In the U.S., polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) is the most common endocrine disorder affecting women of reproductive age. (1)
Dealing with PCOS can be extremely frustrating and devastating. It has multiple symptoms that impact both your quality of life and your self-esteem, and there are limited options for conventional treatment.
Thankfully, there have been advances in the use of herbs, supplements, and other natural therapies for PCOS relief. Some of them can be used alongside conventional treatments, although you should speak with your doctor before doing so.
What is PCOS?
Before we get into herbs for PCOS, let's take a look at the disorder itself.
Essentially, PCOS is classified as an endocrine disorder, which means it is tied to your hormone health. It involves higher levels of androgens (hormones typically associated with male traits and reproductive development) and ovulation dysfunction.
The exact cause of PCOS is still unknown. In fact, many experts believe that there are multiple causes and factors involved.
Some of the main key factors include insulin resistance, estrogen dominance, and elevated androgens. Stress also seems to play a role for many women. (1)
There are also many possible symptoms of PCOS, but here are some of the most common:
- Ovarian cysts
- Menstrual irregularity (particularly lack of menstruation)
- Hirsutism (dark hair on face, chest, back, etc.)
- Obesity or weight gain
- Thinning hair
- Mood disorders
Why a Natural Approach?
Conventional treatment of PCOS often involves oral contraceptive pills, antiandrogens, metformin, and chemical acne treatments.
While these treatments can relieve some symptoms of PCOS, they don't directly address the cause and each can come with a host of side effects.
Natural therapies, including herbs, can help address the root imbalances within your body, particularly when they are used under the direction of an experienced herbalist. Dr. Aviva Romm suggests using herbs that reduce stress, improve insulin resistance, and help bring hormones back in balance. (Romm. Botanical Medicine for Women's Health, pg. 114)
Natural and conventional therapies can also be combined, but again, seek guidance if this is the direction you want to go in.
Most Helpful Herbs for PCOS
When it comes to improving stress levels and balancing hormones, there are few better herbs than adaptogens.
Adaptogenic herbs have a nonspecific action within your body that helps you to cope better with stress (physical and mental). Many also have a restorative effect on your adrenals and may help improve hormone regulation.
Other helpful adaptogens include ashwagandha, ginseng, rhodiola, eleuthero, and schizandra.
Berberine is an extract that comes from herbs like goldenseal, Oregon grape, and barberry. It has been used in Chinese medicine to improve insulin resistance and may help with metabolism and hormone balance.
A few studies have even found that berberine can improve menstrual cycle regularity, ovulation, and insulin resistance specifically in women with PCOS. (3)
It may surprise you to see cinnamon on the list of herbs for PCOS but it has shown an ability to improve insulin sensitivity, which is why it can be helpful. In a small trial, it was specifically shown to improve insulin resistance in women with PCOS. (4)
There's also some emerging research that indicates cinnamon may improve menstrual regularity for those dealing with PCOS. (5)
Spearmint is closely related to peppermint but has a somewhat milder, gentler nature. Drinking a cup of spearmint tea can help you feel less stressed, but it has even more benefits.
Two small studies found that drinking two cups of spearmint tea a day had an anti-androgenic effect on participants with PCOS. This means it may be able to help with hirsutism, although the studies were not long enough to determine this conclusively. (6)(7)
Tribulus (specifically Tribulus terrestris) is a plant that comes from the Mediterranean and has been used in the treatment of both male and female endocrine disorders.
Chasteberry has a long history of being used as a natural aid for hormonal disorders (particularly PMS, delayed menstruation, and fertility) and can also be one of the best herbs for PCOS.
Dr. Aviva Romm recommends considering it for low progesterone and elevated prolactin levels associated with PCOS. (Romm, pg. 115) Chasteberry may also help with hormonal acne. (10)
Because of these properties, vervain can help with emotional irritability associated with PMS and PCOS and may also be beneficial for irregular menstruation.
Gymnema is an herb used in traditional Indian medicine and has a natural antidiabetic and hypoglycemic effect. It can be useful for PCOS due to this ability to help modulate insulin. (12)
Few studies have explored Gymnema and PCOS specifically, but a 2018 study found it helpful for patients with PCOS when paired with myo-inositol and L-methylfolate. (13)
White peony (Paeonia lactiflora) can be one of the top herbs for PCOS when combined with licorice root in a traditional Chinese formula.
This formula is sometimes known as TJ-68 and has been shown in studies to decrease serum testosterone levels and improve ovulation in women with PCOS. It is also used by herbalists for the management of infertility. (14)
Black cohosh is yet another herb with a long history of use for hormone problems. It is frequently used for menopause formulas but can also help regulate menstruation.
Some research specifically indicates that black cohosh has potential for improving fertility in those with PCOS and bringing certain hormones back into balance. (15)
Saw palmetto is an herb that's often used for urinary health and an enlarged prostate, but it also has anti-androgenic properties that can be helpful for PCOS, potentially reducing hirsutism and acne. (16)
Saw palmetto may also reduce prolactin, which is typically elevated in women with PCOS.
Evening Primrose Oil
Evening primrose oil (EPO) is something of a newcomer that is showing potential for helping PCOS. It has seen a lot of use for period pain and irregular menstruation and contains a very beneficial fatty acid known as GLA.
Studies are still limited, but a 2018 trial did find that a combination of vitamin D and EPO improved cholesterol and triglycerides in women with PCOS. (17)
Other Supplements for PCOS
Along with the herbs mentioned in this post, certain vitamins and supplements have also been shown to help with PCOS. Here are the top ones.
Chromium may help with PCOS because it seems to have a beneficial role on insulin regulation and helps your body metabolize sugar better.
Some research has shown that chromium may decrease BMI, fasting insulin, and free testosterone levels in those with PCOS, although other results have been inconclusive. (18)
Inositol is a natural substance that is one of the most well-studied supplements for PCOS. It has a lot of promise for reducing insulin resistance and testosterone as well as improving ovulation and fertility. (19)
Dr. Aviva Romm recommends using a combination of myo-inositol and D-chiro-inositol as well as folate. (Romm, pg. 118)
N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) is a naturally occurring chemical in the human body that increases glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps with detoxification.
NAC has shown an ability to improve insulin resistance, reduce testosterone, and improve menstrual regularly in women with PCOS. In at least one study, it has been shown as comparable to metformin for effectiveness at lowering insulin and androgens. (20)
Omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits, including an ability to lower inflammation and help regulate insulin.
They are further a good supplement for those with PCOS because omega-3s have been found to reduce testosterone and unwanted hair growth and improve menstrual regularity when taken for a period of 2-6 months. (21)
Vitamin D is an essential nutrient that many people with PCOS are deficient in. It's linked to blood sugar control, and supplementation may help with fertility and ovarian health. (22)
Zinc is a mineral that plays an important role in immune function and skin health. Research also shows that it may improve fertility, reduce hair loss or thinning hair, and improve unwanted hair growth- all potential issues associated with PCOS. (23)
Precautions and Tips
When it comes to using herbs for PCOS, keep in mind that each one is powerful and has the potential to interfere with conventional medication. Be sure to research each one before trying it to inform yourself of the possible effects.
Also, keep in mind that hormone-related issues are't going to go away in a matter of days. Herbs and supplements can be highly effective (when used the right way), but expect improvements to take 3-12 months to fully show up.
Finally, when possible, use herbs for PCOS under guidance from a trained herbalist and keep your healthcare provider informed of what steps you are taking.
A good herbalist will be able to recommend specific herbs for your unique needs, the right amount of each to take, and also herbal formulas that you might not come up with on your own.
Don't Give Up!
It can be frustrating to deal with any health condition for a long period of time, and PCOS is an especially difficult issue for many people.
Herbs and supplements can be a great help (as can conventional options in certain circumstances), but they do take time to work, so don't give up! Keep searching for ways to lower stress and bring your hormones back into balance.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice and should not be substituted for medical advice. Please consult your health care provider, herbalist, midwife, or naturopathic physician before taking herbs, supplements, etc. Here's the link to our full disclaimer.