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Vegan diet for endometriosis: Does it relieve painful symptoms?

If you’re a woman suffering from excruciating period pain every month, a mostly plant-based or vegan diet for endometriosis may help.

Endometriosis, a painful condition that can make periods excruciating, affects around 190 million teen and adult women worldwide [1]. If you’re one of them, you may be looking for natural ways to get relief. The good news? Many have found adopting a vegan diet for endometriosis can reduce pain and other symptoms (I’m one of them!).

Let’s take a closer look at what endometriosis is, its common triggers and symptoms, and how a plant-based diet may help you.

What is endometriosis?

Endometriosis, or “endo,” is a chronic disease where tissue similar to the uterus lining grows outside the uterus. This misplaced tissue can cause pain, inflammation, and scar tissue on or around the ovaries, pelvis tissue lining, and fallopian tubes.

Women at any age after puberty can get it, but it most commonly affects those in their 20s to 40s [2]. Factors like genetics, immune system issues, early menstruation, and hormone imbalances may put a person at a higher risk of this disease.

According to Physician, Author, and Founder of NutritionFacts.org, Michael Greger M.D. FACLM, endometriosis is an estrogen-dependent disease caused by retrograde menstruation [3]. It’s where “blood, instead of going down, goes up into the abdominal cavity, where tissue of the uterine lining can implant onto other organs,” he explained. While “the lesions can be removed surgically, the recurrence rate within five years is as high as 50%.”

period pain from endometriosis

Source: Sora Shimazaki

Common triggers

Endo attacks are more likely when your body has high levels of stress hormones and estrogen and low levels of progesterone. This combination worsens inflammation [4], [5].

Triggers to avoid if you have endo or consistent menstrual pain include:

  • Animal products, especially fatty red meats
  • Caffeine and alcohol
  • Dairy products
  • Lack of exercise
  • Processed foods high in trans fat
  • Stress
  • Sugary foods and drinks

Common symptoms

According to Greger, “Pain is what best characterizes the disease.”

The most telltale signs of endometriosis include experiencing the following before or during a period:

  • Digestive issues (e.g. bloating, constipation, diarrhea)
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Migraine headaches
  • Pain during sex
  • Painful urination or bowel movements
  • Painful periods (e.g. menstrual cramps, low back pain)
  • Trouble getting pregnant

Why do some women get period pain and others don’t?

The level of pain women experience during their menstrual cycle can vary because:

  • Conditions like endometriosis can make period pain much more debilitating
  • Pain tolerance is different for everyone
  • Some women experience more or less pain as they get older or after having kids
  • Women with too much estrogen and not enough progesterone may feel more uncomfortable [6]

plant-based vegan diet for endometriosis

Source: Ella Olsson

Does being vegan help endometriosis?

Studies have found that women who eat more fruits and veggies have a lower risk of developing endometriosis [7]. Many plant-based foods have anti-inflammatory properties that reduce pain.

In fact, a randomized crossover trial showed that a low-fat vegan diet had a promising impact on women with painful periods. The diet increased levels of sex hormone-binding globulin in the blood, which could reduce estrogen activity. Participants also reported shorter, less painful periods and milder PMS symptoms [8].

How going plant-based improves PMS symptoms

A vegan diet for endometriosis can also make PMS easier to deal with each month. Plant foods provide nutrients that help balance hormones and reduce bloating, breast tenderness, and mood swings. Fiber from fruits, veggies, and whole grains keeps things “moving along” to prevent constipation.

Going vegan for endometriosis: Can it worsen my health?

Going into any new diet is risky without proper planning. It’s possible to miss essential nutrients on a vegan diet that could impact your endometriosis and overall health. For example, women prone to anemia may develop iron deficiency without the right plant-based balance. So, ask your doctor for guidance if you’re new to veganism. This is especially important if you take medications or have other health concerns.

woman curling up from period pain

Source: Andrea Piacquadio

Can I cure endo with a whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet?

Currently, there’s no guaranteed cure for endometriosis. But I’ve found major relief after removing animal products from my diet. For years, I dealt with miserable periods every month that left me curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor for hours, or at the ER because pain medications weren’t working fast enough. Imagine going through this every few weeks — it was no way to live.

Doctors initially prescribed birth control to manage the pain. While it provided relief, I experienced a slew of other symptoms I didn’t want to keep living with — so I got off it.

During the COVID lockdown, I decided to take a holistic nutrition course to see if it was possible to manage my symptoms with food. I was ecstatic to learn that a mostly whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet could drastically change my situation at the time.

Fast forward four years, and I’m here to share that the improvement has been drastic. I still have an occasional flare-up if I’m not careful about my diet. But on my best months sticking to tons of veggies, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, I hardly have any pain compared to before. I’ve gone from popping painkillers every four hours to only needing one or two on the first day, if at all. The anti-inflammatory power of plants is real!

Are there benefits to doing the vegan diet for endometriosis part-time?

You don’t need to be 100% vegan to reap the benefits. I was super diligent about it the first couple of years. But I’m more flexible now, especially when eating out with friends. While I don’t eat meat, I’ll sometimes have a sprinkle of parmesan on my spaghetti. I notice my symptoms creep back when I slack on my diet, though. There’s a clear correlation for me!

Everyone’s different, but the more you crowd out inflammation-promoting foods with whole plant foods, the better you’ll likely feel. I get it — fully giving up certain foods may not be sustainable. If this sounds like you, try your best to minimize them. Culprits like red meat, dairy, and processed junk don’t do our bodies any good — for endo and in general.

Will surgery fix endometriosis?

For some women, getting a laparoscopy to remove endometriosis lesions can provide immense relief.

Endo survivor, Chantel Cruikshank, said endometriosis surgery was life-changing for her. She explained, “While it didn’t erase all my symptoms, the operation gave me my life back. I can work and socialize again without being sidelined by endo. I still have to be careful about managing it with a plant-based diet and stress relief, but surgery helped me turn a huge corner.”

But it’s not an absolute cure for everyone. A dear friend (who isn’t plant-based) had the same surgery and still struggles with menstrual pain interfering with her day-to-day life.

How you can beat endometriosis naturally

If you’re not ready or don’t want to get surgery, try these natural approaches to conquer the discomfort that comes with endometriosis:

Vegan diet for endometriosis

Fresh fruits and veggies offer a wide range of nutrients and antioxidants. Consider including leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower, seaweed, berries, and citrus fruits in your diet. Make sure you’re also getting plenty of fiber from foods like legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. Reduce or remove common trigger foods like meat, dairy, added sugars, and processed food.

ginger and turmeric

Source: Julia Topp

Supplements for endometriosis

Certain supplements show promise for alleviating endometriosis symptoms:

  • Curcumin (and turmeric): Keeps inflammation down in the body
  • Ginger: Helps decrease pain and inflammation and improve GI function (can be a reliable substitute for NSAIDs like ibuprofen)
  • Herbal supplements: Cinnamon, chasteberry, ashwagandha, and peppermint may provide relief for some women
  • Probiotics: Supports gut health and hormone balance

When I was deep in my holistic nutrition studies, I was curious if I could substitute ibuprofen with ginger to manage painful menstrual cramps.

So, I ran an experiment:

One month before my next period, I increased my ginger intake. I added diced ginger or ginger powder to my meals like stir-fries, drank ginger tea, and made ginger ales at home almost daily.

The results were astonishing. I had zero PMS symptoms before my period. This was a huge improvement, considering fatigue, headaches, and sore breasts two weeks prior were the norm for me. To top it off, I endured my period with no extreme pain or drugs! I was thrilled to know I didn’t have to resort to painkillers for the first three days of horrible period cramps.

As someone who doesn’t love ginger, this “experiment” hasn’t been sustainable to keep up. But I try to incorporate it into my meals and drinks when I can because every little bit helps.

Vitamins for endometriosis

Getting enough key vitamins can go a long way toward easing endo woes:

  • B vitamins: Nutritional yeast, fortified foods, supplements (B12) and avocados, bananas, potatoes (B6)
  • Magnesium (310 to 320 mg/day): Pumpkin seeds, leafy greens, beans, whole grains
  • Omega-3s (1,000 to 4,000 mg/day): Flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, seaweed
  • Vitamin D (600 IU/day): Mushrooms, fortified plant-based milks and cereals, responsible sun exposure (don’t forget your SPF!)
  • Vitamin E (1,200 IU/day): Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, avocados
  • Zinc (15 to 50 mg/day): Chickpeas, oatmeal, tempeh, pumpkin seeds, quinoa

yoga for endometriosis care

Source: Carl Barcelo

Lifestyle for endometriosis

It can be uncomfortable to exercise during Aunt Flo’s visit — ask me how I know! But gentle movement is your friend when it comes to endometriosis self-care. 

Light walking, stretching, and yoga are all fantastic options. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can reduce stress and pain. I love using a heating pad to keep my cramps at bay.

Using a TENS unit can also provide drug-free pain relief. TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, delivers tiny electrical impulses to interrupt pain signals and stimulate your body to release natural pain-relieving endorphins.

When to see your doctor

While a vegan diet for endometriosis can improve symptoms, it’s not a 100% cure for every woman. You may find complete relief simply by changing what you eat and adjusting your lifestyle, or you may need more support. It’s great to explore natural approaches like a vegan diet, but don’t suffer needlessly or wait too long to seek professional care if you need it.

If you’re still struggling with persistent pain and other endo symptoms after cleaning up your diet, make an appointment with your gynecologist. You may have underlying factors at play that require medical treatment. Only a doctor can give you personalized advice and an effective treatment plan tailored to your unique case.

Frequently asked questions

What happens if I don’t treat my endometriosis?

If left untreated, endometriosis can cause problems like chronic inflammation, excess menstrual bleeding, and infertility. Adjusting your lifestyle like trying a plant-based diet and working with your doctor on an effective treatment plan can help prevent complications.

What does endometriosis period pain feel like?

For many women, endo cramps feel like an intense, deep, throbbing, or stabbing pain in the lower belly and/or back. It’s usually much more severe than typical period cramps.

What’s the best diet for painful periods?

A vegan diet for endometriosis includes anti-inflammatory foods for easing period pain. Some of the best ones are leafy greens, berries, walnuts, flax seeds, and ginger. These have compounds that help reduce cramps and calm inflammation.

Will endo get worse as I age?

Endometriosis symptoms can change over time due to hormone fluctuations. Some women find their pain eases up after childbirth or menopause, while others have symptoms that get more intense with age. Proactively managing your endo with ongoing education and regular doctor check-ups can improve your quality of life at any age.

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Sources:

1. Endometriosis, World Health Organization, 24 March 2023

2. Endometriosis, Johns Hopkins Medicine

3. How to treat endometriosis with diet, NutritionFacts.org, 3 February 2024

4. Progesterone and estrogen signaling in the endometrium: What goes wrong in endometriosis?, National Library of Medicine, 20 August 2019

5. Progesterone resistance in endometriosis: Current evidence and putative mechanisms, National Library of Medicine, 24 April 2023

6. Endometriosis, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (Office on Women’s Health), 22 February 2021

7. Food groups and nutrients consumption and risk of endometriosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies, Nutrition Journal, 22 September 2022

8. Nutrition in the prevention and treatment of endometriosis: A review, National Library of Medicine, 17 February 2023

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