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Blog-watch: diet and the menstrual cycle

March 17th, 2011 · 6 Comments · Diet

In thinking about the menstrual cycle for the article that ended up not being yesterday’s article (and will instead be next Wednesday’s article) it struck me that I’ve not written about how the menstrual cycle can be affected by diet for some time.  When I first wrote about it in 2009 there was very little literature available on the internet about how the paleo diet and changes between diets might impact on a woman’s menstrual cycle.  It was one of the subjects which subsequently propelled me into writing the blog.

I’ve become aware that since those inauspicious early days of writing there has been a boom in the number of good quality blogs and in article material available on the internet.  Not only that, but I’ve seen a few things bringing together the subjects of paleo diet and menstrual cycle.  So I decided it was time that I went hunting for what is now available to read and pulled it together in a blog-watch.

Would banana bread make my cycle heavier?

  • The obvious starting point seems to be the article which I wrote in October 2009 working through the different changes I saw to my menstrual cycle as I moved through anabolic diets to the paleo diet.  At the time I struggled to find anything else on the subject on the internet and, given the number of hits this article still gets and the emails I get from readers after they’ve read it, I’m guessing it is still a subject that people want to know about.
  • With that out of the way, I was interested to come across a study from 2006 published in the British Journal of Nutrition.  The study was trying to establish if the pattern of increased energy intake from food observed in the premenstrual phase in mammals was also observed in women.  Specifically comparing women with premenstrual symptom (PMS) with a control group.  If they are left to their own devices, do our bodies genuinely require a higher calorie and carb intake in the premenstrual phase?  Amusingly, the abstract suggests that the scientists saw no fluctuation in the PMS women while the control group had greater energy and macronutrient intake in the premenstrual cycle.  I’m taking from this that we should potentially allow ourselves to eat a bit more when we want it just before our periods start.
  • A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was trying to establish if the apparent reported menstrual disturbances in vegetarian women really existed and were actually caused by their diet.  While they did find some connection between vegetarianism and menstrual disturbances, they seem to have concluded that once they controlled for many potential confounders the menstrual disturbances were less common in weight-stable, healthy vegetarian women.  This seems to suggest to me that the problem reported by many vegetarian women is principally caused by insufficient calories (easily done on a vegetarian diet) rather than the choice to not eat meat.
  • While I’m on the subject of insufficient calories causing menstrual disturbances (usually an absence of, or very reduced bleed), here’s a brief video in which Deborah Kesten, a Nutrition Researcher and Author, explains a bit about why this happens.  Oh, and note the bit about the liver producing cholesterol and needing that cholesterol to produce the necessary hormones.  Cholesterol is not always a bad thing.
  • I’ve also just stumbled across the Cycle Diet, which seems to be a diet designed to resolve problems with PMS and other hormone and menstrual-related issues.  It seems to require you to cycle the foods you consume with the different phases of the menstrual cycle.  I’d not come across this diet before.  Does anyone else know anything about it?
  • Staying on that theme, here is an Australian page which also suggests that you should eat certain foods to match the phases of your menstrual cycle in order to help your hormone balance.
  • Moving sideways to the paleo diet and primal living, Melissa McEwan on Hunt, Gather, Love did a great post a while ago about menstruation.  In particular she was focussing on the type of menstrual cycles observed in primal communities.  Melissa puts changes to her menstrual cycle down to improved omega 3-6 ratio and reduction in body fat.
  • Emily Mattes wrote an article on the Catalyst Athletics forum about the impact of training and diet on her menstrual cycle.  She has noticed that strength training relieves problems better than endurance training (I would agree with that) and that a low-carb diet has greatly relieved the pain of her menstrual cycle.  I am a little bothered by her sideways conclusion that a primal lifestyle and diet should therefore be of help since it seems to, yet again, be someone connecting low-carb with primal.  However, I can’t disagree with her other comments.
  • For a bit more anecdotal evidence, there are a couple of interesting threads on the PaleoHacks website.  The first page is asking for people’s comments on how the paleo diet has affected their periods.  The second page is discussions on the subject of fluctuations of appetite and sugar cravings caused by the menstrual cycle and how these are relieved significantly by being on the paleo diet.

Well, amidst the information above, we’ve got some bits about how diet affects the menstrual cycle, thanks to its impact on cholesterol and hormone production.  There’s also some easy-read information (if you dig through everything) about how the hormone process links in with menstrual problems.  Finally, quite a bit of anecdotal information about the beneficial effects of the paleo diet on the menstrual cycle.  Hopefully some useful information for everyone.

Have you noticed changes to your cycle as a result of a diet change?

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • julianne

    Interesting links re menstrual cycle, thanks.
    I too have had dramatic changes in PMS and cramps with a paleo diet. Dietary changes and exercise both affect me. Worst time of my life was as a vegetarian, (high carb, low omega 3). Exercise even then was not effective. Back to standard diet and cramps continued, but regular intense exercise helped. Zone diet (reduced carb) in 1996 – dramatic reduction in PMS, no difference for cramps. Added omega 3 fish oil. Dramatic reduction in cramps, but both PMS and cramps were variable, but never severe again. Went paleo in 2009 and started crossfit still kept rough zone diet balance. Zero cramps or PMS since then.
    I did write about me experience and have found many clients get a similar result.
    http://paleozonenutrition.wordpress.com/category/menstrual-problems/

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  • Debra Riedesel

    Hello Ammi,
    Just found your blog (after 4 years of this article’s writing) and after noticing a recent referrer link to my website. I’ve been a private practice dietitian over 12 years working with women who experience severe PMS/PMDD. What I’ve learned, mostly form my clients, is that PMS and PMDD are extremely complex, with a few constants. Those constants are:
    1) Gastrointestinal disturbances such as IBS, IBD, food allergies, food intolerance and food sensitivities leading to inflammation and malabsorption. Yes these are all very different immunological reactions in the body.
    2)Underlying inheritable autoimmunity, usually traced back to one side of the family.
    3)Once the antigen or trigger is removed from the diet, in about 3 months or cycles, symptoms resolve. This sounds very simplistic I know, but after years of researching the why some women have extreme problems while others don’t, this is how it all boils down.

    It makes no difference which diet trend you chose to follow, Paelo, Vegan, low-fat, low-carb, whole food, clean eating, raw, whatever. If you have an immune mediated reaction (adaptive or innate) to any food such as dairy, grains (wheat/gluten), nuts, eggs, meat/fish- inflammation will develop. Inflammation is the root cause of all disease in the body. Once you discover, by accident or testing, which foods are causing problems, be it by following any of the current popular diets, inflammation resolves. Personally, I have real problems with people jumping on the Paleo diet plan without understanding that it means avoiding conventionally raised meats and dairy, which we know includes the use of GMOs and antibiotics, not to mention the inhumane treatment of animals. I am convinced that we have slowly destroyed the delicate balance of our gut micro flora through these unsustainable agricultural practices.

    Thank you for allowing me to express my findings on what appears to be a fascinating blog.

  • Ammi

    Thanks for sharing this information (and apologies for being so slow in responding). I think the only thing I would add is that while some people state that Paleo has to avoid conventionally raised meats and dairy the Paleo concept is actually much softer than this. Many people consider paleo to be a concept rather than fixed rules. A good example of this is that many athletes follow a Paleo+dairy diet. However it is important that if people are trying to find out what foods may be problematic to them, they do need to know that they might be being affected by factors they’re not even aware of which are contained within meat and fish due to the way we raise and farm our fish and meat.

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