Menstrual Pain and Diet
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
Disorders of menstrual function can be taxing and sometimes
even disabling. Up to 10 percent of women in their teens and
early twenties suffer from severe menstrual pain. In most
cases, there is no identifiable cause. However, for some
women, the pain is a symptom of endometriosis (a condition
in which cells that normally line the uterus have ended up
in the abdominal cavity), adenomyosis (the existence of
islands of uterine lining cells deep within the uterine
muscle), fibroids (the presence of overgrown muscle cells in
the wall of the uterus), or other conditions. Nutritional
factors appear to play an important role in managing
Premenstrual syndrome includes feelings of moodiness,
tension, or irritability, as well as physical symptoms, such
as water retention. Like menstrual pain, it appears to be
influenced by nutrition.
One of the treatments we are testing is the use of a
very-low-fat, vegetarian diet. We are using this diet
because, when it is properly followed, it has the very
helpful effect of reducing the amount of estrogen in the
blood, sometimes to a striking degree. For some individuals
at least, diets that avoid animal products and keep
vegetable oils to a bare minimum cause a marked reduction in
menstrual pain, presumably because of the diet’s effect on
There are several reasons why this diet affects hormones.
First of all, reducing the amount of fat in the food you eat
reduces the amount of estrogen in your blood. This appears
to be true for all fats—animal fats and vegetable oils.
Second, plant products contain fibre (roughage), which tends
to carry estrogens out of the body. Here is how it works:
The liver filters estrogens out of the blood and sends them
down a small tube, called the bile duct, into the digestive
tract. There, fibre from grains, beans, vegetables, and
fruits soaks up the estrogens like a sponge. If plant foods
are a major part of your diet, you’ll have plenty of fibre .
But the amount of fibre in your diet is reduced when you
have yogurt, chicken breast, eggs, or other animal products,
because fibre comes only from plants. Without adequate
fibre , the estrogens in your digestive tract end up being
reabsorbed back into the bloodstream.
Certain foods that are common in vegetarian diets have
special effects. Soy products, for example, contain
phytoestrogens, which are very weak plant estrogens that
reduce your natural estrogens’ ability to attach to your
cells. The result is less estrogen stimulation of cells.
In addition to individual reports that low-fat, vegetarian
diets can cause dramatic reductions in menstrual pain,
vegetarians also have fewer ovulatory disturbances. Some
researchers have found that excess estrogen plays a role in
PMS symptoms, too, and that shifting the balance of the diet
away from fatty foods and toward high-fibre plant foods is
- Source: Physicians Centre For Responsible Medicine