Dietary influences of PMS
Whilst we understand that diet is likely to have an effect when it comes to some of the symptoms of PMS, understanding exactly what to eat and what to avoid can be a tricky balancing act. Unsurprisingly, it seems that we need a number of key nutrients to feel at our best during our child-bearing years. This includes nutrients such as iron, magnesium and vitamin D, to name a few. On top of this we have other influences of food, including the macronutrients they contain, the chemical load on our body and the effects of how they are metabolised.
In recent years, as more people than ever have turned vegetarian or vegan, the influence of meat-eating versus a meat-free diet has been a hot topic. Although recently meat-free diets have been given lots of praise, the influence of this type of diet still isn’t clear cut when it comes to female health more specifically, and some sources have even suggested that following a vegetarian diet may have adverse effects when it comes to the severity of PMS symptoms.1 Although the exact reasons for this aren’t well understood, the likelihood of iron deficiency anaemia and other nutrient deficiencies were mentioned as potential underlying causes.
However, on the other hand, some women report clear improvements in their symptoms when reducing certain elements of their diets, including meat. So, what could be going on here and what’s the verdict? Firstly, let’s explore some possible mechanisms at work and potential problems when it comes to meat...
1. Could eating meat influence our hormones?
In theory, we want our hormones to be nicely balanced throughout the month. Although our hormones fluctuate in specific patterns in order to trigger ovulation and ultimately our period, if external factors can influence our levels of each of these hormones at any given time, symptoms could, in theory, crop up. (Watch my video on this for more info.)
Now, one of the proposed problems when it comes to meat is opting for non-organic or mass-produced meat, which may have been subject to hormonal or antibacterial treatments during rearing. Although the effects of these factors on our hormonal or gut health still aren’t clear cut,2 it is a possible mechanism that could be contributing to hormonal disturbances, but we do need more research to help understand this a bit better.
2. Effects on body weight
Although this isn’t always directly related to meat of course, generally, meat eaters may be more likely to carry a little extra weight compared to their vegetarian counterparts.3 Whilst of course, we should bear in mind, being both overweight and underweight can be detrimental when it comes to your monthly cycle. Being underweight often means low oestrogen states are more likely, whereas being overweight can give rise to oestrogen dominance.
Although meat isn’t necessarily to blame here (my thoughts are that sugar is much more likely!), it’s important to note that a meat-heavy diet could add sufficient calories to your regime, especially if you’re including more processed meat products which tend to have even more hidden fats and sugars in them. The balance of our diet is also important to note, though: a meat-free diet often has more fibre, which we know is beneficial for our waistlines, however, of course you can also make fibre top of mind whilst including meat!
3. Meat provides arachidonic acid
Among some of the top sources of a substance called arachidonic acid include chicken, eggs, beef and pork – so basically lots of meat-heavy items.
Arachidonic acid is a type of omega-6 fatty acid, which is converted into hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are considered pro-inflammatory in the body and are thought to be responsible for some of the main PMS symptom such as menstrual cramps. Therefore, the theory exists that an increased amount of arachidonic acid through dietary sources could have a part to play in the severity of PMS symptoms.
3. Additional effects of processed meats
As well as being a source of arachidonic acid, processed meats could contain additional elements which could potentially exacerbate symptoms of PMS.
Firstly, cured meats including sausages, salami or certain hams may be histamine-producing. Excess histamine or histamine intolerance may have the potential to exacerbate certain PMS including cramps.
The other one to watch when it comes to processed meats is salt. In excess, salt could contribute to unwanted PMS symptoms such as water retention or bloating, which I’m sure many of you will agree is another unwanted symptom!
What’s the best approach?
As the evidence isn’t exactly clear cut when it comes to PMS, your reasons for including meat or not in your diet may also be influenced by other factors. However, nonetheless diet is often top of mind, especially, perhaps, around your time of the month if you’re suffering with symptoms and are desperate for a solution.
Therefore, when it comes to periods specifically, my advice around meat is as follows:
1. Opt for organic wherever possible
If you’re happy to still include meat in your regime but are keen to make some positive changes to your health, why not consider the quality of the meat you’re consuming and consider going organic? Organic or grass-fed meat, say, from your local butcher, is less likely to have been treated by hormones or antibiotics which, in turn, could potentially risk upsetting your microbiome or hormones. Limiting your toxic load this way could do just the trick.
Also, don’t forget that grass-fed meat is also likely to have a much higher proportion of omega-3 and this is an essential fatty acid we do need in sufficient quantities to help support our hormones. Remember – we still need good fats and this is especially important if you’re reducing your intake of meat.
2. Limit processed meats if anything
If you’re keen to cut down on meat a bit without going full-veggie, another useful tactic is to limit more processed meats. These, as we’ve already discovered, could risk increasing histamine levels and are often loaded with salt and other pro-inflammatory extras.
Limiting items such as bacon, sausages, ham or cured, smoked or canned meats could help to reduce the load on your system.
3. Focus on upping the good stuff
The research on vegetarians not necessarily having a better time of it when it comes to PMS is certainly interesting.1 Theories that exist regarding the reasons for this include that they may be more at risk of lacking certain nutrients including iron, B12, vitamin D or magnesium.
Therefore, my advice is, whether you’re cutting meat out of your regime or not, to ensure that you’re getting enough of the good stuff. This includes eating enough fresh foods to help ensure you get enough of these key nutrients, getting out into the sun to up your D, and taking supplements if you’re veggie or suspect you could be falling short. Remember if you’re including meat in your regime, you need to have good, strong digestion and stomach acid to make the most of it and absorb key nutrients such as iron.
4. Don’t forget we’re all individuals
From my experience as a nutritionist, it’s clear that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to diet. Sure, there are certain patterns we could be following that are most likely to help most of us feel better, but for some people, for example, depending on digestive power, or climate; either including more meat or quite the contrary, might be preferable. Generally, meat is more taxing on our digestive system, so if you’re lacking in digestive power it might be an element you want to limit, however, replacing it with lots of processed meat-alternatives isn’t necessarily going to be any better for you.
Personally, I think it’s super important to tune into your body, listen to your symptoms and decide what works best for you. Also, although dietary changes can be a good place to start, sometimes we just need something a little extra, at least initially, to help manage some of the more tricky symptoms. In the case of PMS, I often recommend Agnus castus.