Could veganuary be the beginning of the end of your period pains?
They can be, well a pain. The majority of women will experience some menstrual pain in their lives, and for around fifteen percent it is severe enough to interfere with work and other activities for one or more days every month. Research has shown that a vegan diet can significantly decrease period pains - very exciting news!
Why do we suffer?
Period pain occurs when the muscular wall of the womb tightens and contracts. Mild contractions continually occur in the womb but during your period the wall of the womb starts to contract more vigorously. This helps to shred the womb lining. Not the funnest.
When the wall of the womb contracts, it compresses blood vessels lining your woman which temporarily cuts of the blood (and oxygen) supply to your womb. Without oxygen, the tissues in your womb release chemicals that trigger pain. As the cells that form the lining of the uterus, the endometrial cells, begin to break down, they also release large amounts of inflammatory chemicals called prostaglandins. These encourage the womb muscles to contract (and shed) more, further increasing the level of pain. Some prostaglandins enter the bloodstream, which for some can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea [2,3]. Just great.
Research has found that those with higher numbers of prostaglandins produced by the endometrial (uterus) cells experience more menstrual pain.
Say hello (or see ya later) to estrogen
Rather than focusing on those prostaglandins themselves, it can help to look at the cellular ‘factories’ which make them - (a don’t hate the player, hate the game situation). Estrogen is a female sex hormone, which has been likened to a hormonal fertilizer — which makes the cells of the body grow. Estrogen causes the lining of the uterus to thicken each month, in anticipation of pregnancy.
This is where the connection between the food that you eat and your body’s estrogen levels comes in. Animal products and added oils increase the levels of estrogen in the body. The more estrogen-based foods you consume, the more likely your uterus lining is to become abnormally thick. The thicker your uterus lining is, when it breaks down during your menstrual cycle, the more prostaglandins are created in the process. The result — higher levels of pain. Boo.
How foods change hormones
Research has shown that eating a plant-based diet works to decrease inflammation in the body, which contributes to taming those nasty menstrual cramps. The decrease in inflammation is due to the high number of antioxidants and plant chemicals found in plant foods, which help the body to optimally function.
A low-fat, high-fiber diet (found in a balanced plant-based diet) can also significantly reduce estrogen levels. This phenomenon has been of great interest to researchers, as lowering the level of estrogen in the blood also helps to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Less estrogen means less stimulation for cancer cell growth[5,6]. Doubling up on those benefits.
A high-fiber diet containing vegetables, beans, fruits, and whole grains, helps the body to eliminate estrogen. As estrogen is normally pulled from the bloodstream by the liver, which sends it through the bile duct, into the intestinal tract. There, the fiber acts like a sponge, soaking it up and carrying it out with the other waste. The more fiber in the diet, the better the natural ‘estrogen disposal system’ works.
Why not animal products?
Animal products and many processed foods do not contain fiber. The more an individual’s diet consists of meat, packaged foods, refined grains, or dairy, the less likely daily fiber needs are met. (Bad news). The extra estrogens, which should bind to fiber in the digestive tract and leave the body, get absorbed back into the bloodstream. This ‘recycling’ of hormones increases the amount of estrogen in the blood and therefore can contribute to increased menstrual pains.
Not only do animal products lack fiber, but they also can contribute to worse menstrual pain. Dairy products may contribute to extra estrogen circulating in the blood, as cows are usually pregnant while being milked and may pass along estrogen through their milk. It has also been shown that the higher intake of processed meat and red meat could lead to endometriosis — a painful condition where the uterine cells extend to other organs of the body. The women in the study who ate the most red meat increased their risk of developing endometriosis by as much as 56 percent.
In a research study published in Obstetrics & Gynecology, a low-fat, vegan diet significantly reduced pain and PMS for many of the women. The study eliminated all animal fats and nearly all vegetable oils, while its emphasis on plant-based foods increased fiber in the diet. The results were significant pain reduction, less water retention, and fewer mood swings.
Best way to give it a try
If you fancy seeing if a plant-based diet helps to reduce menstrual cramps for you, avoiding all animal products and oily food is important. To consume all the nutrients and fiber content, eat foods in their natural states, such as brown rice and whole-grain bread instead of their white counterparts.
Foods to eat plenty of:
- Whole grains e.g. brown rice, oats
- Vegetables e.g. broccoli, spinach, kale, carrots, sweet potatoes
- Legumes e.g. beans, peas, lentils
- Fruits e.g apples, berries, oranges
Foods to avoid:
- Animal products e.g meat, fish, eggs, dairy products
- Refined grains e.g white bread, refined cereals, pastries
- Added vegetable oils e.g margarine, dressings, cooking oils
- Fatty foods: cakes, chips, crisps
If you’re taking part in veganuary this year, or after reading this post, it might be the perfect time to try a plant-based diet for a few months and see if you feel a reduction in your period pains. We’ve got our fingers and toes crossed for you!
If your looking to feel comfortable while looking great when on your period, check out our Periodical period-wear here.
1 Kataoka M, Togashi K, Kido A, et al. Dysmenorrhea: evaluation with cine-mode-display MR imaging-initial experience. Radiology. 2005;235:124–131
2 Proctor M, Farquhar C. Diagnosis and management of dysmenorrhoea. BMJ. 2006;332:1134–1138
3 nhs.uk/conditions/period-pain, 2019
4 Using foods against menstrual pain, Physicians comittee for responsible medicine, pcrm.org, 2020
5 Turner-McGrievy GM, Wirth MD, Shivappa N, et al. Randomization to plant-based dietary approaches leads to larger short-term improvements in Dietary Inflammatory Index scores and macronutrient intake compared to diets that contain meat. Nutr Res. 2015;35:97–106.
6 Haghighatdoost F, Bellissimo N, de Zepetnek JOT, Rouhani MH. Association of vegetarian diet with inflammatory biomarkers: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. Public Health Nutr. 2017;20:2713–2721.
7 Yamamoto A, Harris HR, Vitonis AF, Chavarro JE, Missmer SA. A prospective cohort study of meat and fish consumption and endometriosis risk. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2018;219:178.e1–178.e10.
8 Ganmaa D, Sato A. The possible role of female sex hormones in milk from pregnant cows in the development of breast, ovarian and corpus uteri. Med Hypotheses. 2005;65:1028–1037.
9 Barnard ND, Scialli AR, Hurlock D, Bertron P. Diet and sex-hormone binding globulin, dysmenorrhea, and premenstrual symptoms. Obstet Gynecol. 2000;95:245–250.