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Is Dairy Bad for PCOS? Here’s What the Research Says

Learn how dairy affects PCOS, and how to decide if going dairy-free will help your PCOS.

Popular advice is this: if you have PCOS, cutting back on dairy will provide several health benefits.

Going dairy-free for PCOS increases your fertility, clears up your skin, and improves your overall health.

Sounds good. But does the research support this idea? 

While there’s evidence that some dairy products may worsen PCOS symptoms, it’s not entirely clear-cut. That’s why, in this article, we take a closer look at the pros and cons of dairy and PCOS, based on research.

You can use the information to start a conversation with your doctor about dairy, PCOS, and your overall health goals.

Why is dairy bad for PCOS, according to studies 

From increasing PCOS risk and acne breakouts to reducing fertility and hiking insulin, dairy appears to trigger several health problems. Numerous studies examine the impact of milk on PCOS, while also exploring how specific types of dairy products affect the human body.

One thing to note here: a lot of evidence around PCOS and dairy is contradictory. Some people handle dairy fine, while others run into problems. Because dairy products contain tons of beneficial nutrients, seek professional advice before you ditch it completely.

Below, we dive into the data.

Low-dairy diets reduce PCOS risk

A diet rich in dairy may trigger PCOS, suggest a 2022 study published in Nutrition Research.

For the study, researchers investigated the diets of 527 women. Their goal was to identify the dietary patterns most closely associated with PCOS. Participants’ diets were split into categories based on the main foods they consumed:

  • Mediterranean diet
  • Meat-egg diet
  • Shellfish-shrimp-dairy diet
  • Staple food-soybean diet

The researchers concluded that a “pro-inflammatory diet” was associated with an elevated risk of PCOS. Conversely, an anti-inflammatory diet lowered the PCOS risk.

“The Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of PCOS, while the meat-egg and shellfish-shrimp-dairy diets increased this risk,” notes the paper.

Another study, published in Applied Physiology Nutrition and Metabolism, aligns with these findings. Researchers found a “western diet” increased the risk of PCOS. The study classified a western diet as one high in processed meats, dairy, soft drinks, desserts, sweets, fast foods, and salty snacks.

Again, these findings underscore the importance of diet in managing PCOS. The Mediterranean diet in particular is often touted as one of the diets for PCOS. Featuring lots of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and nuts, this eating pattern works because it prioritizes foods that fight inflammation.

Backed by decades of research, the Mediterranean diet is also relatively easy to start and stick with long term.

Dairy may affect fertility 

Several studies link dairy consumption to reduced ovulation, according to a comprehensive research review published in the Nutrients Journal.

Authors discuss key findings around dairy and PCOS in the 2020 article. These include: 

  • Animals studies suggest dairy products lower ovulation in rats
  • Rats also had lower progesterone when they were fed lactose, a sugar in milk
  • Human trials found a relationship between dairy and lower serum estradiol concentrations. Serum estradiol is a type of estrogen responsible for maintaining our reproductive system
  • Increased low-fat dairy servings were associated with ovulatory infertility
  • Women who consumed more high milk protein saw a lower antral follicle count, a measure of the number of eggs we have

But here’s the thing: the article also points to other studies that found that drinking more milk was actually beneficial for fertility.

Ultimately, researchers agree that the evidence is mixed:

“Considering the low quality of evidence, it may not be explicitly concluded that the influence of dairy products on the risk of infertility and PCOS is unfavorable. Therefore, further research is necessary in this area.”

Low-fat dairy generates a higher insulin response 

Low-fat dairy triggers the highest insulin response, writes Nadia Brito Pateguana in The PCOS Plan.

Brito Pateguana, a naturopathic doctor who has PCOS, explained that low-fat dairy products have a higher percentage of protein and carbs than full-fat dairy.

According to an older study, published in the 2014 International Journal of Preventive Medicine,  low-fat dairy products could increase insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I). IGF-I is a hormone that helps to manage the body’s growth hormone. Too much or too little IGF-I can lead to health problems, and researchers think PCOS is one of those issues:

“... IGF-I may have a role in the pathogenesis of PCOS. The IGF-I existing in the human ovarian cells may stimulate the cell activity-related changes observed in the PCOS. It is not yet known whether the change in the level of IGF-I caused by diet may contribute to the PCOS's clinical manifestations or not.”

Researchers note that whole milk has higher levels of estrogen, and estrogen may decrease IGF-I.

Brito Pateguana recommends heavy cream and fermented dairy products. These products are a “good source of friendly gut bacteria” and are lower in lactose.

“The “sugar” in these foods in these foods feeds the healthy bacteria, leaving the good stuff for us.”

Cow’s milk may cause acne 

Consuming cow’s milk may play a role in the development of acne, according to the American Journal of Clinical Dermatology.

Researchers from the Acne Treatment and Research Center and the University of Western Ontario examined clinical studies and articles published between 1977 and 2020.  They found milk’s high insulin index could contribute to an increase in acne. The insulin index measures how a food increases insulin concentrations in the blood. Cheese has a low insulin index, while ice cream also has a high index.

“...therefore, this theory, based on hyperinsulinemia, would account for the association between ice cream and acne and the lack of association between cheese and acne.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology Association said it still wasn’t 100% clear why cow’s milk causes acne:

“One theory is that some of the hormones in milk cause inflammation inside the body. Inflammation can clog your pores, leading to acne. However, more research is needed to know for sure.”

To determine whether cow’s milk worsens or causes your acne, track your breakouts. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends asking the following questions during this process:

  • Do any foods or beverages trigger breakouts?
  • When you eliminate that food or beverage, is there any change to your acne?

Dairy and PCOS: should you ditch it?

It’s one of the most popular PCOS diet guidelines: limit or eliminate dairy. But as you can see, there’s conflicting information about the impact of dairy and PCOS. 

Everyone is different, You might need to engage in self-experimentation. A good place to start is to pay attention to how you feel after consuming dairy products. 

For me, I frequently experience bloating after I have cow’s milk. My skin cleared up once I cut out dairy. That’s not to say going dairy-free was a cure-all. I also switched to an anti-inflammatory diet and started exercising. 

Remember: dairy products supply important nutrients, including Vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. Before making any major changes to your diet, speak to a medical health professional about your concerns.

Featured image credit: Photo by cottonbro studio