FOOD AND MENSTRUAL PAIN
Nearly half of all women live with menstrual pain, and in up to 10 per cent it is severe enough to interfere with work and other activities for one to two days every month. Sometimes it diminishes after childbirth, but for many it continues.
Shortly before your period begins, the endometrial cells that form the lining of the uterus make large amounts of prostaglandins. When these cells break down during menstruation, prostaglandins are released. They constrict blood vessels in the uterus and make its muscle layer contract, causing painful cramps. Prostaglandins also enter the bloodstream, causing headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.
The amount of prostaglandins produced by the endometrial cells in women with menstrual pain and found that it is higher than for other women. The concentration of prostaglandins circulating in the blood is higher, as well. This helps explain why non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs work for menstrual pain. Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs reduce the production of prostaglandins. For most women and their doctors, that is the end of the story. For a few days each month, painkillers battle with prostaglandins. The problem, however, is that for many women the relief is far from complete. They find themselves taking more painkillers than recommend without getting the relief they need. Rather than focus on the prostaglandins themselves, it may help to focus on the cellular ‘factories’ that make them. After all, we know that birth control pills reduce menstrual pain, apparently by reducing the growth of the endometrial cell layer. The smaller this layer of cells is, the less tissue there is to make prostaglandins. In every monthly menstrual cycle the amount of oestrogens in a woman’s body rises and falls. The term oestrogen actually refers to a group of hormones, including estrone, estradiol, and estriol. We will refer to them collectively as oestrogens. Oestrogens are female sex hormones. Think of them as a sort of hormonal fertilizer, making the cells of your body grow. Oestrogens are responsible for breast development at puberty, and each month, they cause the lining of the uterus to thicken in anticipation of pregnancy. If you measured the amount of oestrogens in a woman’s bloodstream as her period ends and a new cycle begins, you would find that it is gradually rising. For about two weeks, it rises toward a peak, then falls quickly around the time of ovulation. It rises again in the second half of the month and then falls just before her next period. The uterus sheds its lining in a menstrual flow, accompanied by cramp pains. HOW FOODS CHANGE HORMONES
The amount of oestrogen in your blood is constantly being readjusted. Some foods push hormone levels up. Others bring them down. Here’s how it works. Fat drives oestrogen levels up. Any kind of fat will do it: chicken fat, fish fat, beef fat, olive oil, canola oil – you name it. It does not matter if it is animal fat or vegetable oil; the more of it there is in your diet, the more oestrogen your body makes. If you cut the amount of fat in your diet, the amount of oestrogen will be noticeably reduced within the first month. Cancer researchers have taken a great interest in this phenomenon, because lowering the level of oestrogen in your blood helps reduce the risk of breast cancer. Less oestrogen means less stimulation for cancer cell growth. If a woman eating a Western diet cuts her fat intake in half, her oestrogen level will be about 20 per cent lower. If you reduce fat even more, your oestrogen level will drop further. Oestrogens are normally filtered from the bloodstream by the liver, which sends them through a small tube, called the bile duct, into the intestinal tract. There, fibre soaks them up like a sponge and carries them out with the wastes. The more fibre there is in your diet, the better your natural ‘oestrogen disposal system’ works. Grains, vegetables, beans, and other plant foods keep waste oestrogens headed toward the exit.
Animal products never have any fibre at all. If fish, chicken, yoghurt, or other animal products make up any substantial part of your diet, there will be little fibre in the digestive tract. The result is disastrous. Waste oestrogens, which should bind to fibre and leave the body, end up passing back into the bloodstream. This hormone ‘recycling’ increases the amount of oestrogen in the blood.
So, by avoiding animal products and added oils, you reduce oestrogen production. And by replacing chicken, skim milk, and other fibreless foods with grains, beans, and vegetables, you will increase oestrogen elimination.