Lianna Levine Reisner struggled with painful menstruation since adolescence. Eventually diagnosed with endometriosis, she was told the only way to manage her often debilitating and painful condition was to take hormonal birth control pills for the rest of her child-bearing years.
Today, Lianna follows a whole food plant-based diet, free from gluten, and has healed many of her endometriosis symptoms. The mother of three is now the Network Director of Plant Powered New York Metro and shares her story in hopes to inspire and educate girls and women on the healing power of plants. MamaSezz co-founder Meg Donahue caught up with Lianna to hear her transformation story firsthand.
What was your life like before you changed your diet? What was your struggle?
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and my family kept kosher. We didn't have easy access to kosher meat, so we would bring home a cooler filled with frozen meat whenever we visited my grandparents in the DC area, or we'd coordinate with other local kosher families to acquire meat from the closest big cities, each at least two hours away. When I was in elementary school, my family gave up the most obvious junk food and continued to eat a healthier version of the Standard American diet. My mother prepared many wonderful scratch-cooked meals, and I was among the minority at school, bringing my tuna sandwiches on whole wheat bread.
I got my period relatively young (at the time), in sixth grade at age eleven, and I was one of the first in my group of friends. While I can't recall all the details, I had heavy, painful menstrual cycles by the time I reached eighth grade which made it difficult for me to focus at school and sometimes disrupted my social life. Whenever my period started, the pain would last a few days, often accompanied by diarrhea which I attributed to the intensity of my cramping. Usually two Tylenol wasn't enough, so I had gotten in the habit of taking Aleve. (At some point I had sworn off Ibuprofen because I would get a terrible pain in the back of my head, or I felt like my stomach was eating itself. And I never took Midol, although girls in my class sometimes asked if I needed some. What teenage girls know about pain meds!)
My mother had researched some elixirs that might help alleviate my pain, one which I couldn't even swallow, and the other was pomegranate juice, even before that was a thing. Nothing helped.
One day in tenth grade, I left my biology class to go home and ride out the pain. It was around that time that my gynecologist prescribed the pill, which was and continues to be the go-to drug to help women regulate their hormones-gone-awry. As many women can attest, whatever benefits I experienced were now offset with the trouble of remembering to take the pill daily, dealing with annoying side effects, and the long-term concern of increasing my cancer risk — something that I shouldn’t have taken lightly with my family history. Even so, this was the standard of care, so I followed what the experts told me. And I lived in a medical household; my father's colleague was my doctor, and I grew up among a loving community of physicians who were doing what they were trained to do.
What happened? Was there a defining moment that triggered change or did you have a gradual journey?
Fast forward: My husband and I got married young, right out of college. He had been a vegetarian for a few years, so when we started our home together it was naturally vegetarian, and kosher. We made delicious veggie and tofu stir-fries, cheese lasagnas, souffles, and home-baked breads. Like most twentysomethings with privilege, we had fun experimenting with new dishes in the kitchen, never minding whether this or that ingredient was healthy. We got CSA boxes and used plenty of fresh produce in our meals. We chose organic when it didn't break the bank, and we read labels. We learned about factory farming from the bestseller Fast Food Nation and watched the King Corn documentary with fascination. We were well-educated, well-connected, and still in the dark about the food-as-medicine movement. It never surfaced.
I gave birth to my first child in 2010 when I was in my mid-20s. Despite exclusively breastfeeding her, my period returned when she was only four months old (but I didn't return to the pill). I was so jealous of my friends who had to stop breastfeeding in order to get pregnant again. Why couldn't I get any relief?! Later that year, I started having debilitating insomnia if I didn't go to sleep by 9:30 PM. Then I had recurring yeast infections. What was going on? I kept returning to the doctor convinced that something was wrong with me, even though they insisted that this was "normal" for some women. (Ladies, yeast infections are not normal!)
Finally, we found the culprit: an ovarian cyst that seemed to be large enough to threaten my future fertility, so it had to go. I scheduled a laparoscopy. The egg-sized cyst was removed, and that was when I was officially diagnosed with endometriosis.
Endo affects about 10% of women in the U.S. and involves endometrial cells – which slough off during menstruation — mysteriously showing up outside of the uterus and creating scar tissue.
Many women with endo struggle with fertility; I was lucky that was not my issue. The gynecologist asked if I had ever had gastrointestinal pain during my periods, as she had found endometrial implants on my intestines near the cyst. That explained the diarrhea. But she couldn't remove the implants because they weren't part of the operation; they would have to stay there.
So what's a young mom with endometriosis to do? Go back on the pill, pronto, for the rest of my fertile life, or let my condition worsen.
How were you able to stick with such a dramatic diet change?
In January 2016, with two kids in tow, I was 25+ pounds overweight from my second pregnancy and considered myself pretty healthy. I decided to drop the pill for a few months because I was tired of being medicated, just to see what happened. The first month, my symptoms were more intense than usual without the blunting of synthetic hormones, which had never fully done the trick anyway.
The second month, I decided to conduct an experiment to try to ditch the annoying cystic acne I had had since puberty — nothing related to menstruation. I randomly chose to stop eating gluten and dairy products for two weeks. (A previous gluten experiment had cleared up IBS, so I knew how to do that.) As I neared the end of the two weeks, my period came — and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. No pain to speak of, lighter than usual, and only five days long, when before I averaged 7-8 days.
Then, after I had my third child, my period didn’t return for 22 months while I breastfed her. Every month since then, I am reminded of how much more reasonable it can be to be female. I was transformed. But what was going on?
That was just the beginning of my foray into dietary change, an 18-month, meandering process that ultimately led me to the whole food, plant-based movement in the summer of 2017 and the alleviation of other conditions.
I didn’t understand what had happened to me and my periods until I read about the evidence for plant-based nutrition and the interesting case against dairy. The naturally-occurring female hormones in dairy products, alongside other hormones in animal foods, may set us up not only for hormonal conditions like endo but also hormonally-linked cancers like breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers in women or prostate cancer in men.
In addition, a few years before, I had learned about research into dioxins and endo, but I didn’t understand about the build-up of these toxins in fatty foods, especially animal flesh. (While gluten even in intact-whole-grain form — yes, I tested it — gives me intense fatigue, acne, and even jock itch (TMI!), it seems to be unrelated to my experience of endometriosis, although I stay away from baker’s yeast which I believe has made me cramp up.)
What is your life like now? How did a plant-based diet impact your health and life?
Perhaps, one day, science will catch up and tell us more. For now, I want to be sure that my story isn’t seen as an outlier or miracle. My experience is actually quite common, but you won’t necessarily hear it because, well, how many women want to talk about their periods publicly?
This information is life-changing for every girl, woman, and parent because eating a plant-based diet doesn’t only impact menstruation.
Historically and today, societies that eat mostly plants see girls first getting their periods at older ages, in their mid-teens, which is critical for reducing their cancer risk. As a mom of young girls, and as a woman who has been liberated from a uniquely female disease, I can’t be silent. Food can save the next generation from pain, invasive and debilitating surgeries like hysterectomies, and medicating the problem away.
Whole food, plant-based living is just the right prescription for healthy female bodies, young and old.
What are you favorite plant-based foods?
Raw garlic and Medjool dates! (But not together.)
One item on your bucket list:
Making a recording of my kids’ favorite lullabies.
Lianna Levine Reisner, MSOD, is the Network Director of Plant Powered Metro New York. She holds a certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center of Nutrition Studies and eCornell. Lianna lives in Manhattan with her husband and three children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.