie :-)

  13. Marienita Nell says:

    At 26 I was diagnosed with PCOS. i was 50 kgs and pick up 25 kgs within 3 months and my periods had stopped for 5 months. I went to a gynaecologist and he prescribed the pill. At the time i was not married nor did I want to have kids and as I knew nothing about the effects that PCOS had on fertility or the effects of the pill for that matter, i didn’t mind going on it.
    Over the last 6 years I have battled to lose weight, with every diet or new thing on the market including exercise, I have never got below 65 kgs. Only to send my period once again out of whack and pick up all the weight I’d lossed, back again.
    I stopped the pill when I had discovered that it was responsible for my once very think hair thinning.
    I would lose close to a 1000 (100 a day in total is normal) strands just by combing my hair. Chunks of hair would fall in the shower. Also I had a 32 D cup size and now I wear a 32 GG. This scared me. I started having tremendous back pains I have physiotherapy 4 times a week because of this. I have since stopped the pill a year ago. The effects are still taking time to wear off hence I am still not pregnant.
    I have been on numerous PCOS meds (Glucophage (Metformin) / Utrogestan, etc). one medication always counteracts the other.
    I have also been diagnosed with Diabetes as a result of the PCOS.
    From my research I have learned that PCOS is different for each woman. What I do know is that PCOS is worsened by stress. The only way to manage it (as it cannot be cured) is by allowing your body to be as normal / natural as possible. It is not natural to consume pills. These pills anyway work one day and not the next. My remedy for a almost normal life is:
    2 years ago I have decided not to take any pills or listen to any more doctors. I decided to be healthy on my own. I figured it couldn’t be any worse than what I was doing before. So I decided to listen to my body.
    Listen to your body:
    Get at least 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. Whilst a power nap does wonders for you in the day the 7-8 hours sleep must occur at night as our bodies are designed to sleep at night and be awake in the day. Sleep is essential. Do not compromise on it.
    Drink 2 -3 litres of water a day (this will not affect your kidneys negatively – I have researched this for years). 2 litres will give your body what it needs and the 3rd litre will aid our body with the weight loss. Do not consume sodas (even sugar free) as this adds no value to your body. Also do not drink fruit juices as you will get all the nutrients you need from the fruit itself.
    Do not consume bad carbs (sugar; breads; pastas; rice; in essence anything that it flour; wheat or sugar based. (Whilst this is tough – understand that this is something you have do). I pretend I am allergic to it and that make all the difference. It is sometimes hard to resist though. I just keep a record of all the times I do give in to the temptation and that helps me as I visualise the harm I cause to my body. Now I end up having cup of coffee maybe once a month.
    Eat a balanced diet which consists of proteins (red meat; chicken; fish and eggs) and vegetables (most green and preferably fresh) in every meal. Portion control is very important. Do not exceed 200 grams when trying to lose weight. Eat 3 meals a day preferably at the same time of day. Set up reminders if you have to. Do not eat processed food.
    Snack on 2 fruit a day preferably between breakfast; and lunch and again between Lunch and dinner – this is where you will provide your body with the essential natural sugars your body needs.
    I have since lost 33.2kgs (I was 83.2kgs at my worst) in a period of 8 months and I have kept it off for over a year now.
    My gynaecologist advises that my body has total absorbed my cysts and that the diabetes is also under control.
    As for children: sometimes God bestows such blessings upon you at His will. We must just be patients. After 2 years of being married and focusing on my health it is now time to open myself to receiving what God has in store for us.

    Good luck to all the women out there enduring this journey. Know that you are not alone. God has his hands on you always.
    Just remember of all the things that can be wrong we have something that can be managed and when managed will lead us to a long healthy productive and fruitful life. If cancers can be beaten we can definitely manage this.

    Good luck; God bless and stay strong.

  14. I was diagnosed with PCOS when I was 18. I was put on birth control…i don’t like taking it.
    I stopped when i was about 22 and I went back on it about a year ago. (I am 24 now) I keep trying to tell my doctor I don’t want to be on this pill and there has to be another way, he gets frustrated and says “Stop taking it if you want to grow a mustache” ….I was looking at other options and stumbled upon something called Insulight (sp?!)Has anyone heard of this?

  15. Hi everyone….I was just on here reading about soy and pcos. When I was 21 I was severly obese, had facial hair, never ending or non existent periods and could not for the life of me get pregnant. I ended up divorced and having weight loss surgery and got down to 160 lbs. Got pregnant a year later and got pregnant again right after and again right after…my children are all 1 year and 1 month apart ….lol. Anyway I just wanted to post on here that there is hope…Lose weight!!! Go on a diet and if you cant try to get wls….it will save your life. I get regular periods now…I still get facial hair but that doesn’t go away unless you get a medication that starts with an s..don’t remember think its a blood pressure medication…it actually reduces the male hormone (bigger breasts and less facial hair) There is hope but it really boils down to losing weight!

    • losing weight didn’t work for me. i ended up adopting. i’m now 51 years old. still waiting…

  16. HI i am suffering from PCOS , jus wanted to know if GREEN TEA is bad as it contains CAFFEINE

  17. Thanks for a useful information on this site… its very informative in my part coz I’m currently diagnosed with PCOS, me and my husband wanted to have a child. what should I do, pls help me…

    • Hi Elvie! I would like to give you a little encouragement! i have PCOS…but it is a continuum….i have many many cysts, hair probs (ugh!), overweight, etc….(oh- acne at 39, lovely)…but i do get my period. and i had a baby in 2009! (my 2nd…1st was at age 21 years ago when i did not have pcos) I guess my point is that you might not have to have this big recovery/ reversal from pcos entirely before you get pregnant. a few small changes might make the difference. i wonder if you get periods? I think Stephanie is right on the money, esp. avoiding soy and sugar. I used to eat a lot of soy, and only recently learned about probs w soy. if you have trouble getting preg. i suggest a nutritionist. so many health problems are diet-related, and foods def. affect our hormones. Well, Elvie, thanks for reading my two cents! i wish you all the luck- and babies- you wish for! :) ~paige

  18. Adrienne Moore says:

    I have been suffering with PCOS for about 6.5 years. During this time, I have grown what seems like a full beard, have loss of concentration, am constantly fatigued, no period, and very consistent weight gain yearly. I am newly married (hence I refuse to let any of my facial hair be seen) and would like to start having children in about a year or two. Pregnancy is not at the top of my concern at this point because I am a full-time grad student, but I am concerned about my overall health. Ive been drinking soy milk, taking NAC (N-acetyl cysteine), and will be staring birth control again soon. Ive limited coffee intake for the most part and will soon have to start taking another supplement to help with my fatigue.
    Im not really sure what to do concerning my appetite. I eat like hungry man Jack, which is neither cute or cost effective. I need real advice, from real people (preferably who have some background in medicine, or research– since I am a researcher) who are struggling with PCOS – who were NOT pregnant before they found out they have PCOS, and who are either trying to get pregnant or currently with child. I would like to hear stories or suggestions from theses types of individuals, not just for tips on regulation, but for encouragement for those of us who hope for a brighter tomorrow.

  19. Great article. Thanks so much!