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Impact of diet on the menstrual cycle

October 21st, 2009 · 32 Comments · Diet

Have you wondered what impact changing your diet would have on your menstrual cycle?  Do you suffer from extremely painful cramping every month and look for natural ways to reduce it?

One of the most surprising things I’ve found over the years is how much changing my diet has impacted on my menstrual cycle. 

When living a busy life in London with a reasonably “healthy” diet (in the popular culture sense of the phrase) with plenty of wholegrains and brown rice for fibre and the odd take away for a treat, I found that I always suffered from cramping on the first few days of my period.  This cramping was debilitating and often left me unable to do much more than lie on the floor if I hadn’t done any serious exercise in the week leading up to it.

I explained in an article last Wednesday the different changes I’ve made to my diet.  These are the changes I also noticed happening to my menstrual cycle at the same time. 

As background it is worth noting that throughout the “trial period” of a couple of years I was on the contraceptive pill and at the start I had, for a few years been settled into a pattern of finishing my pack on Thursday morning and my period starting between 11am and 12pm on the following Sunday and going on until the Thursday.

Reduced carbohydrate intake

Removing grains at dinner and lunch, therefore reducing my carbohydrate intake, but keeping porridge at breakfast reduced the cramping pains a little and left me able to still move about on a Sunday afternoon, though they were definitely still there.

Other than that, there were no changes to my periods.

Anabolic diet – but with grains

The initial move to the anabolic diet, retaining grains in the diet in the form of oats and wholegrains, had the following impact on my menstrual cycle:

  • Bleeding starting early afternoon on the Saturday, instead of Sunday.
  • Period continuing to end on the Thursday, so effectively an extra day of bleeding.
  • Noticeably lighter flow (so I wasn’t too bothered about the extra day).
  • No further changes to the cramping pains.

Anabolic diet – fully paleolithic

Removing the grains and anything else non-paleo from the diet, so that the carbs on my bulking day were clean, had an immediate noticeable impact on my cycle:

  • All cramping gone.  I can now operate as normal at the weekend and don’t have to arrange my life around my period to the same extent.
  • Flow even lighter.
  • To balance out the reduced flow, I now go on until the end of Friday, so I’ve now got 6 days.  It’s a small price to pay!

Summary

Diet can have a significant impact on the menstrual cycle.  Most noticeable are the following points:

  • Removing grains and other non-paleo foods reduces, or can even eliminate, cramping.  This is a phenomenon also noted by Carrie Sisson in a women’s specific primal lifestyle Q&A post.
  • A paleolithic diet may also assist in reducing flow.
  • Carb cycling through the anabolic diet reduces flow and appears to make periods lighter.
  • Anabolic diet could change the timing of your menstrual cycle.

Have you changed your diet and noticed similar impacts on your cycle?

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32 Comments so far ↓

  • Great links for the weekend!

    [...] brings no relief for period pain.  It seems from the BBC article that the scientists didn’t ask what diet the students were on, or change their exercise levels and see what impact that had on their period pain.  Every woman [...]

  • zoe

    thank you SO much! I’m having a lighter/shorter than average period this month and I thought something was wrong with me but it turns out it’s just my diet change. I started a more paleo diet and cut out all grains and lentils and increased my omega-3 intake along with more fruits and vegetables and started taking a multivitamin along with zinc and vitamin D3. I also eat more lean protein. This menstrual change has been freaking me out but reading your article really calmed my mind and body. thanks!

  • Ammi

    Glad to help. Issues like this, when I got worried about things like my menstrual cycle but rarely found information about it, was one of the reasons I originally set up the blog.

    Something else worth considering is whether you’ve also increased your activity levels or lost some body fat. Studies have shown a correlation between lower body fat and lighter periods and I’ve always noticed a correlation between how heavy my period is (or how much pain I get) with how active I’ve been in the couple of weeks leading up to it.

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  • Jenn

    Hello!

    I’ve been doing Crossfit for about a year and half and I have been eating pretty clean, cutting out grains and most dairy and processed foods. Every January I do this 30-day Paleo challenge where I do a strict Paleo diet, kind of like a detox from all the holiday eating! I can’t quite remember the exact situation last year, but I do remember my menstrual cycle being shifted, even though I’m on birth control. This year, I’m only 10 days into the strict Paleo and I find that my period came a week early. I know diet definitely affects your cycles, but it concerns me that my cycle is off, especially since I’m on the pill. Do you suggest that I drop the ‘strict’ Paleo and just eat ‘clean’ as I have done the last year?

    Also, if you have any other resources I can read, that would really help too! Thanks!

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  • Ammi

    I’m in no way an expert on this – I write from personal experience. However, I’m definitely surprised that your period has moved that much when you’re on birth control. I noticed a definite shift in my cycle with the paleo diet, but only by a day or two.

    The biggest things I know of which significantly impact my cycle are when my calorie intake changes dramatically and suddenly (eg. I start a fat loss diet after a high calorie period) or if there is a significant change in my dietary fat levels (again, this most often happens when I go onto a fat loss diet, but I have played with low calorie and higher dietary fat intake and it has moved my cycle around slightly). Something I’ve noticed with a lot of people who do Paleo Challenges is that their interpretation of “strict Paleo” results in them consuming far fewer calories and cutting out quite a few of their dietary fat sources. My understanding of the Paleo challenge is that it’s about the types of foods you’re eating, not about fat loss dieting through cutting calories. It might be worth playing around with those things as a starting point – find some meats that aren’t as lean, like lamb, pork belly and chicken drumsticks or add in some oily fish.

    I’d suggest using something like Fitday to chart an average day’s meals both on and off the challenge to see how they compare for total dietary fat and calories. See what has most clearly changed and see if there is a Paleo-friendly way to get your macronutrient and calorie levels back to where they were. You could change your meat and fish sources (as I mentioned earlier) and quantities or if you find you’ve accidentally reduced your calorie and/or fat intake by a big amount then drinking down a can (or half can) of coconut milk or cream each day or eating an avocado can go a long way towards being “easy” fixes. It may be that you’ve slashed your carb levels in which case it might be worth getting some extra carrots, fruit and sweet potatoes in there and then, if you want to try reducing carbs, cutting them back down a bit more slowly. I definitely noticed that moving to a low carb diet also impacted my menstrual cycle and your period coming a week earlier may be where you decide to let it ultimately settle.

    If you’re still worried then it may be worth speaking to a doctor if you are happy with the other health benefits of the paleo challenge but want to be sure there’s not something else causing the change in cycle dates.

  • Katie

    Jenn…I have the EXACT same issue going on! We started a paleo challenge at our crossfit gym and my menstral cycle started a week early (only 3 days into the challenge) while eating very strict paleo and taking the pill. Did your entire cycle shift, or did it just last longer?

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  • Lauren

    I went paleo about 4 weeks ago, eating less than 70g carbs/day. I’m 5’6″, 153lbs (was 162lbs when I started). Despite knowing I was due for my period soon, it kind of surprised me when I started bleeding today because I wasn’t moody and had NO sugar cravings this past week–which are usually very strong, and I had only a very light cramp today. Other than a bit of blood, I wouldn’t think I was having a period. Btw, I have a Paragard copper IUD for over 2 years and my total cycle is 29-30 days, 5-6 days moderate bleeding, and moderate cramps the first day.

  • Erica

    Yes yes yes. I have gone primal/paleo and although I am not fully preservative free I am carb zilch right now. I don’t have a scale in my home so i would say I have lost about 8 pounds in two weeks. I know. I feel great however but I thought that I might have been pregnant because I have no cramps, and my period is just spotting. i have a heavy first 2-days, then light on about the 4th day and spotting up until the 7th. I am concerned. Is it OK.

  • Ammi

    Congratulations on the weight loss! That’s a fantastic achievement.

    If you’ve cut your carbs right down (note, you won’t be zero carb unless you aren’t eating any vegetables either, but some veg are incredibly low carb) then you will find that you aren’t retaining water (in the not-quite-accurate summary, carbs increase glycogen stored in the muscles and glycogen retains water so carb depletion causes the body to hold less water and results in lower body weight). That can account for 2-3lbs water at the start of a low-carb diet, depending on how much muscle you are carrying, so don’t have any worries if people tell you you’ve lost “too much” weight too rapidly at the start! As you say – you feel great which is the important bit!

    Several women have written to me and there seems to be a consistent pattern with lighter periods, no cramps or pain and often a much earlier bleed when they have been rigid with their paleo/primal diet so I would see it as your body settling down into a “new” pattern rather than something bad. However, I’m not a medical expert so if you are worried about anything then it is always worth getting it checked out – especially doing an over-the-counter pregnancy test if you’re worried you might be pregnant.

    Best of luck with the continued progress and success!

  • Jessica

    I was 75% paleo (meaning I had cut most sugars, starch and salts out of my daily diet and complex carbs out of 2 meals) i noticed my cycle started 1-2 days early and light flow but lasted a day or so longer..
    Now doing a 100% paleo, my last 2 cycles were very light (spotting even) for about 6-7 days and started a week early! I am also on the pill…. just waiting to see when I start again and how this next one is…

  • Ammi

    Thanks for sharing that. I’m definitely noticing a pattern with all the women who move to a paleo diet. They all see to be showing the same pattern as you, especially those who are using a contraceptive pill (or other hormone-based contraceptive).

  • Ashley Smith

    After going Paleo, I skipped two months and then after that nothing. I’m still trying to get it back, so I can hopefully have children. All my bloodwork is great, so I have no choice but to think it was the Paleo diet that caused this. I wish there was an answer that didn’t involve me putting grains back into my system. Any thoughts? Thanks.

  • Ammi

    Given that Robb Wolf tends to see better than usual levels of fertility among clients/trainers who move to a Paleo diet I don’t think the Paleo diet is causing infertility – I wouldn’t start by putting grains back into your diet. However there are various things that are believed to put the body into a temporary state of infertility (characterised by missing periods). Those include low body fat percentages (typically about 8-10% or lower, I think, though I don’t have the statistics to hand) and low dietary fat intake. On an evolutionary basis you could imagine that these situations would be caused by years of scarce food and our bodies have perhaps evolved to prevent us having children and therefore stretching food supplies or putting our bodies through unsustainable stress of pregnancy in those “lean” years.

    I would consider starting by using a programme like Fitday.com to assess your total calorie intake each day and the macronutrient breakdown – perhaps increase your dietary fat intake a little using avocados, coconut, butter, or something similar and if you see no change in a few months play around with carb levels instead (more vegetables to increase your carb levels maybe?). Perhaps also assess your body fat percentage – is it particularly low now?

    If you don’t see any improvements with that it may also be worth getting your doctor to check you out for another cause and also submitting a question to Robb Wolf for his Paleo Solution podcast. As I say, his clients/trainers seem to get pregnant with ease so I don’t think Paleo it the problem, perhaps moving to Paleo has just caused something else due to a change in dietary macronutrient ratios or total calorie intake (unless you assess your total food intake carefully any significant “diet” change, such as going low-carb or moving to some sort of special diet programme, can have a noticeable difference to your macronutrient ratios and calorie total too).

    I hope this helps. I’d love to hear from you again with how it goes.

  • Barbara

    I want to thank everyone for sharing, it really helped me in a time of panic, and because you all helped me I thought I should share my situation too. I started paleo two months ago, I am on a combination pill and my first paleo period came a week early. That weirded me out a little because I have always been super regular. It came time for my second Paleo period and I freaked out and thought I was pregnant becaused I only experienced 2 days of incredibly light spotting and no cramping. I apologize if this is too much info but I would really even call it spotting, it was more like a thicker brown discharge that I usually get a day or two before my period. On what should have been day 3 when I saw nothing at all I went out and got a pregnancy test and it came back negative. I have lost 25 lbs so far and reading other people’s similar situations has helped put me at ease. Thanks everyone and I hope that I help someone else too.

  • Ammi

    Congratulations on the weight loss Barbara and thanks for sharing your experiences. Definitely not too much info – half the problem is that everyone is careful about not putting all the gory detail down but the reality is that almost all women live with it and sometimes really knowing what other women are experiencing in all its gory detail can do wonders for understanding what your own body is doing.

  • Elissa

    Hi Ammi I stumbled across your site after looking up paleo chicken soup and found this wealth of information lol.
    What a fantastic site, I have recently myself have embraced primal/paleo eating after quitting sugar and processed foods. I also work out, go do crossfit at the gym, play soccer and box and I was interested in your point of view in regards to menstrual cycle and training. Its so weird cause what you have said in your posts has made total sense, its like a lightbulb moment! Since going primal, my cycle isnt painful, its not as bloody and I can still cope with everyday tasks. I never cramp although leading up to it, I was quite teary. Interesting about carbs causing fluid retention and carb depletion causes less fluid buildup. Thanks again for putting together a fantastic site aimed towards active women you have scored yourself a new fan! I have also liked your page on facebook so thankyou very much and look forward to future posts and valuable information.

  • Ammi

    I’m glad you found this useful. It’s always good to know that others are interested in learning about similar things.

    I’d recommend going to the Diet page and having a look through for other articles on menstrual cycle and diet (or just use the search box on the right hand side of this page for menstrual cycle). I did quite a few articles on menstrual cycle last year which are probably a bit better than this one and might be even more helpful!

  • Miriam

    Thanks for your great blog! I’ve recently gone low carb to balance my blood sugars and I think I’m still in the transition phase (no ketones). I’m on a contraceptive pill as I have pre menstrual dysphoric dysorder and I’ve had two cases of brown discharge (old blood) that are not at the right time. I’ve had a cervical smear test and the results were normal so after reading your blog I presume it’s the change in diet. I’m looking forward to my supposed bleeding time to see what happens. I’d love to get off the pill:)
    thanks for the great dicussion!

  • Ammi

    Thanks for posting Miriam. Having unexpected discharge or bleeding can always be a bit worrying but as you say, it could well be that change in diet – fingers crossed that it settles down over the next month or so and also that you see some positive changes to your usual cycle as well. I’m actually thinking of giving up the contraceptive pill at the end of this cycle so you might want to keep an eye on the site over the next few months – I’ll no doubt be blogging about the experience.

    Meanwhile, do keep in touch about how it goes with your cycle and how it changes once everything settles down with the new diet. It’s all excellent information for every other woman who finds this article, and I find different people’s physical reactions to diet changes fascinating.

  • HANNA

    Hi Ammi

    These comments are really interesting.

    I am interested in eating a higher fat diet rather than what we are encouraged to eat by the media. I have recently re-discovered the pleasure of eating fried eggs on a small piece of bread soaked in lard. This really keeps hunger at bay. This brings on my period in 25 days, it is over within 3 days or so and hardly any cramps. I do still get a bloated tum, and moody feelings but not nearly as bad as when I ate a low fat diet lots of refined carbs. When I see my younger work colleagues really suffering, I feel for them as it so unpleasant, yet they are just expected to get on with it and take pain killers when it gets too bad!!

    What seems to be universally common is that we all seem to crave chocolate. I suspect it is the fat we are craving. Eating lots of fat with adequate protein and low carbs would mean less income the big food corporations. We are encouraged from a young age to become addicted to the food we are eating ie cereal, bread, sugar. there is not much money to be made from plain stuff like lard and butter and eggs. I tend to think it is a MAN-made problem of food production that best suits men.
    Low fat diets make periods worse. PERIOD

  • HANNA

    Oops, I meant to say that I eat a high fat diet that includes fried eggs with a small piece of bread soaked in lard, AND eating like this makes my periods much lighter and quicker. (Not just the fried egg on bread bringing it on) : ),

  • Ammi

    Hanna – thanks for the comments. Fascinating that your period has become so regular since you have has a higher fat diet. I certainly find I don’t get hungry very quickly when I have plenty of fat in my diet. You’re right that the media keeps pushing low fat diets, although I wonder how much is the food industry causing this and how much is lazy journalists not doing their research and just sticking with the old news or nutritionalists using what they were taught 10 years ago without keeping themselves up to date.

    I have managed to remove my chocolate cravings by keeping a bag of nuts in the house or a pot of cream at the appropriate time. A handful of nuts chewed thoroughly or a little cream whipped up so that it goes further and eaten with a spoon definitely helps. However, I do definitely more carbs with my period too. To avoid the sugar I find some sweet potato – with that gently sweet flavour – hits the mark beautifully!

  • Grace Achord

    This is just what I was looking for. Over the past month, I did the whole30 diet (very similar to paleo), and for the first time in years, I had a normal period during which I could function pain/cramp free. Originally I attributed this to the omission of gluten. Therefore, I permanently changed my diet. However, though I deleted wheat/gluten products, my next period was back to painful. I now attribute this to the heavy carbs that were still in my diet (i.e. beans, rice, corn). Because of this post, I now believe it is all grains, not just wheat, that needs to go. Thanks for the info!

  • Ammi

    Grace, that’s great news – interesting that removing gluten/wheat temporarily made a difference. Perhaps you actually had a slight reduction in carbs with that change but not significant enough. I’d be really interested to hear if a reduction in all grains and perhaps a reduction in carbs makes that extra bit of difference to you. Please do let me know in a couple of months whether the additional change has made a more permanent difference.

  • Kristin

    I am on day 22 of a Whole30 experiment also and have been on a birth control pill for years and have been so regular that I can almost set my clock by the start of my period on the 23rd day of my cycle. After starting Whole30, I started spotting on day 12 of my pill pack, which turned into a light flow a few days later and became the longest period I have experienced in years (9 days inclusive of the spotting)! My gyn told me to throw away the pill pack and start a new one the Sunday after my period stopped, so we’ll see what happens going forward. It’s good to hear so many women experiencing a similar thing! I have also been extremely irritable despite trying very hard to get plenty of fat in my diet, and a little sluggish. I keep waiting for the “magic” to happen, where I have all kinds of energy, but I’ve not experienced that or much weight loss to speak of. I was already fairly lean to begin with, and have eliminated gluten for several years now. I really did not expect such hormonal disruption. I now think I need to stick with this past the 30 days to see how I feel once the hormones become more regulated. Eventually, assuming I end up having better results than I have to date in terms of decreased cravings and energy, I plan to eat this way 95% of the time, but pick my spots to be more flexible.

  • Ammi

    That’s really interesting Kristin. I wonder if you significantly reduced your carbohydrate levels and that is what did the trick to your menstrual cycle. It would be well worth sticking with the programme longer to see where your hormones and periods settle down to. Unfortunately they happen infrequently enough that generally just 30 days of a new diet programme isn’t enough to find out what the true impact is when it comes to the menstrual cycle.
    I’m surprised you haven’t started to feel greater energy levels again. However it will depend on all sorts of things, including how lean your body composition was before, what your diet was like before you started (especially in relation to carbohydrate levels), the ratio of fat and protein you are consuming during Whole30 etc etc.

  • Sarah

    Hi there! I just want to say thank you so much for all of the information and detailed personal stories. I just started a gluten free/dairy free/grain free diet two weeks ago which is composed mostly of fruits, veggies, and lean meats. On top of that I have been exercising 5-6 days a week when I used to only do about 3 days. I have felt great so far and lost 4-5 lbs. I’ve been on the pill for about two years and got my period approximately 1 week early this month. I was really worried about why and was thinking of going to the doctor because this usually only happens if I forget to take a pill.

    So I just want to say thank you so much! I am glad to find a group of women out there who aren’t afraid to speak openly and share. Now I know that I am not alone :)

  • Ammi

    Sarah – Glad you found it useful. Feeling like the only person out there with these sorts of issues was one of the reasons I started this blog all those years ago. At the time there really wasn’t much reliable information available if you were a woman. Now it feels like everyone is sharing everything online so it’s good to know that my info is still of use to people. Congratulations on the weight loss so far! I hope the diet is still going well too.

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