Study Shows Low-Fat Diet Reduces Disabling Cramps and PMS
Participants Also Lose Weight, Lower Cholesterol, Gain Energy
WASHINGTON—Women following a low-fat, vegetarian diet can expect significant reductions in menstrual pain and PMS symptoms, according to a new study in the February issue of the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. The research was conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in conjunction with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Georgetown University Medical Center, both located in Washington, D.C.
"Approximately 10 percent of all women suffer such severe pain during their menstrual cycles that they're forced to miss work and other activities," says Neal D. Barnard, M.D., PCRM president and nutrition researcher.
Among the main causes of their pain are chemicals called prostaglandins, made from traces of fat stored in cell membranes. Dr. Barnard and his colleagues hypothesized that if women reduced their fat consumption, they'd also decrease their estrogen levels, which would in turn reduce cell growth and prostaglandin production. "Our goal was to smooth out the hormonal roller coaster many of them experience each month," says Dr. Barnard, who had noticed former patients overcome terrible menstrual pain after changing to a low-fat diet.
"We also hypothesized that high-fiber diets, especially vegetarian diets, would increase a protein in the blood called sex-hormone binding globulin, which binds and inactivates estrogen in the bloodstream until it is needed. In essence, it calms down the hormone swings," Dr. Barnard says.
The hypothesis proved correct. Results for some of the 33 women participating in the 1997-1998 study were dramatic. Besides a decrease in the intensity of menstrual pain, the women experienced an average of 1.5 fewer days of pain each month. "For some women, the change was profound," Dr. Barnard says.
"Their pain was gone or dramatically reduced, something they had not experienced for years. If they needed any pain medicine at all, they needed much less than before."
Many women also experienced a significant relief from PMS symptoms, most notably with water retention and concentration problems. Research participants also noticed increased energy levels, lower cholesterol levels, and weight reduction. Some women were so pleased with the effectiveness of the diet that when it was their turn to go off the vegetarian diet for two months (after two months on the diet), they refused to give it up.
The diet is not likely to help everyone, cautions Dr. Barnard, but it does seem to help most women, and rather quickly, too. "I would encourage women to try it carefully for one month. That's enough time to see its effects."
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.