Can a vegan diet affect your periods?
Can vegan diet affect your period?
That’s the most common question asked in my practice.
Other common questions include – Is it normal for my period to become longer? Can it affect my fertility? Will my sex drive go down? Will my cramps get better? What about my mood?
Yes, a vegan diet can affect your period and cause potential problems if you don’t implement it with nutritional wisdom.
The great news is – you can still have perfectly normal periods and reproductive health while embarking on this compassionate diet.
Before I go on, maybe I go deeper into why vegan diet may be good to you, and the world.
The Vegan diet when implemented with nutritional wisdom is not only a compassionate choice for the goodness of our beautiful planet, but can be extremely healthy. Health experts across the world are quickly learning that a healthy vegan lifestyle can good for the whole family. However, vegan diet can affect your period positively or negatively depending on your choice of foods.
A vegan diet will provide a human being with all the essential nutrients required on a daily basis while avoiding the cholesterol, saturated animal fat, and contaminants that are found in meat. The vegan diet when implemented as follows will include plenty of protein, fibre, carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. Besides providing these essential nutrients, vegan diets also provide long-term benefits to those who choose this lifestyle.
There are several reasons why people decide to switch to a plant-based lifestyle. The most practical reason can be the health benefits but some people may choose a plant based diet diet because of religious reasons. Others felt strongly about ethical rights of animals. Regardless of the reason, plant-based diet can be implemented with success in spite of age or lifestyle. It is true that an improperly planned meat based or plant-based diet will lead to deficiencies, but it is equally true that a well planned Vegan or Vegetarian diet is wholly nourishing.
Veganism may help to prevent certain cancers, including breast and colon cancer, reduce congestion issues, and promote healthy skin and nails. Some studies have shown that vegans even live longer than their meat-eating peers.
Can a vegan-diet cause problems with my periods?
Yes and no.
Up to a quarter of all menstruating people struggle with menorrhagia, or heavy, uncomfortable periods.
If we consume a diet that’s primarily plant-based and mostly grain-based, that will negatively affect our menstrual cycle (by causing hormone dysregulation with symptoms like moodiness, cramps, irritability, feeling emotional, and bloating). Often times, a plant-based diet turns out to be a simple carbohydrate diet, and that’s not good for our hormones. It can even cause inflammation, increase PMS symptoms, cause bloating, etc.
Basically, the nutrients you put into your body can have an effect on your period flow and pain scale — and it’s not necessarily good or bad one way or the other. If you’re eating just meat for every meal, your period is likely to be heavier and more painful. Similarly, if you are vegan but don’t get all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs, you period probably will be just as painful and heavy, if not more so. It’s all about eating the right foods for your body on a plant-based diet.
It is also important to note that many things can affect women’s menstrual cycle such as prescription drugs/hormonal contraception, stress, exercise, age, weight, or lack of sleep.
Below, I will be going through in-depth the potential problems that a plant-based diet might have, and how to overcome them with the right nutritional wisdom.
Potential problems a plant-based diet might have
1. Iron Deficiency
Low iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies and the source of anemia, especially in women. It can be due to increased iron losses or inadequate iron intake or absorption. Since red meat is some people’s primary source of iron, menstruating women will have to be sure they’re getting enough on a meatless diet. This may become especially true during heavy menstrual bleeding, like after getting a copper IUD.
People who experience heavy menstrual bleeding should be sure that they have adequate blood iron levels, as they are more susceptible to iron deficiency anemia, since they lose a greater amount of blood (which includes iron) each month.
Meat contains higher levels of iron than plant-based food, particularly heme-iron, which is a more absorbable form. We have to admit this as vegans. We don’t have access to any forms of heme-iron. Plant-based foods also contain iron in a non-heme form, but this iron source is not as easily absorbed. Therefore, we have to make a conscious effort to get enough iron in our diets through other sources. Some example of iron-rich plant-based foods include: dark leafy greens, beans, lentils, tofu, grains (quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal), dried fruit, nuts.
Low iron can lead to decreased physical and mental performance, weakened immune system, and increased risk of pregnancy complications .
Most common symptoms of iron deficiency:
- Shortness of breath
- Flattened, brittle nails
- Cracks at corners of mouth
If you are worried about low iron, try to stop drinking tea, coffee or milk with or after meals. Tannins (in tea) and calcium (in milk) inhibit iron from being absorbed. Instead, increase consumption of vitamin C-rich foods, which enhance iron-absorption. Another option is to take iron supplements. Consulting a doctor or nutritionist with any concerns is always a good idea. I don’t recommend taking them unless you have no access to wholesome foods. *winks*
- Dark leafy greens
- Beans and lentils
- Grains like quinoa, brown rice and oatmeal
- Dried fruit
- Nuts and nut butters
- Eggs(for vegetarians)
2. Amenorrhea Risk
Compared to their omnivorous counterparts, women who follow vegetarian diets may be at higher risk of secondary amenorrhea — a condition where previously normal menstruation stops for six months or more. According to a January 2014 paper published in the “Annals of the National Institute of Hygiene,” a higher proportion of vegetarian versus nonvegetarian women experience an absence of their periods, possibly due to having lower concentrations of progesterone, estradiol and luteinizing hormone. Ensuring an adequate intake of fat and calories may help vegetarian women maintain regular periods, especially for highly active or athletic individuals. Fat intake through nuts, seeds and oily fruits such as avocado is a MUST if you are on a vegan diet, as they are crucial in hormone formation in your body.
In some cases, vegetarianism may result in menstrual disturbances due to low levels of certain hormones. A paper published in the September 2013 issue of “Public Health Nutrition” found that compared to their omnivorous counterparts, vegetarian and semivegetarian women had lower levels of estrogen, a steroid hormone involved in sexual and reproductive development. When it comes to menstruation, low estrogen can translate to irregular bleeding, as well as symptoms like depression and emotional instability often associated with premenstrual syndrome. Estrogen can be easily supplemented with royal jelly capsules but I strongly recommend you to provide your body with the original building blocks – healthy cholesterol – to work it own way of producing sufficient estrogen.
3. Shorter periods
Vegetarians have reported shorter periods. Low iron may cause shorter periods, and other lifestyle factors may impact period flow. Again, this is due to lowered estrogen. Vegetarians and vegans often have lower BMI and higher rates of physical activity . Both low BMI and high amounts of exercise are known to reduce menstrual bleeding if not stop bleeding altogether . While irregular cycles are normal, prolonged lack of menstruation may have other impacts on fertility. If your period stops for more than three cycles, you should consult a doctor or a Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) physician if you don’t prefer hormonal pills.
Also, many people report weight loss on a vegan or vegetarian diet because meat and animal products are often higher in calories, protein and fat. If rapid weight loss or restrictive eating results from vegetarianism, your period may also shorten or disappear entirely.
4. B-12 Deficiency
Vitamin B12 is made by micro-organisms, and isn’t produced by plants. Fortified foods and supplements are the only proven reliable sources for vegans:
- Fortified foods:
- Vitamin B12 is added to some alternatives to milk products, vegan spreads, nutritional yeast flakes, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals
- Eat these foods at least twice a day
- Aim for a daily intake of at least 3mcg (micrograms)
- Supplements: take either at least 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly
You may notice that there are several supplements containing different names of vitamin B12. Cyanocobalamin is recommended, mainly because it is the most stable type. Your body converts it to the two active forms of vitamin B12, which are methylcobalamin and adenosylcobalamin.
Clinical deficiency can cause anaemia or nervous system damage. Most vegans consume enough B12 to avoid clinical deficiency. Two subgroups of vegans are at particular risk of B12 deficiency: long-term vegans who avoid common fortified foods (such as raw food vegans or macrobiotic vegans) and breastfed infants of vegan mothers whose own intake of B12 is low.
In adults typical deficiency symptoms include loss of energy, tingling, numbness, reduced sensitivity to pain or pressure, blurred vision, abnormal gait, sore tongue, poor memory, confusion, hallucinations and personality changes.
B12 is also vital in your blood formation, therefore B12-linked anemia may happen if you are B12 deficiency.
Often these symptoms develop gradually over several months to a year before being recognised as being due to B12 deficiency and they are usually reversible on administration of B12. There is however no entirely consistent and reliable set of symptoms and there are cases of permanent damage in adults from B12 deficiency. If you suspect a problem then get a skilled diagnosis from a medical practitioner as each of these symptoms can also be caused by problems other than B12 deficiency.
5. Omega-3 Deficiency
We all need some fat in our diets. A couple of fats are classed as essential because our bodies cannot make them. The essential omega-3 fat is called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). The essential omega-6 fat is called linoleic acid (LA). Omega-3 and omega-6 fats affect our immune system, brain, nerves and eyes.
Your body can make ALA into other omega-3 fats, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). However, if you eat a lot of LA, your body may convert less ALA into EPA and DHA, reducing the amount of omega-3 fat in your blood. There are some simple ways to help your body make ALA into EPA and DHA:
- Use vegetable (rapeseed) oil instead of oils containing a lot of LA, such as sunflower, corn or sesame oils
- Take care with the serving size of sunflower and pumpkin seeds
- Make sure that your daily diet includes good sources of ALA, such as chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts
What happens if you still have menstrual problems?
As a plant-based TCM physician, I do hope all vegans/vegetarians women can have zero pain going through their periods each month and have zero abnormalities in their menstrual cycle. However, I do know of how unhealthy ‘plant-based’ can be in today’s society, with a lot of flavouring and preservatives added for taste and flavour. Therefore it is of no concidence that plant-based diet can have a rather bad reputation nowadays, especially in my country Singapore.
For my treatment approach, it has been always been my top most priority in changing patients’ lifestyle and diet before taking medicine. I don’t recommend taking hormonal pills like yasmin pills, contraceptive pills just to ‘regulate’ periods. They DON’T. Their effects will stop once you discontinue and there are potential side effects. What you want is continuity cycles after cycles without any other external interventions.
You can also read more about how I treatment women’s health problems below:
- How I treat PCOS
- How I treat Endometriosis
- How I treat Recurrent Miscarriages
- How I support IVF treatment
If you are having abnormal menstrual patterns, I would strongly recommend you to take a regular course of TCM herbs(3-6 months) to regulate your hormonal levels and relieve any menstrual symptoms such as cramps, back ache or tenderness of the chest. This is totally achievable with the right lifestyle modifications and the right herbs. Patients can get better after a strict adherence to the set of advice I gave. I see patients as an unique individual, and I do advise patients both from a Western Biomedical perspective as well as a TCM point of view, so modern science still plays a big part in my diagnosis today. If you would want me to help you with your menstrual problems, you can always book an appointment with me or contact me through facebook.
Edmund graduated with a First Class Hons in Biomedical Sciences and Traditional Chinese Medicine from Nanyang Technological University, before taking a Masters in Gynaecology(TCM) in Liaoning, China.
He has successfully treated patients with unexplained infertility, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome(PCOS) and endometriosis and helped them conceive naturally with Traditional Chinese Medicine.
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 Baines S, Powers J, Brown WJ. How does the health and well-being of young Australian vegetarian and semi-vegetarian women compare with non-vegetarians?. Public Health Nutrition. 13 Feb 2006. 10(5), 436–442.
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