It was a particularly humbling bout of menstrual cramps that first inspired me to go vegan. It was a couple months after the Presidential election, and despite living a life of physical activity and perceived dietary moderation, I was gaining weight, and was more depressed than I'd ever been. That month, when my period arrived, it was nothing short of horrific. I've had terrible menstrual cramps and a multitude of accompanying symptoms for as long as I've been menstruating. I've been in and out of doctor's offices, and I've tried a number of supposed solutions that just didn't work on me. After jumping on a sustained fitness regimen a couple years ago, my period did begin to improve, which is why I was shocked when, shortly after the election, my period began to get worse. I felt absolutely defeated, like no matter what I tried, I was destined for a life of misery.
Some of you reading can relate to what I'm about to illustrate, but others are skeptical and wondering if this is all hyperbole. I've heard plenty of men and women alike express sentiments that seek to downplay and minimize just how horrible of an experience menstruation can be for some of us. However, it's a serious and costly medical issue that greatly impacts the livelihoods and well-being of women around the globe. This is my personal experience, and I'm being open in hopes of reaching those who have had to endure the same struggle.
Whenever I read a list of common period symptoms I laugh, because I've had them all. Debilitating pain that radiated down into my thighs, pounding headaches, back aches, diarrhea, appetite-zapping nausea, acne, bloating, up to ten lbs of water retention, irritability, anxiety, deep depression that would begin an entire week beforehand, heavy bleeding that made me run through pads like crazy, and clots that would make me beg for mercy. I'd gotten used to the episodes of sitting on the toilet for well over an hour, quite literally wishing for death, because it felt like the only thing that could save me in the moment. After it all finally passed, I would retreat to my bed and stay there for a couple hours until my body led me right back to the bathroom.
I lost count of how many doctors I've visited over the years. The diagnosis was always "dysmenorrhea", but the prescription would vary. Sometimes it was for stronger painkillers, sometimes it was birth control. I attempted birth control on three separate occasions and all three times were nothing short of a hot mess. The first time, after a couple weeks of not feeling quite right, I received a call from my doctor informing me that my blood test results revealed that my liver enzymes were through the roof, and that I should stop the pills until we could figure out what was going on.
By the time I was able to get back on the pills, I had a whole new doctor with a whole new approach. She suggested that I skip the week of placebo pills that come with every pack so that I would only bleed every three months or so. I was elated. No period for three months? Four periods a year? It sounded like heaven, so of course I tried it. Except, when I finally allowed my body to bleed, I bled for about two weeks straight. At that point, I felt so defeated that I gave up altogether, or so I thought.
My period continued to be hell, and a couple years later, I found myself back in the doctor's office, ready to give birth control another try. After a very short and concerning visit where the doctor was rushing out to another engagement (she didn't even look at my medical history, she just wrote a prescription), I was back on the pills. Once again, the pills didn't help my period, and to make matters worse, they made me feel completely numb. I couldn't feel any emotions other than numbness and depression. It was bad enough that I had already struggled with depression, but these pills made me feel like a shell of myself. I was existing, but I wasn't all there. Eventually, I decided to stop them.
Funny enough, the physical pain wasn't the worst thing about my period. Don't get me wrong, the pain was nothing short of breathtaking. I popped OTC pain pills like candy (which made me nervous - what were they doing to my body?), and they often didn't work. Because of this, I developed a tolerance to pain that I began to wear as a badge of honor. It was the impact on my self-esteem, however, that really fucked me up. I felt like a deficient human being. How can I work, how can I be a productive member of society if I can't go a month without being bedridden for several days?
My attendance throughout high school wasn't great. In college, every semester I exceeded my allotted absences for all of my classes, forcing me to go to the doctor just to get a note. Up until I got a job where I could work from home, I would miss days of work, meaning I was losing money. More painful though, was missing countless birthday celebrations for people I loved dearly. Even though they understood, I never shook the feeling of guilt that would overwhelm me whenever I couldn't be there.
I tried everything. When the medical establishment didn't come through, I tried all the alternative, natural solutions that I had access to. Nothing seemed to work. So honestly, I wasn't expecting much when I decided to go vegan, but I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was concerned that my monthly pain was a signal that things could only get worse for me. Being a Black woman with a family history of uterine fibroids, breast cancer, and other hormone-related illnesses, I worried that I was destined for the same fate.
I knew my hormones were way out of whack, I knew my body was inflamed, and I knew that something had to give. I was also just so damn tired. I couldn't imagine continuing to live this way for several more decades. Something had to change, so I changed myself. Considering the research regarding PMS and inflammation, research regarding the relationship between meat and dairy consumption and inflammation, as well as research surrounding estrogen consumed from meat and dairy, I decided to try a plant-based diet. After all, what did I have to lose?
Literally two weeks after removing meat from my diet (dairy had removed itself many months before; my body couldn't handle it), I had what was, up until then, the best period of my life. The month before that, I was maxing out on ibuprofen, but a couple weeks after going vegan, I didn't have to take a single pain pill. I was floored. It wasn't completely pain-free, but it was such a drastic improvement on what I'd gotten used to that I was more annoyed than pained. But even more shocking was, every single month since then, my period has gotten better. My flow is now lighter (both in amount & hue - it's brighter!), my period is shorter, and my cramps are damn near non-existent. I would call it a miracle if I didn't know just how much work went into getting to this point.
Understand, I didn't just "go vegan". I was particularly careful to ensure that I was eating a whole foods, plant-based diet. I've also incorporated foods that help to balance my hormones, reduce my overall inflammation, and nourish my body with vital nutrients & minerals. I realize now that the foods I grew up eating had put my body in such an unhealthy state that the only way I could get better was by being vigilant about exactly what I put in body.
I had to take steps that I was honestly unwilling to take before. In addition to removing meat, dairy and eggs from my diet completely, I rarely eat fried food anymore. I eat tons of fruits and vegetables, and I increase my fruit intake right before my period. I keep processed food to a minimum - they're convenient in a pinch, but they tend to be full of additives that aren't good for you. I also recently removed alcohol from my diet, because honestly, it wasn't doing me any good. Consistent physical activity is also important. My current regimen has me working out 5-6 days a week, but even 3 days a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help.
The short amount of time in which my body responded and the continued improvements in the months after have made me a believer. You can find lots of articles and documentaries about the links between animal-based foods and major illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, but a lack of scientific attention to menstrual issues means there aren't very many studies about the connection between diet and feminine health. I'm writing this to add to the growing anecdotal evidence that shows that what you put in your body is directly related to the pain and other horrific symptoms that come every month. My quality of life is the best that it's ever been, and the confidence and self-esteem boost that comes with knowing that I'm in control of my body rather than my body being in control of me is absolutely priceless.
My Personal Go-To Menstruation Staples
Here are some staples that I include in my diet to help with my menstruation issues. I suggest doing your own research before incorporating anything new or unfamiliar into your diet. It took a lot of trial & error to come to a set of staples that work for me.
There are many other foods and herbs that are reported to work that may be more accessible or preferable to you. Keep in mind that your experience may not be the same as mine. Depending on the state of your body, the response might be immediate or it may take a few months. Give yourself time and be patient with your body. It's worth it in the end.
9/7/2018 05:23:53 pm
I have the same issues I would love to talk thank you!
2/26/2019 12:30:49 pm
Thank you for this! I just started a whole foods, plant-based diet one week ago. My period started today and I am already noticing a difference. At first, I was like it can't be because of my diet...I literally just changed it. But now I am thinking maybe it is!! It's amazing what the wrong foods do to our bodies. Thank you again for sharing your story!
3/21/2019 09:09:37 pm
Omg this article hit so close to home. I used to have to make plans around my period because of the exact symptoms you described. No one believed how painful my cramps were. Family and doctors thought i was exaggerating. Missed school and work every month. My first period after going vegan was almost unbelievable. There was a drastic improvement. Been vegan ever since. Thanks for sharing.
4/13/2019 07:29:21 am
So glad I found your article. My periods were always very painful (cysts), but after getting my tubes tied they were unpredictable and horrendous, especially the PMS. I just recently started a plant based diet and my PMS went away completely and the period was almost unnoticeable aside from some slight cramping. I thought it might be a coincidence until reading your article. I can’t imagine myself going back now.
5/7/2019 01:55:05 am
I am now enjoying my period currently!! No cramps, PMS, back pain, Sore breast, moodiness etc!!!! I cut out meat, snacks, sugary drinks, processed n dairy now it's leafy greens, nuts, smoothies, fish....i'm not perfect but my body and I have been communicating at a deeper level and its currently thanking me! Thanks for this, great read :)
7/30/2019 02:44:02 pm
Me too!! It’s incredible! I have become a dairy and egg free pescatarian and I’m currently having the best period I’ve ever had and I’m 46, and I didn’t have PMS either!! A total game changer.
6/6/2019 02:58:38 am
Thanks for posting I plan to join you in a plant based diet chees to better health
6/10/2019 06:27:43 am
Thank you for this article. I’ve too had years of miserable periods. Missing school when I was younger, heavy bleeding, painful cramping and to top it off it lasted 7 days each month. I’ve just recently started a plant based lifestyle 7 days ago. My period just started which is 5 days early but I’m already noticing a difference. I had no PMS, tolerable cramp pain (no medicine needed) and light bleeding. I’m also very excited to read that it keeps getting better and better each month. This along with trusting God in the food he created for us will keep me on this lifestyle! I am also hoping that this will cure my infertility.
6/27/2019 03:36:43 pm
This has made my whole year, I too have suffered for years with painful periods, endometriosis, several miscarriages and early labor which led to a premature baby at 25 weeks 1 day. Menstrual cycles that lasted 7 days with heavy bleeding, huge clots and terrible cramps that were equivalent to contractions. I never was into beef or pork but I slowly weened off of chicken and seafood, then dairy and I'm currently living a fully vegan lifestyle. Not only have my periods gotten shorter and lighter this month marks the first month with absolutely no menstrual cycle. Some may argue that somethings wrong, but my intake of natural herbs, seamoss daily and alkaline foods has attributed to this shift. I look forward to more improved health from my new found life. Kudos to all the Queens in this forum, and much love and light on your journey.
2/20/2020 09:03:43 am
I just wanted to comment on a well written service and one where I have also been there for many years before seeing the light!
10/12/2020 02:27:59 pm
Okay ladies. This is not a coincidence! Why are they not doing studies on diet and female hormone and reproductive health?? My periods are also debilitating and I've just learned to deal with them. I've been on a plant based diet for only one month and this 1st period already feels different. Less painful. Less bleeding to death... Less PMS. In fact, I can always tell when it's coming and had no idea this time because I didn't have all the PMS symptoms. That never happens! So happy to hear that we are all on to something. I hope some of these Medical Professionals get a clue and start to not only run some studies but also, validate that heavy periods, endometriosis, cysts etc...are debilitating for some of us and no, we do not want to take more hormones! We want real solutions to a very real problem. Thank you for this! It confirms I am on the right track. Cheers friends!
11/2/2020 04:44:12 am
Wow, I can totally relate. Over the last two years I would literally dread my cycle, the pms and the pain seemed relentless. I was praying for menopause. I switch to a pescatarian diet three weeks ago and I'm feeling amazing. My period was late, but when it came I didn't even know, because I had no symptoms. I had zero cramps, therefore no Advil or Tums were consumed and it was only here for three days. It was bliss...thank you for sharing your experience, I thought I was alone.
12/5/2020 12:58:51 am
It's 2020, and we're currently living through a pandemic, but I'm SO glad that you decided to write this 3 years ago and that I came across it today- as it's currently just shy of 1am and I'm awake, uncomfortable and unable to sleep due to my menstrual cycle. I have been struggling with my menstrual cycle for years- heavy periods, painful cramping since I was 10, and as an adult now 37 years old, I'm experiencing nausea, radiating pain down my legs, and various other symptoms of dysmenorrhea. I've recently began to take my health more seriously and am making an effort to lose a significant amount of weight, I believe this will help me. I've been wanting to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my diet and cut out certain meats and dairy. I'm going to research more about veganism and the benefits in total, but specifically how it will affect my menstrual cycle specifically. Thank you again for this information and being transparent and sharing your experience. I'm saving this article so that I won't lose it and will be sharing it with family & friends! 🙏🏾💖
11/18/2021 10:11:14 am
I happened across your article because I was googling the topic. I prefer to eat vegetarian on my period because I have noticed it is easier on my body, especially on digestion but also in overall well-being. I've been trying to figure out if there is something to it. Your story is very encouraging, so great to hear of solutions without birth control or pills for pain relief! Hopefully others in need of period relief can benefit!!!!
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My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. I'm an independent Plant-Based Nutrition & Fitness Coach hailing from the Bronx, NY.