On Sex, Periods, Paleo & Chinese Medicine
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons
The other day, while searching the Internet, I came across a highly disturbing discussion on diet and menstruation.
In brief, there’s an inane idea that some women do such a stellar job of “cleansing” themselves through a raw, vegan diet that they no longer get a period.
Wow. Just wow.
Not even sure where to start with that.
So let’s start with me.
Turns out, I have firsthand experience with “cleansing” away my period. In fact, I did such a fantastic job that I managed to not menstruate for much of my 20s, while eating a deficient vegetarian (sometimes vegan) diet and engaging in excessive exercise.
Sure, there were downsides: I was always exhausted, for instance…and wasn’t healing from chronic injuries…and generally felt like a disaster. Not to mention the acne and insomnia.
Eventually, such “cleansing” led to a health crisis…and, thankfully, to my discovery of holistic medicine and real-food, paleo-primal eating as a way of healing body and mind.
More on that below, but first…
Let’s talk about sex, periods and food.
What’s your period say about your health — and your eating pattern?
You know, much of what happens on the physical plane is subtle or takes time to manifest. This is frequently the case when we think about how eating habits affect the endocrine and nervous systems, for instance.
And yet, there are also cases where the connection is super-obvious — and that’s often true when eating a certain way affects menstruation.
In Chinese Medicine, we see the menstrual cycle as being an important marker of health overall. When it’s irregular, that points to imbalance.
Depending on the type of imbalance, this might show up as no period, bleeding between periods, scant bleeding, excess bleeding, pain, clots, etc. The imbalance may also affect fertility as well as sexual interest and activity (whether you’re straight, gay, or someplace other or in between).
In women of menstruating age, we consider all such patterns part of the bigger picture of what’s going on with health. Both in diagnosis and treatment, diet is a key consideration.
In clinical practice, a common story goes this way: A young or middle-aged woman’s nutrient-poor vegan or vegetarian diet has disrupted her endocrine and hormonal function, resulting in complete cessation of menstruation or very light, infrequent cycles long before the natural age of menopause. (Over-exercise often comes into play here too.)
This is NOT a sign of successful “cleansing.” It’s a sign that something is very off.
The proof? Once these women start reintroducing the nutrients their bodies need (usually in the form of healthy fat and protein), they almost always start menstruating again.
They typically see lots of other changes too, including restored libido and fertility plus improvements in energy, focus, mood, sleep, digestion, metabolism, and healing from sickness or injuries. These, along with the return of a period, are good signs.
Now, when someone’s eating lots of sugars, grains and processed foods, that can cause hormonal and menstrual irregularities too. Vegetarians and vegans don’t all fall into this category…but many do.
Such eating patterns can lead to more difficult menopausal or post-menopausal symptoms as well (worse hot flashes and night sweats, for instance…or impaired metabolism and weight gain).
In other words, regardless of where a woman is along her lifeline, a nutrient-poor or heavily processed diet can throw off natural cycles and balance.
So is there a connection between nutrition and sex?
Yes. A strong one.
Part of this has to do with how food affects our physical body’s structure and function. Are we feeding our system what it needs for normal endocrine and sex hormone regulation, for instance?
Another part has to do with the ways food affects how we look and feel. By this, I mean how we feel about our bodies…and how we feel mental-emotionally, due to diet’s impact on the brain and mood.
What’s more, Western science is proving what Chinese Medicine has known for a long time: the body and mind are really the body-mind. What happens on a physical level is intertwined with what happens on a mental-emotional one. There’s no separation.
So, for example, what we eat affects our endocrine and nervous systems, which then affect our mental-emotional state…as well as our memory, focus, cognitive ability and so forth. Our mental-emotional state — and our physiological functioning — in turn affect our sexuality, including interest in sex, sexual function and fertility.
How we eat is one of the primary ways we influence the whole body-mind — and thus our sex life. That impact can be negative or positive, depending on food choices.
Well then, can eating paleo-primal improve your sex life?
Yes! My clients often experience increased libido and an improved sex life after shifting toward real, whole food.
For some, this has to do with looking and feeling better — and so having more interest in sex and sexuality. But another aspect relates to what our bodies need, on a physical level, to regulate hormones plus sexual function and interest.
What’s more, adopting healthy eating patterns restores energy and vitality. It brightens the mood and literally feeds desire to express and create on all sorts of levels — including through sexuality.
When people eat to support health, their body systems run more smoothly — and work like they’re supposed to.
So, imagine someone who: 1) is healthier, 2) has more energy and vitality, and 3) feels better about themselves and their body.
Unsurprisingly, many people in this place are not only more interested in sex, but are also more attractive to partners or prospective partners. It’s just the way our genes — and human instinct — work.
What does Chinese Medicine say about this?
Chinese Medicine considers what we eat and the state of our digestion critical to overall health.
Certain foods are excellent for supporting the “yin” and “yang” of the body. Both qualities are essential to sexual interest and function.
A vegan diet not only fails provide what’s needed in this regard, but is hugely depleting. One reason is the lack of deeply nourishing, deeply “building” nutrients.
Another is that too much cold-natured or raw food damages the yang and “qi” of the body. This yang-qi is needed to stoke the digestive — and sexual — fire. Too much cold, raw food douses that fire on both fronts.
We also pay close attention to the “organ systems” of the body and which foods nourish or deplete them. In this context, I’m not talking so much about physical organs…more about a constellation of relationships and processes in the body.
For instance, the “Liver” in Chinese Medicine has a lot to do with free flow on physical and emotional levels, including in relation to menstruation and sexual interest and function. Meanwhile, the “Kidneys” are very connected to our sexuality, fertility and reproduction — along with how we age and our life cycles.
Certain foods fortify these organs…and certain foods deplete or agitate them. The specifics comprise a centuries-old system of dietetics, and when I work with clients I take many individual factors into account.
But suffice to say, eating an abundance of real, whole food offers a solid starting place.
Can a raw, vegan or vegetarian diet ever be healthy?
There is no one optimal diet — whether for different people or for a particular person at all times.
For this reason, I can’t say a vegan or raw diet will NEVER work. And yet, I can say I’ve never seen it work in practice — and by “work” I mean in way that doesn’t have negative consequences for body-mind.
Sometimes such consequences are “minor” (menstrual irregularities, low libido, low energy, slow healing of injuries or always feeling cold, for instance). Oftentimes, those minor things one day morph into something bigger (infertility, thyroid problems and autoimmune conditions, for example).
Even if the situation doesn’t become severe, what works or seems to work for a while often stops working as we age or go through different life phases.
Part of this is just the toll certain ways of eating (and exercising) take on the body over time. Someone may not notice the impact in their 20s or even 30s…but when their 40s hit, things change. (For me, it’d already changed by my mid-20s).
Can a vegan diet work? Possibly. But I’ve never treated a healthy vegan.
And I’ve treated many, many people suffering from moderate-to-severe health problems either caused or made worse by eating a vegan, raw or nutrient-poor vegetarian diet.
Now, just to be clear, raw vegan does NOT equal vegetarian — and even vegetarian does not equal vegetarian.
As with any eating identity, there’s a vast spectrum of interpretation and practice.
A nutrient-rich, real-food-based vegetarian diet that includes eggs and perhaps high-quality, full-fat dairy can absolutely be a healthy option for some people — and can even be paleo-primal, so long as it’s free of grains, legumes and refined sugar.
(Indeed, I actually prefer eating this way for my day-time meals, though I add meat with dinner.)
Meanwhile, a vegan diet? Really hard to get your nutritional needs met as a human.
This is why many vegans rely on B12 supplements and injections. And while supplements absolutely have their place and can be a wonderful complement to a healthy diet, there’s something that seems very off in relying on them to get vital nutrients completely missing in your food.
Just not healthy. And a raw version makes things worse.
So what happened with me?
After leaving behind the high-sugar, high-carb, low-fat, low-protein, nutrient-poor vegetarian diet of my 20s, things shifted.
Once I got the healthy fats and protein my body-mind needed, I started healing…and my period returned.
The return of my menstrual cycle took a bit longer than other beneficial changes. But when it happened, I knew my body had finally recovered from the deficient eating and excessive exercises patterns of my past.
Now, at age 41, my monthly cycle is a reminder of how much has changed — and how much more balanced I’ve become — by shifting my patterns and embracing nutrient-dense food.
Struggling to find your own place of balance with eating and health?
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Originally published at alchemisteating.com on April 19, 2016.