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During an in-depth consultation with an Ayurvedic doctor (one in which I was diagnosed as Pitta and prescribed cooling foods and massage), I was also told to consider my hormones. I'd gone into detail about my period, specifically the severity of my PMS symptoms, when the doctor told me a shift in that way meant something was up.
"Even without knowing a thing about hormones, most of us intuit when our menstrual cycles are out of whack (and as such could benefit from key lifestyle changes)," notes Laurie Steelsmith, a naturopathic physician and the author of Great Sex Naturally: Every Woman's Guide to Enhancing Her Sexuality Through the Secrets of Natural Medicine. "Periods associated with too little or too much—from missing a period to bleeding more heavily than usual—are your body's natural way of saying that something has gone awry. Exacerbated PMS symptoms—in short, feeling worse than normal in the week leading up to your period—can also indicate hormones that have gone haywire."
Before making an appointment with my usual Western medicine doctor, I was intrigued to see how my diet may be affecting things. Turns out, it probably is. Steelsmith offers insights into the benefits of the keto diet for balancing my menstrual cycle (and having better sex, FYI). Below, find her thoughts.
The Keto Diet
"The ketogenic diet—or 'keto,'" says Steelsmith, "inverts the food triangle many of us have relied on since childhood and deems dietary fat a friend rather than a foe." It calls for drastically curbing carbohydrates to 20 to 50 net grams per day—in essence, no more than two sweet potatoes—and deriving the lion's share of your calories from healthy fats like nuts, olive oil, and avocados, as well as moderate portions of protein. "By severely cutting carbs," Steelsmith explains, "which produce glucose—your body's immediate source of energy—we go into a metabolic state known as ketosis, which burns stored fat for energy." She lists potential benefits like a clearer mind, steadier blood sugar levels, and greater hormone balance, as well as weight-loss as the most sought after results.
How It Affects Your Menstrual Cycle
"Eating sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause your blood sugar levels to spike," says Steelsmith, "leading to incredible highs and equally devastating lows that can wreak havoc on your hormone balance—and render PMS even more agonizing—by raising your insulin levels." This can ultimately lead to insulin resistance and weight gain—these, too, disrupt your cycle.
According to Steelsmith, research continues to indicate the restriction of carbs at the heart of the keto diet may be particularly valuable for women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). "The condition can cause women to present higher insulin levels, poor ovulation, and infertility. What's more, many of the foods recommended on the keto diet—from clean, lean protein to dark leafy greens—are filled with the nutrients you need, particularly during your period: iron, magnesium, and calcium, to name just a few," she says.
How It Affects Your Sexual Appetite
"The keto diet can recharge your libido through the healthy fats that serve as the centerpiece of the diet," explains Steelsmith. "Walnuts, salmon, pistachios—these and other quality-fat foods may increase estrogen levels," she says. Consider this a boon for your sex life. See, estrogen is your feminine hormone, one that enhances your feelings of intimacy and bolsters overall well-being, rendering you more receptive to your partner and more inclined to feel sexually motivated. "Furthermore, Steelsmith says, "estrogen naturally encourages both lubrication and a better night's sleep—and both can put you more 'in the mood.'" According to her, the heightened estrogen that can result from eating a keto diet is especially promising for women in menopause, as estrogen levels plunge during this time.
In addition, the keto diet prohibits—or, depending on the diet and individual, significantly limits—alcohol and sugar, both of which can do long-term damage to your sexual organs and, thus, your sexual energy. Meanwhile, many of the foods that it advocates, including eggs, pumpkin seeds, sardines, and broccoli, are rich in vitamins and minerals that organically foster more energy for life, including more energy for your partner.
How to Know If It's Right for You
"Additional to taking note of your period, you should pay attention to inexplicable fatigue, changes in your digestion, unexplained weight gain or loss, strange hair growth, and any other symptoms that set off an alarm—quiet or loud—that suggests something is amiss," suggests Steelsmith. "Likewise, most of us are aware when our libido has flagged or vanished altogether; in many cases, this 'libido limbo' is due to diets that interrupt our natural hormone levels, a lack of physical activity, a surplus of stress, and age; symptoms of a decreased sexual state include being unresponsive to sexual advances, having no or very little interest in sexual activity, numbness 'down level,' exhaustion, and mood swings that range from feeling blue to general irritability and lasting depression," notes Steelsmith.
To further boost your sex drive and balance your menstrual cycle, consider a modified keto diet—one that relies on plant-based fats, such as almonds and olive oil, as its primary source of calories, and reduces or bars animal products. Meaning, if you're going to eat butter, reach for coconut butter or butter derived from grass-fed cows. Why? "Eating non-organic animal products increases your exposure to xenoestrogens—compounds found in pesticides and 'treated' animal products that mimic estrogen and can create chaos for your hormone system and undermine your efforts," Steelsmith explains.
Finally, don't forget to actually eat. It's imperative that you consume enough calories to minimize the natural mental and physical shifts that occur on any sort of diet. Doing so will also diminish the severity of the "keto flu"—a cluster of symptoms that often arrive as your body transitions into ketosis that can include brain fog, touchiness, and lethargy—and give you more energy.