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Illustration by Katrin Friedmann

Cycle A-Z

Vegetarianism, veganism, and the menstrual cycle

by Nicole Telfer, Science Content Producer; and Katherine Caroll, Writer at Clue
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It’s no secret that the food you eat can affect your health and have specific impacts on your body. Some dietary trends pass in and out of popularity seemingly overnight, while other eating patterns persist for centuries. Many people choose to limit or restrict the foods they eat, including choosing to not eat animal meats, or any animal products all together.

Well-planned (or well-integrated) vegetarianism and veganism can be healthy diets at any stage of life, including pregnancy (1,2). Many health benefits of vegetarianism and veganism exist, such as decreased risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, cancer, and conditions and diseases relating to being overweight (3,4). With respect to the menstrual cycle, there is not a lot of research exploring how (or if) a meat-free diet will affect your period.

With that said, here are a few ways vegetarianism or veganism may be relevant to your menstrual cycle.

Iron deficiency

People who do not eat meat products are at a greater risk for developing an iron deficiency (5,6). Low blood iron levels is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies and is the primary cause of anemia worldwide, especially in women. It is predicted that 1.62 billion people worldwide are impacted by anemia (7,8). Low blood iron levels can be a result of increased iron loss, or inadequate iron intake or absorption (7). People who menstruate lose iron-containing blood every month through their period, which coupled with a low iron intake from avoiding meat, can increase your chances even more of developing an iron deficiency.

Meat contains higher levels of iron than plant-based food, particularly heme-iron, which is a more absorbable form. People who do not eat meat will not have access to any forms of heme-iron (6). Plant-based foods also contain iron in a non-heme form, but this iron source is not as easily absorbed. Some example of iron-rich plant-based foods include: dark leafy greens, beans, lentils, tofu, grains (quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal), dried fruit, nuts (7,9). If you are an ovo-pescatarian, consider liberally eating eggs, fish, and shellfish, as these are great sources of iron (7,9).

Since meat provides a more easily absorbable source of iron, people who don’t eat meat may need to make a conscious effort to get enough iron in their diets through other sources. People who experience heavy menstrual bleeding should be sure that they have adequate blood iron levels, as they are more susceptible to iron deficiency anemia, since they lose a greater amount of blood (which includes iron) each month.

Low iron can lead to decreased physical and mental performance, weakened immune system, and increased risk of pregnancy complications (6,7). Some common symptoms associated with iron deficiency anemia include: fatigue, dizziness, headaches, shortness of breath, paleness, brittle nails, and cracks at corners of mouth (7).

If you are worried about low iron levels, limit drinking tea, coffee, or milk with or directly after meals (9,10). Tannins (in tea) and calcium (in milk) can inhibit iron from being absorbed (9,10). Consume vitamin C-rich foods with iron containing food, to increase absorption (9,10).

Consult your healthcare provider if you are concerned about your iron levels. If your iron levels cannot be corrected by diet alone, they may suggest you take an iron supplement (11).

Cycle length

Determining if vegetarianism or veganism, specifically, is associated with menstrual cycle changes is a difficult question to answer, as vegetarian populations often differ from the rest of the population on more than just a dietary parameter.

In a small study which controlled for some of these parameters—such as stable weight, age, and long term dietary practices—the differences in cycle lengths between meat versus non-meat eaters was unremarkable (12). However, when comparing cycle health, vegetarians were more likely to have normal ovulatory cycles than people who consumed meat (12). More research is needed here.

In general, people who don’t eat meat are more likely to have a lower body weight (6,13-16). When assessed for contributing lifestyle factors, vegetarians also tended to be more physically active (6). Diet and exercise are important to overall long term health.

There is not much evidence that links the presence of meat in one’s diet with changes to the cycle. However, people with disordered eating patterns (like anorexia) are more likely to have followed a vegetarian-type diet in the past, as a way to manage weight or restrict food intake (13,17). There is evidence demonstrating a link between extreme caloric restriction and changes in cycle length (18-20).

Premenstrual and menstrual symptoms may amplify with vegetarianism

In one observational population study in Australia, vegetarians were shown to have increases in premenstrual and menstrual symptoms, as well as irregular cycles and heavier periods (6). Researchers are unsure of what the cause of this discrepancy in menstrual symptoms is between people who eat meat and those who do not. They suggest it could be potentially be due to differences in iron levels, or perhaps could be due to differences in self-reporting from the vegetarian population (6).

Additionally, vegetarian populations in this study were more likely to struggle with mental health problems such as depression, panic attacks, deliberate self-harm, and difficulty sleeping (6). Whether these have an effect on menstrual or premenstrual health is unknown, but these are still important health markers to be aware of. Talking about these symptoms with a medical professional will help find a treatment, whether you are a vegetarian or not.

Keep tracking

Whether you eat meat or not, your health is impacted by your nutritional intake. The effect of any diet really depends on the individual. Tracking emotions, sleep, energy and motivation is a great way to start. Also adding tags in Clue will help personalize any symptoms you may have. If you suspect something is wrong, share this information with a healthcare professional. With their guidance, you can make informed decisions about what, if anything, needs to be changed.

This article was originally posted on Aug. 2, 2016 by Katherine Caroll, and was updated Apr. 21, 2018 by Nicole Telfer.

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