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I’m a Registered Dietitian dedicated to helping you eliminate your PCOS symptoms with sustainable and realistic nutrition changes.

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Gluten and PCOS: Should You Really Go Gluten Free?

If you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and you’ve been searching the internet or social media, gluten is a hot topic. You may have even convinced yourself that you need to try a gluten-free lifestyle. 

Maybe you’ve already started eating gluten free foods based on what you’ve read. But is going gluten free really necessary if you have PCOS? 

Maybe…but probably not for most people. 

In this article, we’ll dive into what gluten is, what the research says, and whether or not you should follow a gluten-free diet if you have PCOS. But first, let’s do a recap on what PCOS is. 

Different grains piled on a countertop.

What Is PCOS?

PCOS is a complex medical condition that affects approximately 6-12% of women in the US. It’s characterized by a variety of symptoms that can affect many different systems in our body, from the menstrual cycle to blood sugar levels (1). 

Some common symptoms of PCOS include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Fertility struggles
  • Hair loss
  • Hirsutism (excess hair growth on the face and body)
  • Acne
  • Weight gain
  • Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Chronic fatigue

While the exact cause of PCOS is unknown, those with PCOS often have insulin resistance and chronic inflammation at baseline. These put them at a higher risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and fatty liver disease. 

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. It helps to give foods their texture and shape. 

Gluten is found in many different foods such as:

  • breads
  • pastas
  • cereals
  • baked goods
  • crackers
  • soups
  • gravy mixes
  • marinades
  • soy sauce

There are certain medical conditions that do require a gluten free diet. Let’s discuss these diagnoses where a gluten free diet is necessary.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by eating gluten. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, it causes intestinal damage making it more difficult to absorb nutrients and increases symptoms. It affects 1 in 100 people worldwide (or 1% of the population). 

Symptoms of celiac disease vary among individuals. Common symptoms include:

  • Digestive issues including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, and/or diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Migraine headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Skin conditions (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Weight loss
  • Osteoporosis
  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Nutrient deficiencies

A celiac disease diagnosis must be made by a medical doctor. It typically involves a blood test and an endoscopy to biopsy and examine the lining of the small intestine. 

Treatment for celiac disease requires a strict gluten-free diet. 

If you suspect that you may have celiac disease, it’s important to discuss this with your doctor prior to starting a gluten free diet. You must be eating gluten-containing foods for testing to be accurate.

Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), or gluten intolerance, is a less severe form of gluten-related disorders. It’s used to describe someone who doesn’t have celiac disease, a gluten allergy, or a wheat allergy, but still has unpleasant symptoms when they eat gluten. It affects up to 0.5-13% of the general population. 

Symptoms of NCGS are very similar to celiac disease and may include:

  • Digestive issues such as abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Headaches/migraines
  • Fatigue
  • Mood disorders
  • Joint pain
  • Brain fog 

Unfortunately, there is no straightforward testing for NCGS. A medical doctor can make this diagnosis after ruling out other potential causes of your symptoms (such as celiac disease or a wheat allergy) (2). 

Bloating is a common symptom of PCOS and may not be indicative of a gluten intolerance. Check out this post: PCOS Bloating: What Causes It & 7 Tips To Get Relief.

PCOS And Gluten

The medical conditions listed above, celiac disease and NCGS, are instances where a gluten-free diet is necessary. But what about if you don’t have either of those? 

Currently, there is not a definitive link between PCOS and gluten. There is also no evidence that gluten causes PCOS or that all women with PCOS should follow a gluten-free diet. 

There is a lot of misinformation floating around that gluten is inflammatory for everyone. Since PCOS is known to be an inflammatory condition, people claim that gluten makes PCOS symptoms worse. 

The truth is that gluten does not cause inflammation in most people. 

If you have celiac disease or NCGS, gluten may worsen inflammation and make your PCOS symptoms worse. However, if you don’t have either of these, a gluten free diet is probably not necessary and it’s never the first line of treatment that I recommend to clients. 

I’ve worked with hundreds of women with PCOS and the vast majority of them were able to include gluten and still manage their PCOS effectively. 

Other Medical Conditions

PCOS and IBS

If you’re one of the lucky ones to have both irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and PCOS, you may have heard of the low FODMAP diet. 

The low FODMAP diet is an elimination diet that improves digestive symptoms in ~75% of people with IBS. 

FODMAP is an acronym for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols – woof, what a mouthful. FODMAPs are types of carbohydrates that are poorly digested in some people with IBS. 

Interestingly, part of the low FODMAP diet includes being gluten free…but not because of the gluten (remember that gluten is the protein in wheat, rye, and barley). It’s actually the type of carbohydrates in wheat, rye, and barley that are causing the digestive issues in IBS (if non-celiac gluten sensitivity isn’t present). 

PCOS and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis

Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system attacks the thyroid and can cause hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is when your thyroid isn’t producing enough thyroid hormone. 

Those with PCOS are at an increased risk of hypothyroidism, particularly due to autoimmune thyroid disease. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis occurs at a 3x higher rate in those with PCOS (3). 

Some preliminary research suggests that a gluten free diet may improve thyroid function in those with Hashimoto’s. However, the sample size of this study was extremely small and more research is needed (4).

Fun fact: I’m one of the lucky ones to have Hashimoto’s and PCOS. 

How Do I Know If I Need To Avoid Gluten? 

So you may still be wondering: how do I know if I’m one of the people who may have NCGS and need to go gluten-free? Unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward test to tell you. 

If you do not have any obvious symptoms of celiac disease or NCGS, a gluten free diet is absolutely not the first line of approach that I ever recommend. 

Instead, I’d recommend focusing on balancing your blood sugar levels and reducing inflammation through a balanced diet and lifestyle changes. 

Need some guidance on dietary changes that can help your symptoms, be sure to check out this post: A Dietitian’s 7 Day PCOS Diet Plan (PDF Included).

If you suspect that you have a gluten sensitivity, you could try a temporary elimination of gluten from your diet to see if symptoms improve. If symptoms return when you reintroduce gluten, you may have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease. 

Tips For Going Gluten Free

Before starting a gluten free diet, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Choose whole foods. Unprocessed, gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains such as quinoa, rice, and millet are packed with nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals.   
  • Be mindful of processed gluten free options. Just because something is marked as gluten free doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice. Many processed gluten free products have more fat, sodium, or sugar added in to make up for the missing gluten. 
  • Read food labels. Become familiar with how to read food labels and check ingredient lists for hidden sources of gluten. 
  • Avoid cross-contamination. This occurs when a gluten-free product you’re going to consume comes into contact with a gluten containing product. One example is using the same toaster for gluten free bread and whole wheat bread

Check out these gluten-free recipes for PCOS 

Easy PCOS Overnight Oats: 4 Different Variations!

Fall Kale Salad With Butternut Squash, Apples, & Pepitas

Mango Kefir Smoothie

pcos overnight oats 4 different ways.

Bottom Line

There currently isn’t any research to say that everyone needs to follow a gluten free diet for PCOS. Following a gluten free diet without a medical reason can limit your fiber intake and may reduce your quality of life. 

You should follow a gluten free diet if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

If you have symptoms of gluten sensitivity, you could try a temporary elimination of gluten to see if symptoms improve. If symptoms get worse when you reintroduce gluten, you may have a gluten sensitivity. 

Working with a registered dietitian can help create a personalized meal plan for you and your needs. 

You’ll Also Love: 

A Dietitian’s PCOS Grocery List & Pantry Staples

12 Easy PCOS Breakfast Ideas (Dietitian Approved)

Seed Cycling For PCOS: Does It Actually Work?

PCOS Fruits Guide: PCOS-Friendly Fruit To Eat & Avoid

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