If you’re searching for nutrition tips for Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) on google or social media then you probably have a lot of questions about gluten and PCOS. And you’ve probably seen someone telling you to cut out gluten! This may sound tempting when people promise less inflammation, improved sleep, and improved symptoms. But is going gluten-free an effective treatment for PCOS symptoms, or just a gimmick?
Let’s break things down for you!
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein – that’s right, not a carbohydrate! It’s found in wheat, barley, rye, and some other grains. These grains contain proteins called glutenin and gliadin. When these grains are mixed with water, the glutenin, gliadin, and water create gluten.
The purpose of gluten is to provide structure. You may notice that some gluten free products are flatter, have less volume, or crumble easier than the regular version.
For you bakers out there – you may know that different flours have varying protein contents. The higher the protein content, the higher the gluten content. For example, cake flour has less protein (and gluten) than whole wheat flour.
So who *does* need to avoid gluten?
Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity
Those with celiac disease need to eliminate gluten from their diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. Eating gluten damages the small intestine lining, making it harder to absorb necessary nutrients. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain may also occur, and the severity can vary from person to person. If you think you have celiac disease then it’s really important to get tested. Those with celiac disease need to take extra precautions to avoid cross-contamination with gluten and make sure they’re eliminating gluten out of all home products (ex: shampoo, capsules of pills, etc.).
There is another condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is characterized by having stomach issues after eating gluten, but testing negative for celiac disease or a wheat allergy.
Doctors and scientists still have some unknowns about this condition, such as how this develops, and how long a gluten free diet is necessary. If you fall into this category then you may want to explore a trial fructan elimination, as this is usually the culprit here (not gluten itself).
If you have abdominal symptoms after eating gluten, it’s important to work with a physician to find a diagnosis. There are several potential causes, and going gluten-free is not a solution for everything!
Should everyone with PCOS go gluten-free?
We commonly see this recommendation with the thought that gluten is inflammatory, so eliminating gluten will decrease inflammation, thus improving PCOS symptoms. This thought process is a little misguided. Gluten is not inflammatory in everyone, and there are LOTS of other things in our environment that are inflammatory as well – like stress, poor sleep, and the list could go on.
So what does the research actually say about this? Not much. To date, there are NO published studies that suggest that people with PCOS should omit gluten from their diets.
In fact, there are no studies about PCOS and gluten in general. With this lack of information, we don’t have any research to support recommending that everyone with PCOS needs eliminate gluten. This should really be evaluated on an individualized basis.
If you think that you are intolerant to gluten, you should get tested for celiac disease before you do anything else. Again, it’s important to know if you have this autoimmune condition.
Are there risks in eliminating gluten?
There are some things to be aware of if you cut gluten out of your diet.
Let’s talk about nutrients first. The biggest concern with a gluten-free diet is inadequate carbohydrate and fiber intake. Carbohydrates are your brain’s most efficient source of energy. Fiber is really important for gastrointestinal health and insulin resistance with PCOS!
You may also end up reducing your B-vitamins, iron, and zinc intake. People with PCOS often times have nutrient deficiencies in B vitamins and zinc anyway, so this is something to be aware of. Those who need to be on a gluten-free diet should consider seeing a dietitian to work on getting enough of these nutrients.
With a gluten-free diet for PCOS, you may also increase your refined grain and added sugar intake, as some (not all) processed gluten-free products have extra sugar and other ingredients to compensate for the lack of texture.
Lastly, eliminating gluten is likely going to have a mental impact on you! Eliminating gluten may feel stressful and overwhelming. Food is meant to be enjoyed and eating can be an emotional experience, and eliminating gluten may interfere with that.
Bottom Line – Gluten and PCOS
There are no studies indicating that all people with PCOS should eliminate gluten. While foods containing gluten are not 100% necessary for survival, some of these foods offer nutrients that make it easier to meet our nutritional needs.
If you suspect that you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, see your doctor about getting tested.
And if you’ve done a trial gluten elimination and saw no improvement in your symptoms, try to tune out the “gluten-free” noise online. Listen to your body and trust your own experiences.
Other great resources on gluten and PCOS:
PCOS Nutrition Center: Should everyone with PCOS eat gluten-free?
Martha McKittrick: Is Gluten Bad for PCOS?
Sources for this post
Brown, M. (2013, April). Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity – Learn about the Differences Plus Counseling Strategies for Patients. Today’s Dietitian. Retrieved December 15, 2021
Kuscu, N. K., Akcali, S., & Kucukmetin, N. T. (2002). Celiac disease and polycystic ovary syndrome. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 79(2), 149–150.
Protein: Gluten formation. Love Food Science. (2017, May 15). Retrieved December 15, 2021.
Cárdenas-Torres, F. I., Cabrera-Chávez, F., Figueroa-Salcido, O. G., & Ontiveros, N. (2021). Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity: An Update. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 57(6), 526.