When you have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), it can feel like you have to deal with a lot: unexplained weight gain, excess hair growth on your body, hair loss on your head, irregular periods, and more. Then, there’s the PCOS-related breakouts, which often come in the form of stubborn hormonal acne. Luckily, there are a few ways to treat PCOS acne—including updating your diet.
In addition to helping with breakouts, optimizing the food you eat could help with other PCOS symptoms. Read on for the best foods to eat (and what to avoid) when you’re dealing with PCOS acne. Just remember: Before making any big changes to your lifestyle, it’s best to chat with a healthcare provider to see what’s best for you.
Why does PCOS make you break out?
PCOS is a health condition associated with imbalanced reproductive hormones and high insulin resistance. (This means your organs don’t absorb sugar from your blood as well as they should.) Insulin resistance may prompt your ovaries to create more estrogen, which can cause PCOS symptoms like painful periods, and testosterone, which may cause acne. (Among other things.)
Because it’s caused by hormone fluctuations, the kind of acne that comes along with PCOS is defined as hormonal acne. It’s often located on the jawline, chin, and cheeks, and tends to be cystic. This means that breakouts are deep, inflamed, and more painful than other kinds of acne.
You don’t have to have PCOS to experience hormonal acne. Many people get these kinds of breakouts when they’re pregnant, going through menopause, or simply on their period. That said, most people who have PCOS get hormonal acne.
How does diet impact your skin when you have PCOS?
If you’re breaking out as a symptom of PCOS, you can chalk the direct cause up to your hormones—not your diet. However, certain foods may reduce insulin resistance and benefit hormone health and thus may reduce breakouts.
Still, dealing with PCOS acne will likely be a multi-pronged effort. In addition to evaluating your food choices on your own, it’s always a good idea to visit a dermatologist or another healthcare provider for personalized advice and a treatment plan.
Best foods to eat for PCOS acne
Good news: a diet that may reduce PCOS acne isn’t all that different from what many experts advise as a healthy diet for most people. It mostly involves getting an adequate balance of protein, carbs, and fat, and ensuring you’re eating fruits, veggies, and whole grains. If you can, it may be helpful to keep a log of the foods you eat and how they make you feel. This can help you track which foods work for you and which ones trigger breakouts.
Low glycemic-index foods
Eating anything will cause your insulin and blood sugar to rise. However, some foods cause a sharp spike and abrupt fall, while others cause a moderate, longer-lasting bump. The latter option is classified as a low glycemic-index food—and prioritizing them can benefit people with PCOS, who don’t need their insulin to spike.
So, what counts as a low glycemic-index food? Usually, you can count on anything fibrous, protein-rich, and not too sweet to do the trick. This includes:
- Brown rice
- Whole grain bread
- Whole wheat pasta
- Most fruit and vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
Gut health is linked to PCOS. Therefore, it can be beneficial to eat foods that benefit the gut when you’re dealing with PCOS and acne. Prebiotic and probiotic foods can be especially helpful. Prebiotic foods contain dietary fiber that feed the “good” bacteria in your stomach. Probiotic foods contain live bacteria to supplement what’s already in your biome and have been shown to help promote clear skin.
For prebiotic foods, try:
For probiotic foods, consider:
- Yogurt or kefir
- Some aged cheeses
Omega-3 fatty acids are often described as “healthy fats.” Consuming them may reduce inflammation and some symptoms of PCOS because people who have PCOS experience more inflammation than people who don’t. Because acne is considered an inflammation-based condition, foods that contain Omega-3s are commonly recommended to people who deal with acne.
- Chia and flax seeds
- Brussels sprouts
Antioxidant-rich foods help reduce oxidative stress in the body and are helpful for, well, pretty much everyone. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on people dealing with PCOS and acne. Antioxidants, including Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA), vitamin C, and vitamin E, have been shown to reduce some symptoms of PCOS by regulating lipid and glucose metabolism. Consuming antioxidants has also been shown to reduce acne.
- Dark leafy greens (kale, spinach, Swiss chard)
- Green tea
Foods to avoid for PCOS acne
When you’re dealing with PCOS and acne, you don’t need to think of any foods as “bad.” However, there are some that may trigger symptoms and breakouts more than others.
Remember how low glycemic-index foods give your blood sugar a nice, stable spike? Well, super-sugary foods like candy and milk or white chocolate do pretty much the exact opposite, raising already-elevated insulin levels in a way that isn’t helpful. This doesn’t mean you have to go without sweets forever, but certain strategies when eating desserts may limit breakouts. You can try strategies like:
- Eating sweets after a meal, so that the protein, fat, and fiber from the meal reduce the blood glucose spike
- Pairing the sweet with a protein-fat-fiber snack, such as berries and nuts or seeds
[feel free to insert a copy of the PCOS dessert plate]
Fried foods are considered high on the glycemic index scale, which means eating them in high quantities can spike insulin. If you have PCOS or another kind of hormone imbalance, you may already be experiencing insulin resistance. The increased levels of insulin in your body may trigger a breakout (as well as other health concerns).
White bread, white pasta, white rice. These grains undergo a process called milling, in which the bran and germ are removed. This gives the product a more delicate texture but also removes some key nutrients like fiber and the naturally occurring protein in grains—and makes the glycemic index higher. This can cause a spike in insulin, which may cause breakouts. (Noticing a pattern?) When you’re adding starch to a meal, opt for whole grain options whenever you can. You can also add extra protein and fiber, such as fruits or veggies, on the side to lower the glycemic load of the meal.
Dairy isn’t an automatic no-no for people with PCOS unless you have an allergy or intolerance to it. In those cases, consumption can increase the inflammation that increases acne. Non-fat milk can increase androgen and insulin levels—aka the key ingredients for a breakout. When you do eat dairy, try to go for full-fat products, which have a lower glycemic index than reduced-fat dairy products. You can also try fermented products like yogurt and kefir, which contain gut health-boosting probiotics.
If you think you have an allergy or intolerance to a specific food, keep a food journal for about a week, including everything you ate and incidence of symptoms. If you’re still unsure, eliminate just one food of concern at a time for about 4-6 weeks and note if symptoms have at all changed. We recommend doing this with dietitian or medical provider supervision.
Allara Health provides personalized treatment for hormonal, metabolic & gynecological conditions that utilizes a holistic plan that merges nutrition, lifestyle, medication and supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to heal your body.